The only thing we need to do in a hurry is slow down.
By Ben Bull
Published March 01, 2006
A Toronto work colleague of mine recently returned from a business trip to St John's, New Brunswick.
"How did it go?" I asked him, when he returned to his desk.
"It wasn't good" he replied, "I didn't like it at all."
How could this be? I wondered. I have never been out east, but I've heard nothing but good things about the friendly natives, laid-back lifestyle and fun-loving culture over there.
"What's not to like?"
"Well," explained Dave, "Nobody is at their desk before nine."
"And the office is deserted after five."
"And worst of all," he concluded, "they take a whole hour for their lunch break!"
As I prepare for my move back to the Big Smoke I am acutely aware of the misguided work culture and furious pace of life that awaits me there.
But I am also aware that this is not just a Toronto phenomenon. It's a North American one.
By all accounts we are currently working longer, sleeping less and basically having a whole lot less fun in general. A recent health care study found that the leading cause of stress in our lives is multi-tasking.
Burn-out is reaching record proportions and a trend known as 'downshifting' – where career driven middle aged men and women forgo work advancement in favour of trips abroad, menial labour and a more relaxed lifestyle – is taking Europe by storm.
And so today, as I prepare to bid farewell to my own three hour a day commuter way of life, I am left to wonder: what does all this mean for me?
I am, by my own estimation, another "victim" of the North American work ethic. Last year I suffered my second bout of burn-out.
After my first – inflicted after two long years as an agency nurse in Toronto's overburdened hospital system – I vowed never to let it happen again.
Yet there I was, in the doctor's office on Hamilton Mountain, stressed out, shaking, and apologizing profusely for wasting her time.
"I don't know if I can handle this again," I said to my wife when I got home. "Something has to change."
And so, as I set off down another new path I wonder just how much we North Americans truly appreciate the lifestyle we have adopted.
How much do we recognize the effects that our fear-mongering amphetamine-fuelled work culture is having on our collective mental health?
Sometimes, after conversations like the one with Dave, I find myself asking a more worrying question: do we understand it at all?
My perspective on all of this, and my decision to make my own round of lifestyle changes, comes from more than just a couple of cases of burn-out. There are six key events that stand out in my memory.
The first happened 16 years ago. I was backpacking around Greece when I found myself wandering around the beautiful island of Corfu.
The pedantry lifestyle of the locals, as they whiled away their days sipping thick coffee in the shade, was a complete enigma to me.
Even as a laid-back traveler I found myself tied to a schedule, eager to keep busy, always planning the day's events.
But then one day, as I headed for the beach to meet a group of friends, I came face to face with a serious looking local.
"Stop right there!" he yelled, holding up his hand.
"Erm, can I help you?"
"You are going too fast!"
"You need to slow down, my friend," he advised, before sloping back to his seat on the patio to sip his coffee.
As I walked away I found myself facing the unusual predicament of focusing on my pace. My first stuttering attempts at slowing down made me feel like a soccer referee, pacing out the ten yards from the wall to the free kick. I felt stupid.
Evidently I looked it too as Spiros and his mates began laughing and yelling and pointing in my direction. "More! More!" they shouted, which I took to mean, you have a whole lot more slowing down to do.
By the time I reached North America six years later, I was well and truly back up to speed. But no matter how much I did, and how fast I went, I felt like everyone else on this continent: unfulfilled.
There was always more to do, and everything could always be done better. Today was always just another bad day and tomorrow, well tomorrow I would just have to try a little harder - again.
After hitting the wall the first time, I became more aware of the futility of this way of life. No one ever told me to slow down and I was rarely sought out for any special praise at work.
Everything was geared to making me work faster and try harder.
I read Stupid White Men by Michael Moore around this time. There is a passage in there about the culture of job insecurity in the nineties. Moore explains how he shared a plush New York apartment building with several big-wig 'white CEO's'.
"They didn't seem very worried," Moore observed, as he noted their unabated expenditures and increasing propensity for rounds of golf in the afternoon. All this while their supposedly "struggling" business empires circulated rumours of impending job losses courtesy of the "weakening economic climate".
Also around this time the Green Party of Canada exploded onto the national scene. Party leader Jim Harris ran in my riding and I found myself transfixed by the manifesto laid out in one of their pamphlets.
The Green Party's platform was like a bizzaro world of radical pronouncements, such as the "Four day working week for all Canadians!" This wasn't so much a mandatory requirement, they said, as a recommendation for healthy citizens, and a healthy country.
Sounds good to me, I thought. Where do I sign up?
At the time I became a little obsessed with this idea. Wasn't working only four days a week just plain old lazy? How can we live on less money than we have now? I wondered.
It was as if the whole idea of some sort of 'alternative lifestyle' - or anything remotely removed from the North American norm - was more than my conforming nature could handle. Who am I to do things differently?
But no matter how much I pondered this idea, four days a week was simply not an option to me. Interest rates climbed, kids kept popping out and the bills kept on coming.
A few years later, after my move to the Hammer and an interesting lifestyle change called a commute, I found myself hurtling headlong into another burn out brick wall.
Only this time I saw it coming. As my workload thickened and my pulse rate quickened, and my quest for that ever elusive happiness crept further and further from my grasp – I knew exactly where all this was going.
"I have to make a change," I said to the HR lady at work.
"What do you mean?" she asked, as if she'd never seen a burnt out employee before.
"It's happening again."
The nice lady told me that I "couldn't possibly" go and work for myself, or make any kind of significant change, because "You need the benefits. And besides, we don't have any sort of flexible work arrangements to offer."
I told her she "better get some" as I explained my intention to take three months off "whether you like it or not."
Several months later, I found myself working yet another new job, my third in three years, and resuming my GO train routine. However, this time I gave myself an upgrade, to VIA rail.
The first thing I noticed about the VIA, apart from the plush seating and expensive tickets, was the camaraderie. People talk to you on the VIA.
One evening I got talking to a workaholic immigrant from India. He told me he had lived in Ancaster for about 15 years and loved it. His morning commute involved a 4.30 AM wake-up call, and a 6:00 AM boarding of the early bird VIA.
His ride home usually coincided with the 5.45, "but not always," he told me. "Sometimes I have to work late," he explained, "And catch the 7.15."
This guy wasn't even complaining. At the same time, I was working for a client in downtown TO who lived in London, Ontario.
This lady, who had two young children, explained how she came into Toronto every Monday, stayed in a hotel all week, and was "lucky" enough to go home on Thursday night and spend her Fridays working from home.
"Don't you find that hard?" I asked her, after she'd given up trying to put a brave face on it.
"Yes," she agreed, looking exhausted,. "Something has to change."
The last moment of my lifestyle epiphany came just last week. I am reading the wonderfully lighthearted Southern Ireland travelogue, McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy (Hodder and Stoughton, 2000).
McCarthy, an Anglo-Irishman, captures the very essence of the laid-back Irish culture in his bar-hopping quest to uncover his true identity - and never pass a bar with his name on it.
Between his bouts of inebriation, McCarthy makes some startling observations about his "almost" native land. His comparison between tourist riddled Dublin and everything to the south is particularly telling.
Dublin, and its ever increasing sphere of influence, operates increasingly along such alien notions as a full appointment book, designated quality time, and death by stress. But once you cross the Shannon, different rules of time apply. Most people still understand the crucial secret of human happiness: that's it's better to do a few things slowly, than a lot of things fast.
This year I decided to work four days a week. I decided to work for myself. And I decided to embrace my new life in Toronto's downtown St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood.
I hope to be able to walk to work, or at least take public transit, and maybe ditch the car altogether. I hope to work less, rest more, and maybe get a little sleep.
I hope to stop fretting about the past, the present and the future and think about enjoying my life for once. I hope at least to get a glimpse of what it means to live for today, and be happy.
It's a lot to hope for, and living in North America as I do, I know it's not going to be easy. But if I've learned one thing so far in my life, it is simply this: the only thing we need to do in a hurry is slow down.
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