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On Doing Nothing

6.25.14

The author climbed this tree in Cyprus’s Troodos Mountains, en route to Lagoudera.

The author climbed this tree in Cyprus’s Troodos Mountains, en route to Lagoudera.

Courtesy of Ben Sobel

I took this past semester, my junior spring, off from Harvard. What was I trying to accomplish? It took a few months to realize it, but the truest answer I can give is “nothing, really.” 

What kind of a Harvard student spends a few months he could have spent in Cambridge traveling aimlessly through Western Europe, the Balkans, and North Africa—trying to accomplish nothing?  At Harvard, I had developed an obsession with ensuring that every instant of my time could be justified in terms of tangible accomplishments. “Productiveness” is a buzzword around here—as qualifier, quantifier, boast, and complaint—and the concept hovers spectrally alongside a disconcerting amount of on-campus dialogue. Most undergraduates have likely been on one or both sides of an exchange like this:

“How was your weekend?”

“Productive.”

Because the word is used constantly in this sort of context, productivity becomes a universal validator, and, more disturbingly, an end in itself. In these conversations, it doesn’t matter whether the weekend was good or bad, as long as it was productive. On campus, what I was achieving didn’t matter, as long as I was achieving.

In this way, my productivity fetish allowed me, paradoxically, to move through my life in a monumentally lazy way. As long as I was productive, “good” and “bad” and “happy” and “sad” were all subordinate considerations. The constant noise of commitments, which I had sincerely convinced myself were important and substantial, let me tune out larger uncertainties. These larger uncertainties—about goodness and badness and happiness and sadness; about who I am, what I like to do, how I want to relate to others; and most importantly, about what I’m trying to achieve through all this achievement in the first place—were and are far more difficult to confront than any number of innocuous, “productive” obligations.

So I buried my unsettling concerns in piles of schoolwork, term-time jobs, and extracurricular organizations. In some ways, this was one of the best things that could have happened to me. My fixation on generating tangible achievements helped me write the best papers I’ve written and think the most stimulating academic thoughts I’ve thought. Each of my productivity-chasing pursuits introduced me to wonderful people I wished I had time to get to know better and wonderful ideas I wished I had time to understand better. Indeed, I produced good things—but these products often felt secondary to the feeling of productiveness they gave me. Rare were my moments of unproductivity, but rarer still were my moments of genuine, uncompromising self-reflection. I never spent any time alone with myself, in part because I had conditioned myself to view such activity as a shameful waste of time, and in part because I was profoundly unsettled by the “larger uncertainties” that surfaced whenever I spent time inside my own head.

This is why it is necessary for me to frame my semester off in terms that sound unconscionable to my Harvard-honed sensibilities. “Accomplishing nothing” is exactly what I had trained myself to abhor in order to fight off the bugaboo of meaningful personal scrutiny. With the goal of “accomplishing nothing” in mind, the worst that could have happened is also, conveniently, the best that could have happened.

 

Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I left the continent indefinitely on December 17. At that time, I had a different goal in mind: I wanted to be self-sufficient. After all, I reasoned, this semester off was supposed to give me insight into who I was. In order to figure out what I liked to do, I wanted to be able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, with as few restrictions as possible. To carry this off, I decided that I would have to be intellectually, emotionally, and financially beholden to no one but myself. Paying my expenses out of my own pocket was, I figured, a good start. At the very least, I wasn’t going to let the semester turn into the type of parentally subsidized vacation that gap years often become.

I also knew a few practical reasons why this semester was the right one to take off: my parents, both professors, were on a yearlong sabbatical in the Netherlands, which gave me a home base in Europe (and no other place to live during winter break). I had freelance writing work that was edifying, flexible, and lucrative enough to get me as close to financial solvency as I’ve ever been. And I had 17 uninterrupted years of full-time schooling under my belt, as well as three semesters remaining at Harvard, which made me figure that a few months’ break wouldn’t do me much harm.

My first month in Europe I spent getting my footing in Amsterdam, living in the apartment my dad was given through his university post. Just about every day, I put in hours of writing work at the gorgeous, glassy Openbare Bibliotheek (“Public Library”) on the waterfront nearby. Three or four days a week, I played saxophone in open jazz jam sessions at bars. Through this routine, I gradually began to distance myself from the total noise of striving and productivity that enclosed me at Harvard. The stages of separation were uncanny. As soon as I realized I had eschewed virtually all responsibilities, save a writing deadline or two, I started manufacturing anxieties at a near-pathological pace. One day, I stalked through the Rijksmuseum in a sweaty panic, unable to stand still and enjoy the art because I was dwelling on a devastatingly embarrassing memory from the eighth grade. Maybe I needed the noise and stress of constant obligations in order to motivate myself to do anything at all.

In any case, staying put in Amsterdam wasn’t quite the liberation I envisioned. I didn’t feel self-sufficient. It seemed to me that I had sunk into a routine that prevented me from doing the things I wanted to do, whatever those things were.

So I decided to call my own bluff. I engineered my life so that I could immediately change place and pace with essentially zero repercussions. I was self-contained: my belongings—a phone, a few changes of clothes, a camera, a Kindle, some toiletries—fit into a small daypack, calibrated to meet budget airlines’ fastidious carry-on limits. If I was ever in a position to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, this was it. I could pick up and go at just about any moment.

I picked up and went on March 4, having used up 78 of the 90 days my tourist visa allowed me to spend in the Schengen Zone. I flew out of Amsterdam on a cheap ticket to London that I had bought the week before, with a friend’s floor in Oxford to sleep on for the next two nights and no further plans at all. Two days later, I had a cheaper ticket from London to Bucharest, an inkling of what I would do in Romania and afterwards, and a serious backache from sleeping two nights on an unforgiving floor.

 

Between March 4 and May 1, my “nomadic period” took me across three continents, eight countries, dozens of couches and hostels. For the first month or so of this itinerancy, I may have genuinely believed that I was getting by on my own. But two experiences taught me that my fascination with self-containment was a) silly and untenable, and b) not at all representative of how I wanted to live my life.

The first of these experiences was using Couchsurfing.org. Years ago, when I first heard of the website—which connects travelers with local hosts offering a free place to stay—I felt a general, ill-defined reluctance to use it. But this spring, when the Shakespeare and Company bookstore had no open beds for “tumbleweeds” like me and I began to grasp just how expensive it would be to house myself in Paris for two weeks, Couchsurfing suddenly seemed more appealing. I reflected on the vague distaste for Couchsurfing that I had felt almost reflexively, and realized that it indicated a much larger problem with my outlook.

The reason I had dismissed Couchsurfing was because it was open to everyone. Because of my fixation on productivity and achievement, I often used an activity’s eliteness or exclusivity as a shortcut to determine whether or not it was worth doing. In taking time off, I felt a tacit obligation to fill my time with activities that were demonstrably as worthwhile as a semester at Harvard—and how else did I know to measure this worthwhileness but in terms of eliteness and exclusivity? Couchsurfing undermined this heuristic; it is foundationally anti-elitist and anti-exclusive. In other words, the reason I dismissed Couchsurfing was the very reason for its existence: that anyone can use it.

This epiphany was powerful, but it took a logistical emergency in North Africa to really change my opinion on self-sufficiency. On my first morning in Marrakesh, I discovered I couldn’t withdraw cash from any ATMs. I emailed my parents and asked for advice. My mother—in a state of utter panic that I will forever regret precipitating—twisted some arms at the nearest branch of our bank and got the card activated for intercontinental use. After four hours of my sweat and her tears, my cash problem was solved, but a new concern had replaced it: there was absolutely no way I could still pretend I was “on my own.”

Following this bailout, past self-delusions began to unravel, too. The slightest bit of perspective and reflection was all it took to realize that I never came close to self-sufficiency at any point on my trip. Did I really think I was self-sufficient during the weeks I spent living in my parents’ apartment? How about when I was proudly spending my own money using a bank card my parents set up? Or when I was earning that money using writing skills that cost hundreds of thousands of someone else’s dollars in tuition? Just as important was another realization: even if it had been possible for me to separate myself from the world and rely on no one, I wouldn’t have wanted things to be that way.

I want to rely on others not because the unassisted life is logistically difficult, which it is, but because living utterly independently from others would make it next to impossible for me to learn anything new or do anything fulfilling. Just about all of my fondest memories from the past few months came from things I got to experience because I was willing to rely on someone else—and because someone was willing to inconvenience him- or herself to include me. A family friend went to great lengths to make sure I was comfortable in his home country of Morocco; his college-student nephew invited me over for tagine in Marrakesh; friends of a friend took me camping in Cyprus 20 minutes after meeting me in person; Couchsurfing hosts took me into their homes, cars, and kayaks, all with no real idea of who I was. Every time I tried to withdraw from the world in a misguided attempt at self-sufficiency, the world came forward to meet me. Before my Couchsurfing epiphany, and before I found myself cash-poor in Morocco, I once spent 20 minutes of a bus ride through provincial Romania silently judging my fellow riders. The next thing I knew, my affable seatmate was entreating me to eat some of his covrigi, and the woman across from me was genially offering to introduce me to a medieval-scholar friend of hers who would show me around local castles.

By placing myself in foreign countries with no plan, little money, and no structured pretense to interact with any other humans, I had thought I was stripping away the soul-sucking restrictions that other people placed on me. What I was really doing was making it much harder for me to rely on others in the way that I had unconsciously done my entire life. The extent to which I’ve been able to depend on other people has been a colossal privilege. Friends, teachers, and my long-suffering parents in particular have expended a tremendous amount of emotional and financial resources to ensure that I’ve stayed safe, healthy, educated, entertained, and so on. Moreover, these people continued to make these efforts even while I frequently pretended to be self-sufficient in spite of them. Only after a trying isolation from the kindness I took for granted did I start understanding how much I’ve benefited from that kindness.

A few weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote down four words: “giving, altruism, favors, charity.” I wrote them down because I didn’t want to forget what I learned on my semester off. After feeling firsthand how poignant even a small gesture of helpfulness or friendship can be to someone who hasn’t felt either in a while, I want to make a conscious effort to be friendlier, kinder, and more generous myself—both so that I can be a less sour, less predictable person; and so that I can begin to pay my interpersonal debts forward.

 

It’s ironic for me to write about all the learning I accomplished in my time off, when that time was supposed to be about accomplishing nothing at all. In this sense, my mission to accomplish nothing ended in failure. Fortunately, failing to accomplish nothing has its upsides: after all, it means that I didn’t. While I was failing to accomplish nothing, I got to wake up to a tour of the medieval murals inside a 1,200-year-old church that was the pride of a tiny village in the mountains of Cyprus. I got to be one of four people to sit in on a magazine interview and casual conversation with a Turkish activist for gay and Kurdish rights, currently on trial for slandering Prime Minister Erdogan (“Is your phone tapped?” we asked. He didn’t bat an eye: “Certainly.”). I got to mouth the words to French songs in an unfamiliar apartment at four a.m. with a chorus of unflappably genuine Sorbonne students I had met a few hours earlier (the songs were old, accordion-driven, and so stereotypically Parisian that I thought for a while that the sing-along was a practical joke).

Although I feel conflicted saying it, I’m proud of what I achieved on my semester off, especially because so little of it was “productive” in the campus sense. Of course, being “proud” of what I “achieved” means I didn’t completely abandon my fixation on accomplishment and productivity, but that may not be for the worst. The things I experienced these past few months, and the introspection they engendered, taught me some long overdue lessons about how to be less entitled and priggish—and why it’s important to be less entitled and priggish. Moreover, the way I’m processing these experiences has taught me that I still have a long way to go if I really do want to stop measuring my life in terms of the tangible achievements I produce. All in all, that’s not nothing.

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The magazine’s Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellows for the 2016-2017 academic year will be Matthew Browne ’17 and Lily Scherlis ’18.

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