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How to Avoid Work: A 1949 Guide to Doing What You Love

“Life really begins when you have discovered that you can do anything you want.”

“There is an ugliness in being paid for work one does not like,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1941. Indeed, finding a sense of purpose and doing what makes the heart sing is one of the greatest human aspirations — and yet too many people remain caught in the hamster wheel of unfulfilling work. In 1949, career counselor William J. Reilly penned How To Avoid Work (public library) — a short guide to finding your purpose and doing what you love. Despite the occasional vintage self-helpism of the tone, the book is remarkable for many reasons — written at the dawn of the American corporate era and the golden age of the housewife, it not only encouraged people of all ages to pursue their passions over conventional, safe occupations, but it also spoke to both men and women with equal regard.

Reilly begins by exploring the mythologies of work and play, something Lewis Hyde has written of beautifully, with an uncomfortable but wonderfully apt metaphor:

Most [people] have the ridiculous notion that anything they do which produces an income is work — and that anything they do outside ‘working’ hours is play. There is no logic to that.

[…]

Your life is too short and too valuable to fritter away in work.

If you don’t get out now, you may end up like the frog that is placed in a pot of fresh water on the stove. As the temperature is gradually increased, the frog feels restless and uncomfortable, but not uncomfortable enough to jump out. Without being aware that a chance is taking place, he is gradually lulled into unconsciousness.

Much the same thing happens when you take a person and put him in a job which he does not like. He gets irritable in his groove. His duties soon become a monotonous routine that slowly dulls his senses. As I walk into offices, through factories and stores, I often find myself looking into the expressionless faces of people going through mechanical motions. They are people whose minds are stunned and slowly dying.

To illustrate the idea that “life really begins when you have discovered that you can do anything you want,” Reilly quotes Amelia Earhart, a woman of strong and refreshing liberal for their time opinions:

I flew the Atlantic because I wanted to. If that be what they call ‘a woman’s reason,’ make the most of it. It isn’t, I think, a reason to be apologized for by man or woman. . . .

Whether you are flying the Atlantic or selling sausages or building a skyscraper or driving a truck, your greatest power comes from the fact that you want tremendously to do that very thing, and do it well.

He admonishes against the toxic “should”-culture we live in, arguably all the more pronounced today:

Actually, there is only one way in this world to achieve true happiness, and that is to express yourself with all your skill and enthusiasm in a career that appeals to you more than any other. In such a career, you feel a sense of purpose, a sense of achievement. You feel you are making a contribution. It is not work.

[…]

To my mind, the world would be a much pleasanter and more civilized place to live in, if everyone resolved to pursue whatever is closest to his heart’s desire. We would be more creative and our productivity would be vastly increased.

Altogether too much emphasis, I think, is being placed on what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do.

When a young art student recently asked author Neil Gaiman what to make of people advising her against doing what she loves, his brilliant answer paralleled what Reilly so passionately argued some sixty-three years ago:

The greatest satisfaction you can obtain from life is your pleasure in producing, in your own individual way, something of value to your fellowmen. That is creative living!

When we consider that each of us has only one life to live, isn’t it rather tragic to find men and women, with brains capable of comprehending the stars and the planets, talking about the weather; men and women, with hands capable of creating works of art, using those hands only for routine tasks; men and women, capable of independent thought, using their minds as a bowling-alley for popular ideas; men and women, capable of greatness, wallowing in mediocrity; men and women, capable of self-expression, slowly dying a mental death while they babble the confused monotone of the mob?

For you, life can be a succession of glorious adventures. Or it can be a monotonous bore.

Take your choice!

Echoing Alan Watts’s litmus test of what you would do if money were no object, Reilly suggests:

No matter what your age or condition or experience, the sooner you find out what you really want to do and do it the better, for that’s the only way anyone can avoid work.

[…]

Try this approach. Suppose you were financially independent and were perfectly free to do anything you wanted, what would you do, if anything?

If your inclinations are at all definite, the answer to this simple question provides at least a general definition of the field which you would enjoy most.

He outlines a general division of labor for any field:

In every business, art, trade or profession, there are four major jobs to be done:

  1. Creative — inventing, discovering, or developing new ideas
  2. Administrative — making plans and policies for the conduct and supervision of the entire business or project
  3. Executive — directing the work of others in actually carrying out plans and policies in one or more departments or sections
  4. Line — performing some individual routine task involving no responsibility for the work of others

If you have creative ability, you know it without anyone telling you. Your creative talents have demanded expression in your early youth. If there is any doubt in your mind as to whether you have the ability to invent or to discover or to develop new ideas, you probably do not have this ability.

[…]

If you are a thoughtful person, slow to act, who enjoys analyzing, interpreting, and patiently summarizing the results of the activities of others; if you’re the kind of person who likes to pry into every single phase of an operation and to view a business as a whole; if you get a big kick out of cautiously defining long-range plans and policies; if you’re strong on logic, you have the most important earmarks of an able administrator.

But if you like plenty of action, if you love to organize and direct other people as they carry out plans and policies, and if you’re perfectly content to confine your activities to one department of a business, you’d probably make a first-rate executive.

Reilly stresses the importance of the human factor:

Often, success or failure turns on this question of human relations. … Any time you do not enjoy the human relations involved in any job, sooner or later that job’s bound to be work, not fun.

In the third chapter, he turns to the three most common excuses preventing us from pursuing what we want to do:

Whenever a person is not doing what he says he wants to do, he always has what sounds like a good excuse. And it’s always one or more of three:

  1. ‘I haven’t the time.’
  2. ‘I haven’t the money.’
  3. ‘My folks don’t want me to.’

He then goes on to examine — and debunk — each of the three excuses, showing that “each of them melts away as an imaginary obstacle when we shine the light of intelligence upon it.” As an enormous believer in making time, rather than finding time, for what matters, I find his meditation on time, reminiscent of Montaigne’s on death and the art of living, particularly important:

Without Time nothing is possible. Everything requires Time. Time is the only permanent and absolute ruler in the universe. But she is a scrupulously fair ruler. She treats every living person exactly alike every day. No matter how much of the world’s goods you have managed to accumulate, you cannot successfully plead for a single moment more than the pauper receives without ever asking for it. Time is the one great leveler. Everyone has the same amount to spend every day.

The next time you feel that you ‘haven’t the time’ to do what you really want to do, it may be worth-while for you to remember that you have as much time as anyone else — twenty-four hours a day. How you spend that twenty-four hours is really up to you.

Indeed, to Reilly success is very much a product of deliberate time investment and discipline — something great writers can attest to. To illustrate “the remarkable achievements possible for anyone who will consistently devote even as little as one hour a day to one single purpose,” Reilly cites an anecdote in which a friend of Thomas Edison’s marveled at the great inventor’s extreme productivity and the stringency of his 18-hour-workdays dedication to success. Edison retorts:

You do something all day long, don’t you? Everyone does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain that you have been doing something all that time. The only difference is that you do a great many things and I do one. If you took the time in question and applied it in one direction, you would succeed. Success is sure to follows such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have one thing to stick to, letting all else go.

Reilly observes:

But a person cannot apply himself to anything incessantly without growing weary unless he loves it — unless it’s not work. And that’s the real explanation of Edison’s full use of his time.

If you were to spend an hour alone with the loud tick of a clock, or better yet, if you could spend an hour completely alone with an hour-glass, watching the sands of Time quickly slip through that vessel, and realize that 100 years from now you and I will both be gone, then you would begin to appreciate that TIME is the ONLY thing you really DO HAVE and that you alone can do anything you wish with the Time that is yours.

He then moves on to the second excuse, money, noting — as I myself can gratefully attest to — that purpose should come before making a living financially, but can be followed by it:

Money never comes first in self-expression of any kind. Study the biographies of those who have built great fortunes, and you will learn that money came to them after they had produced or discovered something.

[…]

In a world marked by constant change, where the rich of today are often the poor of tomorrow, due to circumstances beyond their control, the only security is your ability to produce something of value for your fellow man, and your only guarantee of happiness is your joy in producing it.

True happiness lies in the pursuit of your goal, achievement in your chosen field. This must always remain primary. Whenever money becomes primary, you are on treacherous ground.

Lastly, he zooms in on the third excuse, what your parents — or, in a broader sense, the cohort of “others” — think you should be doing, articulating something Paul Graham captured beautifully decades later in talking about the dangers of prestige and adding an admonition about knowing when to and when not to take advice. Reilly writes:

‘What our friends and associates think’ influences us more than we realize. We like to live the life and stay in the role which others expect of us.

[…]

Each of us is somewhat like an electric light bulb, deriving its power from some central force. Just as the bulb accumulates dust and soot from the air around it until it is darkened, then blackened, so our individuality becomes dulled at first and then entirely blotted out from the accumulation of advice and interference which is superimposed upon us by family and friends. If you examine their advice, you will find that they are continually offering counsel based on their own experience in connection with a situation that is quite different from the one you are facing.

[…]

You will neither venture anything nor achieve anything if you permit yourself to be unduly influenced by others. . . . Remember this. Only one sound mind is needed to create an idea.

[…]

There is no one more colorless than the self-conscious, vacillating person who is neither hot nor cold, wet nor dry, because he is always wondering what others will think of him and is always trying to please everybody.

In a chapter titled “If You’re Under 35,” Reilly makes a case for cultivating creativity as a “way of operating,” to borrow John Cleese’s phrase:

If you’re under 35 years of age, your primary and immediate objective in your chosen field is to build a salable background. How much money you make during this period is not nearly so important as whether you are gaining salable education and experience.

[…]

You can’t build a salable background in any field by just taking on a job and following directions and being punctual and faithful and a hard-working employee.

That’s a lot of horsefeathers.

You’ve got to do something unusual to get favorable attention. And one of the simplest ways for anyone to gain recognition and advancement in any job is to develop a reputation for being a person who has ‘good ideas.’

He then turns to the notion of creativity as problem-solving and the question of how to produce ideas:

Whether you get ideas or not, depends entirely on your attitude towards problems.

No matter where you go, you find that men and women divide themselves into two main groups:

  1. Those who, when confronted with a problem, immediately run to the boss with it.
  2. Those who look upon a problem as something to be solved and who go ahead and solve it.

Those in the second group get a lot of good ideas; those in the first group do not.

[…]

No matter where you work, you’ll get a lot of good ideas if you’ll:

  1. Start with the little everyday problems. When something goes wrong on the job, see if you can figure out what to do about it.
  2. Get into the habit of going to the boss with your suggested solution to a problem, instead of just dumping the problem into his lap.
  3. If your solution is no good, find out what’s wrong with it, so you can do better the next time.

He ends the section with a note on what I call combinatorial creativity, the notion that groundbreaking ideas are simply powerful new combinations of existing ideas. Reilly writes:

Anyone who gets enough practice solving the little problems, will, sooner, or later, be able to solve the big ones. Big ideas are usually a lot of little ideas rolled into one.

Though cultural shifts in the six decades since its publication have rendered How To Avoid Work somewhat less relevant as a practical guide to career success, it remains a timeless and ever-timely reminder of the broader essence of creative satisfaction and the life of purpose, a vocational counterpart to the wonderful The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here.

Complement it with Joseph Campbell’s classic secular scripture about finding your bliss, David Whyte on how to break the tyranny of work/life balance, Roman Krznaric on how to find fulfilling work in the modern world, and Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak.

Public domain images courtesy of Library of Congress

BP

7 Fundamental Meditations on Faith

What the magician Penn Gillette has to do with a ring of earth 700 miles north of the equator.

Belief lies behind the best and worst of human history. Faith in something larger than the self — or lack thereof — has shaped our societies for millennia, so we thought it about time to take a survey of the topic. (Perhaps you agree, since the BBC4 documentary The End of God?: A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion is one of Brain Pickings‘ most popular posts of all time.) Given the rich and faceted nature of the subject, it’s practically impossible to produce a list that is exhaustive, conclusive and universal, but we’ve narrowed it down to six absorbing and provocative books, plus one documentary, about the human quest for existential meaning.

THE POWER OF MYTH

The Power of Myth is considered a classic of the faith canon, and for good reason. In a 1988 six-part PBS series of the same name, host Bill Moyers and folklore and mythology expert Joseph Campbell place belief within the perspective of human history. The Q&A format makes for a fun read, and allows Campbell to weave a comprehensive picture of faith across cultures and from prehistory to the present moment.

From ritual sacrifice to the symbolism of Star Wars, the transcript of Moyers and Campbell’s sessions articulates fundamentals of our value systems so widely accepted as to be taken for granted.

The source of life — what is it? No one knows. We don’t even know what an atom is, whether it is a wave or a particle — it is both. We don’t have any idea of what these things are. That’s the reason we speak of the divine. There’s a transcendent energy source. When the physicist observes subatomic particles, he’s seeing a trace on the screen. These traces come and go, come and go, and we come and go, and all of life comes and goes. That energy is the informing energy of all things. Mythic worship is addressed to that.” ~ Joseph Campbell

Like a fascinating post-dinner conversation with your fabulously erudite uncle, The Power of Myth is a great survey of the spiritual stories humans have held to be self-evident throughout time.

DISCOVERING GOD

Author Rodney Stark set himself an ambitious agenda in Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief. From primal belief during the Stone Age, through the so-called “Axial Age” of the Buddha, Confucius, Plato, and Zoroaster, to modern Christian missionaries and the rise of Islam, Discovering God surveys every major form faith has taken in the last 2.5 million years. Even more remarkably, Stark does so in under 400 pages, including maps of various religions’ births and images illustrating how belief was reified by culture. Ultimately, the book even pushes beyond an anthropological, historical, and sociological study into whether there is, in fact, a there there.

Thus we reach the fundamental question: Does God exist? That is, have we discovered God? Or have we invented him? Are there so many similarities among the great religions because God is really the product of universal wish fulfillment? Did humans everywhere create supernatural beings out of their need for comfort in the face of existential tragedy and to find purpose and significance in life? Or have people in many places, to a greater and lesser degree, actually gained glimpses of God?”

Leaving no stone unturned in its quest to draw a map of mankind’s belief, Discovering God will satisfy those looking for deep background on pre- and post-modern ideology, and everything in between.

THE BELIEF INSTINCT

Evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering takes a very different tack with The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life, posing the salient question:

If humans are really natural rather than supernatural beings, what accounts for our beliefs about souls, immortality, a moral ‘eye in the sky’ that judges us, and so forth?”

Referencing the latest in cultural studies, neuroscience, and psychology, this highly engaging exploration of faith touches on the concept of an afterlife, whether animals too have existential needs, and how the movie Being John Malkovich plays on a philosophical puzzle most succinctly formulated by Descartes. Read our full review from earlier this year here.

THE TENTH PARALLEL

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam takes you on a riveting tour across the real-life middle earth, with gorgeous language as a guide. Its author, award-winning investigative journalist and poet Eliza Griswold, spent the last seven years traveling along the eponymous tenth parallel — the latitude line 700 miles north of the equator — where more than 60 percent of the world’s 2 billion Christians and half the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims reside. The Tenth Parallel unfolds across the enormous canvases of Africa and Asia, in deserts and megacities, and shows how completely theology, culture and politics intersect. Griswold places faith into geographical context, or perhaps the other way around — her discovery being how much land influences what we think about how to live.

We pulled into the pastor’s village after true dark — the absolute profundity that occurs only when no city lights bruise the sky plum. He was waiting on the riverbank outside his small house, its windows edged in lace doilies. Heavy-headed marigolds bobed in the gelid breeze the river made. The churning water seemed phosphorescent; the pastor’s white eyebrows and hair seemed to glow against the darkness.”

If you want to understand the present and future of global geopolitics but prefer to read breathtaking prose over AP-style wire reports, The Tenth Parallel won’t disappoint.

GOD IS NOT GREAT

Tailored to those who prefer pugilism to poetry, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by famously devout atheist Christopher Hitchens excoriates every organized religion while also putting a range of historical figures, from Thomas Aquinas to Zen Buddhists, in their place. As an alternative, God Is Not Great proposes a “new enlightenment” with knowledge, reason and science at the center of human pursuits.

Not all can be agreed on matters of aesthetics, but we secular humanists and atheists and agnostics do not wish to deprive humanity of its wonders or consolations. Not in the least. If you will devote a little time to studying the staggering photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, you will be scrutinizing things that are far more awesome and mysterious and beautiful — and more chaotic and overwhelming and forbidding — than any creation or ‘end of days’ story.”

Written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and with Hitchens’s signature passion and rigor, God Is Not Great makes a clear case for what’s wrong with keeping the faith, historically and today.

THE BUDDHA

We were thrilled to find that the 2010 documentary The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha can now be viewed in its entirety for free online. Narrated by celebrity Buddhist Richard Gere, The Buddha is a biography of Siddharta Gautama, the Indian sage whom the stories say gained Enlightenment more than 500 years before Christ’s birth.

The chronological tale of his life takes us on a visually stunning journey matching Gautama’s travels, from his birthplace in present-day Nepal across the Gangetic Plain and back. Featuring interviews with The Dalai Lama, poet W.S. Merwin, and Uma Thurman’s father and Columbia professor Robert Tenzin Thurman, The Buddha both entertains and enlightens.

Illustrated by beautiful animations,The Buddha is a meditative and thought-provoking tour through one remarkable man’s life.

THIS I BELIEVE

Eighty essays comprise the book This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, based on an NPR series of the same name. The anthology spans nearly 60 years and contains incredibly intimate observations from famous figures including Albert Einstein ( ), Temple Grandin (), Martha Graham, and Helen Keller. We get the personal reflections of Kay Redfield Jameson: “intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways less intense emotions can never do;” and the searching doubt of Eleanor Roosevelt: “I don’t know whether I believe in a future life. I believe that all that you go through here must have some value; therefore, there must be some reason.”

A rare opportunity to glimpse the innermost thoughts of prominent people, This I Believe constantly reminds the reader of the vast range of belief which inspires our every action.

We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of food. We must believe, without fear, in people.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

And if you enjoy the many ideas on display in This I Believe, there’s also a second volume of 75 more essays.

As society grows increasingly interdependent, understanding each other’s existential positions has never been more important. Whatever your own spiritual orientation, we hope the selections here provide insight into the plurality of faith and provoke deeper thought into your own beliefs.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

BP

The Science of Why We Cry and the Three Types of Tears

What stress hormones have to do with the social machinery of sympathy.

“If you need to cry you should cry,” Maira Kalman wrote in her marvelous philosophical children’s book. But what is it, exactly, that makes us need to cry and are all tears created equal? That’s what the TED-Ed team explores in this wonderful animated primer on why we cry and the three types of tears:

When someone is either too sad or too happy, it feels like a loss of control — which can be dangerous. So emotional tears are sent in to stabilize the mood as quickly as possible, along with other physical reactions, such as increased heart rate and slower breathing. But scientists still aren’t sure exactly how or why the tears are helpful. They may be a social mechanism to elicit sympathy or show submission. But some studies have also found that emotional tears contain higher levels of stress hormones, such as ACTH and Enkephalin, an endorphin and natural painkiller.

Complement with the science of sobbing and emotional tearing, then treat yourself to more illuminating TED-Ed primers exploring how the clouds got their names, why some people are left-handed, how melancholy enhances creativity, what makes a hero, how you know you exist, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.

BP

How the Clouds Got Their Names

How a boy who spent his schooldays staring out the classroom window shaped the science of the skies.

“Clouds are thoughts without words,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his breathtaking celebration of the skies. And yet clouds are in dynamic dialogue with our thoughts beyond the realm of the poetic — psychologists have demonstrated that cloudy days help us think more clearly.

Since our words give shape to our thoughts, it wasn’t until a young amateur meteorologist named and classified the clouds in 1803 that we began to read the skies and glean meaning from their feathery motions.

In this animated primer from TED-Ed, Richard Hamblyn, author of The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies (public library) — the same scintillating book that traced how Goethe shaped the destiny of clouds — tells the story of how the clouds got their names, forever changing our understanding of that most inescapable earthly companion, the weather.

Clouds write a kind of journal on the sky that allows us to understand the circulating patterns of weather and climate.

The unlikely and absolutely fascinating story of how we learned to read that journal comes alive in Hamblyn’s The Invention of Clouds. Complement this animated synthesis with more TED-Ed primers on why some people are left-handed, how melancholy enhances creativity, what makes a hero, how you know you exist, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.

BP

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