Talented at Doing Nothing

By Noah Graff

People sitting around doing nothing

In January, I vacationed in a Latin American country. I won’t name the country out of respect for a few friends who were offended by me singling out people from their nation.

My trip was wonderful. I went to the beach, danced a lot of salsa and most importantly got to know a lot of the native people. I found the people there intelligent, outgoing and warm, but the more time I spent with them I noticed a distinct trait — they were very “talented at doing nothing.” As I walked the streets, I often saw many people standing outside their doors simply watching time go by. Maybe they were playing dominoes or making small talk with each other, but other than that — nothing. When I use the word “talented” to describe this trait, I’m not saying it entirely tongue and cheek. “Doing nothing” truly is a skill — a skill that I am poor at.

My intention is not to accuse the people of this country or any other Latin American countries of being lazy and unproductive. Maybe many people there are lazy and have no ambition. Perhaps they have no money to participate in stimulating activities. That’s not my point. Sitting around, not doing much of anything is the cultural norm over there, and the more time I spent with the locals, the more culture shock I experienced.

I stayed the first two days of the trip with some friends who ran a bed and breakfast in a sleepy beach town. I was aching to go see some tourist sites, go to the beach, or even just go for a run. But I also wanted to spend time with my friends, and they mostly just wanted to sit around the house. I had no cell phone, no Internet access, no TV and my Spanish is slow and mediocre, which made conversation an effort — although at times a fun challenge. I felt awkward in the idleness. I felt frustrated because I was squandering my precious vacation time to “do stuff.” But then I forced myself to relax to some extent and go with the molasses-like flow. I realized that “doing nothing” was an important part of truly experiencing their culture, so I stopped fighting it.

I think most Americans have trouble doing nothing. For me, stimuli from either work or entertainment are a constant consumption, on par with water. If I’m alone at a restaurant, if I’m waiting for a bus, if I’m in the bathroom, I’m probably reading something — a newspaper, my computer, my phone. In the car, 99 percent of the time I’m listening to an audio book or music. After work, I usually go work out, then do some work or watch TV. In this scenario, I am classifying watching TV as “doing something,” because the native people on my vacation seldom watched TV.

After spending 11 days with virtually no Internet, newspapers, or TV, I feel slightly more patient with mundane, empty time. Only slightly more patient, but at least I’m aware of the constant stimulation I crave and take for granted.

Question: Could you be happy without TV and Internet?

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17 thoughts on “Talented at Doing Nothing

  1. Emily Halgrimson Post author

    I’ve traveled to developing countries and have noticed the same thing. And I agree that there’s something about it that’s admirable. To sit with yourself and not run away from what you are feeling or who you perceive yourself to be is tough. Maybe science will one day create a way for us to perceive the world through others’ eyes. That would be a vacation worth taking. And to answer your question, yes, I can be happy without TV or Internet. Not to say there’s no adjustment period though …

  2. Greg Knox

    Pulling the plug on the boob tube 23 years ago was one of the singularly greatest, and most productive things I have ever done for myself or my 6 children.
    The hours not spent vegetating in front of the vapid pixels have been put to good use, as in the case of our 16 year old who took 1st place in a state engineering competition and is off to London next month to compete in the Irish Dancing World finals.
    Love tour kids?
    Pull the plug and throw those damn video games in the dumpster
    Post script:
    That is only phase one…
    Phase two is you have to devote the time to training and raising them – a lot tougher than just abdicating this job to Daycare,Disney, the local school system and Lara Croft…

    1. Noah

      Hey Greg,

      I agree with some of what you are saying. In my experience growing up, my parents paid me $10 bucks a week from the time I was 10 until I went to college, if we would only watch 3 hours of TV and play no video games during the school week. We read the newspaper, played outside more, it was just healthier.

      Three hours of TV a week is pretty small. It’s just the right amount I think, so you can get the important shows in, your Seinfelds, your LA Laws, I think I was Quantum Leap fan back then. I can’t remember what else I used it on. Maybe the Cubs?

      These days, I don’t own a TV in my condo. It’s not because I don’t like TV. I think there is some great stuff on TV. We may be going through the Golden Age of TV. But I’m like an addict or something, because once I turn it on I can’t turn it off. The night gets sacrificed to the TV. So I hope it was worthwhile.

    2. Scott @ GenSwiss

      Moderation Greg, its all about moderation. By totally eliminating those entertainment avenues you truly do miss out on some phenomenal writing and storytelling. It’s just like anything else, too much can be harmful.

      Lara Croft…too funny. She hasn’t been relevant in video gaming since the 90’s.
      Don’t slam that industry if you know nothing about it. It employs a huge number of highly intelligent Americans in rewarding careers that work as hard as ANY machine shop owner.

      My kids get limits on both TV and video games. I do what I should do, it’s called PARENTING.


  3. Chris Mann

    You don’t have to leave the USA to see people doing nothing. I can show you entire neighborhoods like that in Chicago.

  4. Pete

    Is not their idle nature part of the cause of their status in the world market? People in China are working long hours/weeks/years to bring themselves or there children out of poverty. This has lead to innovations in the economic structure of the country; unfortunately (for China) not technological innovations. Nations in one respect can be compared to businesses, if your not passionate, focused, and striving to be best you will simply become irrelevant or the punching bag of profitable nations.

  5. David McCorry

    I’ve never been “South of the Border” in the Americas, so I don’t know if it’s a fair comparison, but in Europe – which I have traveled extensively over the past 40 years – there is a direct parallel between the population in general being “talented at doing nothing” and latitude. The further South you go, the more relaxed and laid back the general demeanor. You don’t encounter much lounging around in Scandinavia, Germany, the UK, and the Low Countries, but as you travel down through southern France, Spain, Italy and Greece, the people certainly seem to have “more time on their hands”, for want of a better expression. Some of it is no doubt economically dictated: no mon’, no fun and all that … but I suspect a good dollop of it is a result of three influencing factors: a hotter climate, a different diet and a culture which places more emphasis on “la dolce vita” than industrial output. As we can see following the recent recession, this lifestyle has it’s pros and it’s cons … but there’s no denying that it can be very enjoyable for a brief spell as a tourist, until the insatiable urge to “get on and do something” takes over the hapless sufferer!

    1. Ron B

      That’s a parallel here in the states where (in general) I’ve observed people in the south moving, speaking and reacting slower… hopefully I’m not accused of slamming my southern brethren… I’m not the first to make that observation. In fact once, while in the south, our waitress asked if we (my wife and I) we’re from the north… I replied ‘Oh, you’ve noticed our accent’ and she said ‘no… it’s just that you talk so fast’. I guess they believe that northerners are ‘fast talkers’ which has been translated by many to be a negative.

  6. Art Santana

    We are just too focused on making money in this country. There is a clear distinction on being lazy, doing nothing and just plain simply; enjoy life. We work 40 hours a week if we are lucky, overtime is more of the norm; take a week or two a year to travel and relax; these people do that every day. Heaven forbid we take a couple of hours to take a “siesta” in this country. How about having late diner like 11 pm or so? Are you kidding? We have to be up by 6:30 am to get going yet again. We you go places that are like the one you describe; realize that this is what they do. They really enjoy life more than we do; they may not have all the necessities or luxuries that we do (internet, TV, transportation, etc) Do they really need them? Europe has been pushing for 3 day work weeks so people can just do nothing; like you put it. Here in our State, we almost voted out our sitting governor for suggesting all State employees should just work 4 day weeks and relax more. It is all a matter of perspective.

  7. Martin Weber

    We decided 18 years ago that we did not want the kids to grow up with TV in their early age. We did not hook up a TV and only used a TV down in the basement to watch movies that we were ok with. We picked the times for movies and let them watch one once or twice a week. Usually we watched them all together as a family.
    The kids are all grown up and living on their own now. Interesting enough – my wife and I never got the TV hooked up after that….. Don’t ever miss it and we are glad that we use our free time being active rather than being good at “doing nothing!

  8. Anaxi Gonz

    I think it that depends of the location, for example, in some areas in latin america, you could not give you the luxury of wasting time doing nothing, but, in other locations, mother nature gives you anything you need by simply stretching your arm to reach it. By living in the desert you live according to a schedule in order to survive if you dont, you could simply perish.

  9. Marveb

    About two years ago I converted to Buddhism. I have learned to sit in meditation for hours on end and just watch and be aware of whatever is happening around me. You would not believe what just sitting and doing nothing can accomplish. I can now quiet the voice that tells me I am “wasting time” when I am, in fact, only trying to relax.
    I know my family would be better off without TV, but am not sure how to pull the plug completely. If anyone has info on how to do this successfully, I would be very interested in this info.

    1. Noah

      I admire the meditation. It’s one of those things on my list to pursue.

      As far as weening your kids off TV, I say do as my parents did. Resort to money.

      As a kid 10 bucks is pretty significant. They would give us a bonus at the end of the school year if we didn’t break the rules. 3 hours of TV from Sunday at 6:00 PM until after school on Friday. It would be a pity to deprive them of everything.

      10 bucks can go a long way. Price of 2 Starbucks drinks to increase productivity, and influence habits.

  10. Robert M

    It is not accidental that the most significant scientiific achievements over the past century (involving medicine and engineering) have occured in Western Europe and the USA. Christian work ethic and a free society are the reasons. Unfortunately Western society is on the decline because these foundations are eroding and the house will soon fall down.

  11. Don

    Sounds like the people in the USA that want that free ride from the tax payers that are paying for them. It’s getting to be more than we can afford.

  12. Lloyd Graff

    Honestly, I love TV and still manage to work too much. I am on vacation and still spending hours a day on email and phone torture. I think watching sports on TV May be one of my greatest talents and I value it right up there with blogging and managing a business. I’ve been watching cross country skiing and snowboard half pipe so I must be half baked. I watch the Cubs on TV in April. I can watch Veg O Matic TV at 3:00 AM and feel good about myself. Noah, I am happy that the $10 TV bribe worked, but I find some of our best times these days are spent laughing together watching John Stewart. My grandchildren are oblivious to TV at the moment but I try to get them to watch football and basketball when I visit. I will convert them yet to little ESPNites. Their parents won’t get them into TV, but they watch Friday Night Lights and Daunton Abbey on DVD. I am very into Charlie Rose interviews on Bloomberg and Bloomberg West and Tom Keane interviews are outstanding. TV rocks.

    1. rob klauber

      Lloyd, I loved Friday Night Lights as well. Great characters. Kyle Chandler should be a superstar. Kitsch Taylor has become one – somewhat. This is the golden age for aspiring actors. Hundreds of channels vs the 3 or 4 I grew up with. Many more indie film profit venues and of course U Tube and the many other successful and burgeoning internet sites. I remember having a conversation with a friend about 15-20 years ago and noting that “quality” entertainment could possibly be a double edged sword or even worse, taking us from living and enjoying our own lives by enjoying watching others – unbelievably or should I say believable fictionalized ones. And yet the same thing could be said of reading a great novel. A world built around voyeurism. We need art and we need to live artful lives but are we living it through others and is that really living? So I guess I’ll agree with an earlier responder. MODERATION. And yet extremism, madness even with a method is what inspires and is great art. Artists need other artists for their vision. Most of us to varying degrees experience our own lives as an artistic vision. Of course very much influenced by what we watch or choose to watch. I spent 3 weeks in Negril, Jamaica about 7 years ago with no phone, tv or computer. I felt so alive and joyous. I admired the locals who enjoyed the climate, fresh air, ocean and geat fruits and Caribbean food, not to mention alcohol and other instruments. Haha. Personally, I loved not being “under the influence” so to speak because the natural reigned supremely beautiful.


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