Chasing Idleness

In Essays on July 8, 2012 at 6:38 am

By Peter Elliott

Last week’s New York Times opinion piece by Tim Kreider, “The Busy Trap,” threw out this challenge:

“More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”

Now I happen to have the complete works of Richard Scarry (courtesy of my son’s passion for these books some 25 years ago). So I checked out the sorts of jobs performed by the likes of Noah, the boa constrictor, and Ukulele Louie (one of many cats). For completeness, I also took in the job interest of Lowly, the worm. And it turns out the only activities these characters performed were fishing, singing, playing music, and eating. But you get Tim Kreider’s drift:

  • Focus on the important things in life, and don’t let busyness get in the way of this;
  • Try, at the first opportunity, to choose “time over money”;
  • Do not self-impose busyness (the “hedge against emptiness”) on your schedule;
  • Some idleness is necessary to stimulate the creativity within you.

Slate Magazine’s Bryan Lowder has written a brief response to Kreider’s article. Lowder points out that very few can join Tim Kreider in his “charmed indolence,” suggesting that to have his “pleasantly open schedule” you would need “a healthy stack of family money or a generous institutional grant.“ Economics is indeed a constraint on choice, and for a time most of us have to adopt a life balance which is far from perfect. The key in my opinion is not to lose sight of the value of idleness and to strive for at least some modicum of it—not only in retirement, but also along the way.

In my case, I consistently tried to do high-end corporate law in locations remote from the City (the “City” in this case being the UK’s equivalent of Wall Street). My aim was to retain the excitement and interest of complex commercial transactions, but at the same time to enjoy my family and rural pleasures. On each occasion the “City” eventually won, and I ended up drawn inextricably back into the maelstrom of the “frenetic hustle,” until I performed the next correction (or until it was forced on me by one of life’s beautiful about-turns).

Looking back on my legal career, I have to be quite frank. I did law at university because I needed a career that paid. The law I had truly enjoyed, Constitutional and International Law, was the bit that related most closely to my real interest—History. I loathed Company Law and found it very dry. But when it came to the end of my Degree course, I was faced both with the need to secure a work permit to remain in the UK (I was South African) and the task of generating a reasonable income. So I headed into one of London’s largest law firms (then called Linklaters & Paines). The long corridors of endless grey lawyers, housed in a high-rise building at the heart of the City, seemed remarkably unattractive. But it was the route to entrenching myself in my new home. My base motives worked, as the UK Home Office extended my stay to allow me to train, and life continued. I got married, and had a family, and so kept on working as a commercial lawyer.

After a couple of years, I managed to escape the large London office by transferring to work in Linklaters’ small and friendly office in Brussels, Belgium (where I learned my French, which I now regard as my most valuable accomplishment). The workload was intense but the office was extremely sociable, and we also spent lots of “idle” time together outside work. This experience wedded me to the benefits of small offices. Thus, at the end of my time in Brussels, I made the clear choice in favour of “time over money.” I moved back to the UK to join a much smaller City firm, with a tiny commercial office in Gloucestershire, England (which for the benefit of our American readers is the equivalent of Vermont, to a New Yorker). This was a radical move, to work at a much lower salary, but it coincided with the years our three children arrived, and suited us very well.

Both these moves, in hindsight, were ways of ensuring that I still had enough “idleness” to indulge all the other pleasures that make life worthwhile (for me, mainly time with my family and friends). But, in the second case, my ambition to become a partner in the overall firm (which was still headquartered in London) drove me again towards “busyness.” I found that I liked learning about my clients’ small business activities. I enjoyed the “cut and thrust” of commercial negotiation. I was a reasonable commercial draftsman, and liked writing the contracts (although the reader will be aware that it has hammered my prose). Over time, my own ambitions—in concert with clients who called on weekends and public holidays—eroded our rural bliss and intruded on family life.

So my next “escape” was to move away from private legal practice and into Industry. For over 12 years I was the general counsel of a company then called English China Clays, the largest kaolin producer in the world (mainly producing coating material for glossy paper). The move reflected the fact that my real interest lay in the detail of the businesses, and how they could be grown, by acquisition or otherwise. I was a lot less interested in the technical legal aspects! Again I was pursuing the idyll of moving in the opposite direction to that of most corporate lawyers: I was based in Cornwall (even more remote than Gloucestershire!), where the company was the largest single employer. So although I was involved in City-type work, we were again living in a beautiful, and rural, part of the country.

In-house work had promised a better work-life balance. However, far from getting away from “busyness,” I found myself performing an international transactions job, at times spending up to ten weeks a year travelling in the United States, where most of our deals took place. Eventually within this global group I moved into more of a business role, and had management responsibility for all non-financial aspects of the corporate headquarters office. The Cornish idyll ended, and the work-life balance was disturbed, quite abruptly when a new Chief Executive moved our headquarters, and me (and the family), back to central England in the early 1990s. Large swathes of time were spent on deals and strategies, intended to change the trajectory of a company that was faced with falling prices, and lower demand, in its principal markets. We little realised that investors in the City of London, focusing only on short term profitability, would never allow us the time to complete these long term plans.

What was the upshot? Investors did not reward the company with the improved share price for which we had hoped. We became vulnerable to take-over, and were indeed taken over by a French company at the end of the 1990s. I realised the ultimate futility of my 12 years of work when I cleared out my corporate cupboard before leaving. Most of the documentation within the corporate secretariat I had run was irrelevant to their future, and was discarded. The new owners were simply not interested in any of the former management’s strategy thinking. The whole of the corporate services team I had built up was laid off. By some measures, my work there does not “matter”: today, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that anything I did was of any enduring value. However, for me, personally, it was far from a wasted experience. For most of my time there, I was “engaged” by both my work and my colleagues. I still retain a few fast friends from that business. I also earned my living, which was what I needed to do. I look back on it as the high point of my career.

I then performed a similar role at another old Industrial giant, Burmah Castrol. Already in late 1999 this public company was looking for an exit, as management did not believe an independent lubricants business could continue to survive as such: it needed to be part of an oil major. The Management particularly liked my “victim of takeover” experience, as it was directly relevant to what they had in mind. So I worked for another two years in industry, mostly focusing on a hidden agenda of selling the company to one of the oil majors, but also performing the day job of running the corporate services activity at its headquarters. A couple of years later we were duly taken over by BP, and once again I was “on the street.” Again nothing remains of what I worked on at Burmah Castrol. The whole corporate services activity was eliminated, myself included. So again I emerged retaining a few friends, but leaving no footprint in the sand.

At the age of 50, I again had the opportunity to choose “time over money.” I wanted to be able to take my youngest two kids to school and to have dinner with the family each evening (a bit late you may say, as the two “kids” in question were now 13 and 17). So I looked only for a job that I could do within five miles of home. This was severely career-limiting (but home-life enhancing). I opted to return to private practice as a corporate lawyer in my home town of Oxford. The firm I went to initially proved a mistake for me personally, and it always takes time to work your way out of a wrong choice. But eventually I moved on to the task of opening an Oxford office for the large London firm I had worked for earlier in my career. We made good progress until the crash of 2008 when demand for our services simply fell away. The office was closed and our small team of lawyers scattered. But again: I do not regret this time at all. The main satisfaction for me lay in the relationships I developed with the younger lawyers I had recruited for this office, and whom I had mentored in the course of building the business. Perhaps this is a form of legacy.

Last year we made the switch to living in France—probably the most dramatic re-balancing towards “idleness” that we have managed so far. The only way to achieve this was to make a clean break with corporate law, to throw away the Blackberry, and to rid myself of pesky clients once and for all. As a result, I have been able to enjoy almost 12 months of this bliss, simply choosing to do what I want, always “busy,” but not in a way which would be acknowledged objectively as productive (and certainly not “economically” so).  We are now focused on the “necessary” jobs of the boa constrictor and the cat—but with much less ukulele and considerably more gardening.

Already, though, “busyness” is encroaching; perhaps it’s the influence of my Scots grandmother who believed so strongly in the overriding value of work (she pronounced it “wurkk”). I am drawn opportunistically to new projects: I am now contemplating a vine planting joint venture and the possibility of helping a local vigneron with the export marketing of his wines. I don’t know if I’ll take the plunge into busyness again, but as I consider this opportunity I am struck by the fact that, even in so-called “retirement,” my precious, hard-won idleness is always at risk—and mostly by own hand.

Peter Elliott grew up in South Africa, and went to Cambridge University in the early 1970s where he did a law degree. He then became a corporate lawyer in the City of London. He worked for half his career in legal private practice; the other half of his career was spent in industry, working for two English industrial behemoths both of whom have now disappeared from the corporate map. He is now retired, and living with his wife in the Languedoc, in South West France. They have a smallholding on which there are sunflower and cereal crops surrounded by vineyards.

  1. […] Peter Elliott A retired corporate lawyer fact-checks Tim Kreider on Richard Scarry—but agrees that idleness is worth chasing. […]

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