This time of year, many of my e-mails begin, “I hope you have had a restful and productive summer.” As far as I know, the writers mean well. They’re trying to convey good wishes, and they hope that I’m happy with what I’ve been doing since late April. The effect tends to be the opposite, though, especially if the message comes before August 1st. “Oh, no!” I think. “The summer is almost over, and what have I produced?” Why do we feel that we have to produce something, like an egg squeezed from a chicken, to justify three months of life?
A university, school, or anyone paying a salary can reasonably expect something from a worker who doesn’t teach or see patients for three months. That product is easiest to understand when it’s palpable: a book manuscript; a stack of articles. But even at the most prestigious research universities, teaching means more than what scholars write. What we say in the classroom will probably influence more minds than our words on a page—or nowadays, on a screen. Evaluations of academic scholars count up grants obtained and articles published, always with an eye toward “impact.” Our most valuable impact may come from a maverick idea that inspires a languishing student to think.
Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen, who earned a PhD in English literature before studying medicine, made a vital discovery in her pioneering fMRI studies of creativity. In the early 2000’s, fMRI experiments often used “rest” as a control condition and compared representations of participants’ brain activity at rest with those when they were performing some task. During the resting condition, participants were asked to lie still and not think about anything in particular. Human brains are always up to something, however, and to learn about creativity, Andreasen decided to investigate rest (Andreasen 2005, 72).
Andreasen compared the supposedly random activity of rest with that occurring when participants recalled what they had done earlier that day. When her participants engaged in undirected mental activity (as opposed to the purposeful activity in their memory task), their busiest brain regions tended to be those of association cortex, areas “known to gather information from all the senses and from elsewhere in the brain and link it all together” (Andreasen 2005, 73). Based on her fMRI studies and her interviews with creative people, Andreasen believes that extraordinary creativity may occur “when multiple regions of our highly developed human association cortex interact with one another” (Andreasen 2005, 77). Andreasen's idea harmonizes with the findings of creativity scholars Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, whose interview studies have shown that creativity often involves relating methods or ideas from one field to observations in another (Root-Bernstein 2003, 276). People may develop their most creative ideas when they are not apparently producing anything at all.
Given the state of the world at present, it is hard to justify taking a vacation, which derives from the Latin “vacare,” “to be empty, free” (OED online). I regard vacations as a privilege, since most people worldwide are struggling to survive, and stopping work would be unthinkable. Among cultures where people can afford vacations, attitudes toward them vary. In Germany where I do research, six weeks of vacation per year is considered a right of every full-time employee. Although Americans rarely say so, many of us regard vacations as an indulgence and feel guilty about the week or two we take. I sympathize with politicians and others in high-pressure jobs when it is announced—with sneers—that they are on vacation. Days on which one doesn’t work may let ideas emerge that improve one’s future work by orders of magnitude.
The metaphor of “spending” time equates time with money, reinforcing the cultural idea that we should always produce. If you “spend” time, you—or your employer--should get something for it, evidence that you have spent the time . . . productively. Human brains never punch out, but what they produce doesn’t always reveal itself in concrete form.
I take one week of vacation a year, and this year I went to Ibiza. A few days ago, I stood laughing in pounding waves as three French boys tried to clamber onto a gigantic, golden swan float. I gnawed fresh figs and plums and savored sweet melon and pineapple. I entered every snow-white church and saw that each one offered shaded benches, probably to suggest the relief offered by the Kingdom of God. To get around and help when I could, I spoke Spanish, German, French, and Italian. At dusk, I pushed a bike up a gravel road that followed a mountain stream. I stopped to listen to myself breathe and studied a square tank of water that looked like an emerald. In two hours I had to return the bike, and I had no idea where I was. Supposedly I didn’t think all week, but as I saw the news reports of violence in Charlottesville, I pictured myself in front of 60 students and imagined what I would say on the first day of class.
This month I lost a colleague, the wonderful fiction-writer Lynna Williams. Lynna produced—published, that is—one superb collection of short stories, Things Not Seen, including her marvelous tale, “Personal Testimony,” about a girl at a religious camp who invents confessions for a fee. Lynna’s real productivity, however, can’t be measured so easily. It consists of the thoughts, feelings, and creative work of the thousands of people she inspired. As a creative writing teacher, she supported not just students but colleagues, encouraging me to earn an MFA in fiction and former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey to persist with her Pulitzer-Prize winning poetry collection, Native Guard. We live in networks of relationships, and our understanding of valuable work needs to take these relationships into account.
To transcend the views that time equals money, and time spent must be justified with a concrete product, here are some alternative questions to “Did you have a productive summer?”:
Did you see something beautiful this summer?
Did you learn something that will shape your future actions?
Did you help someone who needed something you could provide?
Did you have a memorable conversation with someone you love?
Did you share an idea that inspired someone?
Did you experience a moment that made you want to live forever?
Someday if I am dying in a hospice and a young volunteer asks me about my life, I don’t want to tell her, “I was productive.” I would rather say, “I was pushing a bike up a mountain path, and I saw a water tank that looked like an emerald. In two hours I had to return the bike on the other side of the island, and I didn’t know where I was. Then a bald Spanish man came to me and asked, ‘Is everything okay?’ and showed me the way to Santa Gertrudis.”
Andreasen, Nancy C. (2005). The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius. New York: Dana Press.
Root-Bernstein, Robert. (2003). “The Art of Innovation: Polymaths and Universality of the Creative Process.” The International Handbook on Innovation. Edited by Larisa V. Shavinina. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.
"vacation, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 17 August 2017.
Williams, Lynna. (1992). Things Not Seen. Boston: Little Brown.