Conversations in Management: Henry David Thoreau

Wishing to get a better view than I had yet had of the ocean, I made a visit to Cape Cod.

Henry David Thoreau

ThoreauWhen Thoreau headed for Cape Cod in 1849, he was in the vanguard of a small but rapidly growing group of Americans known today as tourists. The trend began a hundred years earlier when a wealthy Maryland doctor introduced the first road trip. On that occasion, the good doctor astonished his friends by hopping on his horse and beginning a journey “intended only for health and recreation.” In the ensuing years, summer retreats were an idea embraced exclusively by the wealthy. As the temperature rose, they tended to entirely vacate (hence the word vacation) their city homes for a more comfortable location by a lake or beach. Once ensconced, they began a social season that invariably included gambling, flirting, dancing and drinking in an atmosphere of delightful indolence. The working and middle classes, however, found such antics highly suspicious. These were the folks who literally stoked the engines of American prosperity. They believed that success depended on hard work and that slothfulness was a corrosive societal influence. In time, even these hardy souls came to realize that unrelieved effort ultimately took a toll on productivity. But they could never embrace the idea of simply “goofing off.” Thoreau, for example, chronicled his vacation by making careful notes of the Cape’s historical, social and natural features for later publication. In the generations of tourists that followed, this concept of vacation as an opportunity for self-improvement flourished. Sure, there was some notion of vacation as a time to actually relax, but it was an industrious relaxation. Folks traveled to see historical sites, visit museums, attend lectures and engage in other beneficial activities.  Whereas the wealthy had been content to drink and dance, the modern vacationer expected to learn the latest steps and master the intricacies of pinot noir through wine tasting seminars. Even kids knew that the quality of their time off would be assessed in September with the dreaded theme, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” (Certainly no one wanted to be found lacking on the day that assignment came due.)  Ultimately the success of a vacation came to be measured by the extent to which one had been demonstrably “improved” by the experience—an improvement preferably documented with souvenirs, snaps and video.

It’s been 158 years since Thoreau set about “improving” himself on Cape Cod’s beaches. Today, 21st century vacationers sit on the very same beaches doing much the same thing. These folks gaze at the ocean while electronically tethered to their offices. They keep one eye on the kids while keeping the other on the Blackberry. Vacation is no longer just about self-improvement, it’s about the amount of work you can do while technically “off the clock.” We tell ourselves that we’re just trying to stay ahead of the avalanche of emails that would otherwise greet us at the end of our holiday or that the pace of today’s global economy won’t permit even a moment’s absence from the office—but we know that’s not true. The reality is that we just can’t shake that old American work ethic. We work at work, we work at parenting, we work on relationships and we work at having fun.  We know how to work, but we don’t have any idea how to simply relax. Perhaps it reflects a lack of confidence and a sense that our self-worth is somehow related to “doing things.” No matter what the cause, this frenetic pace is leading to an accelerated burnout. If every moment of your life is filled with some thing, it’s time to reconsider. Cut yourself some slack. Take time to do no thing. And the next time you visit the beach, sever the tether!                Ebert

Leave a Reply