There are times when I feel
I would rather not be
The one behind the wheel
Depeche Mode, Behind the Wheel (1987)
There is no doubt about it, we all need a break every now and then. Whilst I have often celebrated the mantra ‘work hard, play hard’ as a decent bit of advice for life, perhaps an even better refrain would be ‘work hard, play hard, break hard’, even if it instinctively reminds me of a dodgy moment during my driving test in Maidstone back in 1988.
The bottom line is that over recent times, life has simply got busier and more complicated. Don’t ask me why. In an increasingly automated world determined by coding, artificial intelligence and machine learning, I would have thought that things were getting simpler. That’s certainly what we were promised when I was growing up in the 1980s, as we waved goodbye to the age of manufacture, welcomed the world of service and dreamt of a future epoch of leisure.
The epoch of leisure, we were told, would involve robots doing the housework, airborne streams of public transport and small, single pills encapsulating whole meals (I never fell for that one, having seen Captain Kirk on Star Trek swallowing one and murmuring ‘mmm…steak frites’). More importantly, the age of leisure would mean we didn’t have to actually work. Instead, life would consist of an endless sequence of coffee cups, leisurely bouts of exercise and watching infinite repeats of Friends.
Where did it all go wrong? Who knows. The fact is that I have spent the last twenty years encouraging young people to play hard at school and in their adult lives, because so many feel the need to have to constantly work hard. I now feel that we all need to pause every now and then and break hard too.
Don’t get me wrong; I absolutely get the need to work hard in life to achieve what you want and feel fulfilled, and have experienced and felt this myself. But I do worry sometimes about the apparent need for some people to be working and playing at full speed, 24/7, non-stop. When ‘playing’ becomes dominated by activities that are not wholly kind to the body or well-being, of course, this can become a truly toxic interplay.
Hence my appeal for breaks. A break for me means not doing very much at all. It does not involve either work or play. At its most elemental, it simply means being in the moment and enjoying what’s around you. This may or may not involve reflection on the fruits of your prior labours. It often means taking a deliberate back seat and enjoying the simple pleasures of what surrounds you. Richard Branson has spoken eloquently about this recently, in connection with the search for happiness:
“If you allow yourself to be in the moment, and appreciate the moment, happiness will follow. I speak from experience. We’ve built a business empire, joined conversations about the future of our planet, attended many memorable parties and met many unforgettable people. And while these things have brought me great joy, it’s the moments that I stopped just to be, rather than do, that have given me true happiness. Why? Because allowing yourself just to be, puts things into perspective. Try it. Be still. Be present.”
At the risk of patronage, encouraging students today to appreciate the importance of taking the occasional break from everything can be tough. As a child who spent a lot of time in the Lake District during the holidays, I remember being bored quite a lot, especially when it was raining (often) and we were stuck inside. Most children are less bound to meteorological fate today, of course, and have the delights of Xbox consoles, mobile phones and social media to keep them busy. But such things, as I have written elsewhere, don’t really provide a break; if anything, they can provide more mental stress and strain at exactly the times when it is not needed.
As the school year ends in its usual flurry of activity (music concerts, reports, prizegivings, farewells, letters, etc), I must admit that I am looking forward to a break. I am very lucky that it will mostly involve ‘not doing a great deal’ in deepest darkest France, glass of wine in one hand, duffed up old paperback in the other (probably something by Fleming, Buchan or Dumas that I have read many times before).
There will also be warm evenings, occasional cycle rides and, most importantly, easy opportunities to catch up properly with close family. One thing I can say is that after what has been a happily tumultuous, slightly bonkers but very enjoyable first year at King’s, it will be very welcome indeed.
Thank you to all for reading these sporadic ramblings; you’ll hear from me again in September, after a good break.