How to Do Nothing


Did you ever think you’d need to read a book on How to Do Nothing?  Even before the new coronavirus chased you indoors, you may have been weighing the merits of more contemplative time.  Jenny Odell, an artist and writer who teaches at Stanford University has written a masterpiece on the subject which opens with this simple statement:  “Nothing is harder to do than nothing.”  This bookends with the last sentence of that paragraph which states that “… much of what gives one’s life meaning stems from accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous encounters: the ‘off time’ that a mechanistic view of experience seeks to eliminate”.

Jenny observes that doing nothing can be a tool that sharpens our ability to listen.   Toward that end she offers a simple yet powerful quote from acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”  She continues: “But beyond self-care and the ability to (really) listen, the practice of doing nothing has something broader to offer us: an antidote to the rhetoric of growth.  In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous.  Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative.  Over very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.”

Rose Garden

If you don’t have the time or opportunity to read Ms. Odell’s thoughtful and sumptuous book, you can get a flavor of it through this keynote talk that she gave several years ago.  And if your attention is sufficiently divided that even the transcript of that talk is too much to wade through, then I hope this YouTube snippet entices you to contemplate the subject.


About Leonard J. Press, O.D., FAAO, FCOVD

Developmental Optometry is my passion as well as occupation. Blogging allows me to share thoughts in a unique visual style.
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