Kids, Summer, Playing, Water Squirter
The Importance of Doing Nothing by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries (INSEAD Knowledge)

In today’s networked society we are at risk of becoming victims of information overload. Introspection and reflection have become lost arts as the temptation to ‘just finish this’ or ‘find out that’ is often too great to resist. But working harder is not necessarily working smarter. In fact slacking off and setting aside regular periods of ‘doing nothing’ may be the best thing we can do to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination and improve our mental health.

Our lives have become defined by busyness. Look around you at the train station, in cafes, out on the street, people are glued to their mobile handset or tablet.

I recently asked an executive I once coached how many emails she received a day. “Five hundred,” she told me. “But I don’t read any of them. If I did, I wouldn’t be doing my job.”

The challenge, she said wasn’t attaining information but “pushing it away so I don’t suffer from information overload. I need time to think.”

When I was a child growing up in the West Indies, saying the phrase “I am bored” was often met with “Go outside and play with your brothers” from my mother. Of course, I did what Mom said, and my brothers and together, we got into all sort of mischief. Climbing trees, running around the yard playing “tag” with the family dog, finding other neighbourhood kids and enlisting them into mischief. Eventually, we learned to recruit each other into mischief. It was so much fun!

We explored the woods and streams near our home, unsupervised. We often came home injured; cuts and scrapes, never anything serious. I think exploring the forests and streams helped my younger brother, an environmentalist, discover his love of nature. Being bored pushed me to read more, to want to learn about the world me. And I was left alone to read andponder. I think that’s one reason I fell in love with science and engineer. I didn’t need a STEM program to develop that love. I just had to be curious and have a parent willing to let me be. I needed time to think.

In comparison, I look at my neighbourhood, and I feel saddened by the empty streets. The kids are all safe indoors, playing video games or streaming the Internet. When my kids were younger, we often encouraged them to engage in unstructured play with each other and outside in the backyard, weather permitting. Legos and wooden blocks. When they were older, it became more challenging. I only remember one summer, in the middle school years, when I saw the neighbourhood kids find each other and engage in silly fun. It was the last day of school and the start of summertime. The kids were outside playing with water shooters and the hose with their friends from the neighbourhood. I had to be careful not to get my camera wet, but the kids had a blast.

Kiran having some summer fun. —Nikon D40 + 50 mm f/1.8 @ (50 mm, f/3.5, ISO800), © Khürt L. Williams

During the summer, the time of year when kids have “nothing to do” and nowhere to be, the neighbourhood was often devoid of the sounds of kids playing. The kids were packed up and sent away to camp. I felt sorry for my kids, but at least they had each other. We eventually enrolled them in Tae Kwon Do classes, mostly for the experience of being engaged in shared goal with others and so they could develop friendships outside of a classroom setting.

Of course, we made mistakes. We introduced screens and the internet too early. I guess that is one hazard of having a parent who works with information technology.

But it’s not just kids. Adults are suffering from this, as well. I admit that I often feel pressured to perform and produce quickly. That’s dangerous in my profession, and it’s not the way my mind prefers to work. I prefer to ingest information and taking the time to reflect, then act. But it is my fault for being seduced by the USA’s productivity culture of constantly wanting to do more. GTD, sleep hacking, etc., all designed to give us more time to do more, but less time to think. Being idle is often seen as wasteful. Sigh.

I miss the daydreaming. I miss the feeling of time spent doing “nothing”. I miss the mischief.

Time for reflection and mischief.

“Learning without reflection is a waste, reflection without learning is dangerous” – Confucius

Monkey Hill, house, sky, steps

My mother took this photo during one of her recent trips to the LaPompe section of the island of Bequia where her parents lived and where I spent the first two years of my life; before there were siblings; I had my grandparents attention all to myself. The house is located at the top middle level of one of the highest hills on the island. The locals have nicknamed the area Monkey Hill. There are no monkeys on the island. I am uncertain as to the origin of the name.

The house has no sewage, no running water, and no electricity. But it has lots of memories. Memories of a carefree childhood spent under the doting and watchful eye of my grandparents, Louis and Celina Ollivierre. Some of the memories are not pleasant. I remember the horror of needing to complete a bowel movement while sitting in an outhouse in the high heat of summer. Ugh! However, I enjoyed taking outdoor showers after helping my grandfather fill the tank atop the outdoor shower.

My grandparents kept a few chickens, goats and sheep on the property behind the house. I often helped my grandmother move the sheep and goats which were staked to a feeding spot with a long rope and a metal spike. Sometimes I would help her milk a goat or sheep. Have you ever drank fresh goat milk straight from the animal? It’s so rich and creamy.

View from atop Monkey Hill, Bequia.  I scanned this from an old damaged print my mom gave me.
View from atop Monkey Hill, Bequia. I scanned this from an old damaged print my mom gave me.

The house looks a bit worse for wear in this photo. The wood has probably rotted and critters have most likely taken up residence. The upstairs area has three bedrooms and a living room. I remember lazy evenings with my grandfather sitting on the steps looking out and over at the Caribbean Sea. The bottom of the house is where my grandparents kept their ground provisions and other foodstuff including cured whale meat, fish, farine etc.

I spent a lot of time with my grandparents during the summer days of my youth. My father once held a position as branch manager at Barclays Bank in the Port Elizabeth area on Bequia. We lived on the top floor of the building for a few years when I was about five years old. Every weekend was an opportunity to hang out with my grandparents.

house
Another, but much older, image of the house, scanned from a print.

The house looks a lot smaller than I remember but it has three bedrooms and a living room. The house is cooled by the constant but gentle Windward Caribbean breezes that blow salty sweet air over the hills.

The building to the left in the photo is the original kitchen. It had no gas and no electricity. It had a coal-fired stove and oven. Yes, coal-fired. My grandmother cooked fish and fungi for breakfast and sometimes “bakes”. Sometimes she would bake bread. This was my treat. Freshly baked bread with generous amounts of salted butter. And to wash it all down, a large white enamel mug filled with coffee and mostly milk or maybe a mug of bush tea. I guess my grandmother impressed me early in childhood with the delicious flavours of a homemade cafe-au-lait.

My grandparent passed away decades ago. I miss them.