How to Be Free

by BUST Magazine

A few years ago, my career suffered two brutal blows. A job that I once called a dream turned ugly and abusive, and the one that followed blew up in my face. After my parents’ divorce, it was the most severe trauma I had endured, and it left me mentally bruised and battered, a fragment of the person I once was. I grew up amongst the ambitious and the driven, where the importance of a career was rammed down my throat from teachers, parents, and friends. Post-college, it was rare to go to any social engagement without being asked “what do you do?” The moment I could no longer answer that question, age 32 without a “career” to boast of, I retreated from all occasions where I’d be reminded of my job-less insignificance. I was lost and afraid.

Three years have passed and I can hardly connect with the experiences I detail above. Not because I’ve latched onto another career (I haven’t), but because when shit hits the fan, twice, you can either continue the vicious cycle, or buckle down and challenge the hell out of why and how you got there in the first place. I chose the latter, helped along by my dear cousin Lilly, who, after hearing me mourn the passing of my sexy music biz career, pointed me in the direction of Tom Hodgkinson, British writer, loafer, and founder of magazine, The Idler and its spin-off best-sellers “How To Be Free” and “How To Be Idle.”

Idleness is not a popular concept in capitalist societies; laziness is derided, hard-work lauded, and guilt the predominant feeling when one is not working. So Tom Hodgkinson’s mere suggestion of taking long lunches or doing away with competition, reads like “The Anarchist Cookbook” to the ever-obediant worker. “How To Be Free” is divided into 29 chapters, among them “Banish Anxiety, Be Carefree,” “Reject Career and All Its Empty Promises,” and “Death to Shopping, or Fleeing the Prison of Consumer Desire.” “How to Be Idle” suggests one should stay in bed until at least 10am, take an afternoon nap, and have your first drink of the day at 6pm. It sounds gloriously preposterous, and so much of it is! But is it any more so than the extreme value we’ve put on money and useless possessions? Or that we feel worthless without a career, or that working hard is valued more highly than taking care of your loved ones, or the environment, or your friends. It’s one thing if you’re working numerous jobs to put a roof over your head and food on the table, and we should all be outraged by the decline of the living wage. But I’m talking about those who writer Tim Kreider describes in his brilliant New York Times piece “The Busy Trap”–the ones “whose busyness is self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily…..because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

I know so many people, who in the absence of a job or during a slow period in their freelance career, lose confidence and get depressed. They’ve got the savings to cover more than the basics, but they can’t possibly enjoy life without work. One very close friend didn’t even enjoy going out for a drink because he didn’t feel he deserved it without a job. Work hard during the day and then go for a drink–that’s allowed. But no pleasure can be enjoyed without the preceding toil.

Perhaps part of the problem is that as work becomes more money-centric and less vital, we mask its uselessness with unwavering dedication to what we do. Tim Kreider points out that “more and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary.” Yet we act as if what we do is so important. Hell I certainly did. “Every man, woman, and child should be able to cook, clean, and change a plug,” writes Hodgkinson. “We are in danger of becoming a radically useless world of computer-game players.”

I remember one night after work, I received a particularly brutal e-mail from my boss, and awoke at 3am, shaking uncontrollably and not being able to breath properly. At what point should I have told myself, I work in A&R, finding talent for a record label. I’m not saving lives. I’m sacrificing my own, over an argument about artwork. RIDICULOUS, Enough is enough. In Japan there is a word for dropping dead on the job. Many modern-day diseases are linked to the high-stress levels that plague many work environments. In “How To Be Idle,” Hodgkinson speaks of a man named Samuel Peps, who underwent an “immensely painful operation to remove a kidney stone, and did not rush back to the office 36 hours later. He had the right to a full 40 days recovery period.” That idea seems ludicrous today. Most are too busy to take care of even themselves, and no boss is going to allow their employees even a week’s rest and recovery without a fight. And let’s not talk about maternity leave or care for the elderly. Time away from work to take care of a baby or a grandparent? There’s work to be done, goddammit!
I like to remind myself often that I’m going to die one day, because once that fact starts to sink in, taking shit from a boss, slaving away at a job you despise, allowing yourself to be brainwashed by the finger-waggers just seems downright silly. I’ve taken Tom Hodgkinson’s advice and returned to what I love–music and writing, which I spend time on every day because I enjoy it and it’s starting to result in some paid work. I’m boss-less and free of the 1 1/2 hour commute I did each way for years. I havent quite gotten to the point of cutting up my credit card and abandoning my hope of a house in Palm Springs, but I’ll get there.

The manifesto-esque table of contents of “How To Be Free”

1. Banish Anxiety: Be Carefree
2. Break the Bonds of Boredom
3. The Tyranny of Bills and the Freedom of Simplicity?
4. Reject Career and All Its Empty Promises
5. Get Out of the City?
6. End Class War
7. Cast Off Your Watch
8. Stop Competing?
9. Escape Debt
10. Death to Shopping, or Fleeing the Prison of Consumer Desire?
11. Smash the Fetters of Fear?
12. Forget Government
13. Say No to Guilt and Free Your Spirit
14. No More Housework, or the Power of the Candle?
15. Banish Loneliness?
16. Submit No More to the Machine, Use Your Hands
17. In Praise of Melancholy?
18. Stop Moaning, Be Merry?
19. Live Mortgage-Free, Be a Happy Wanderer
20. The Anti-Nuclear Family
21. Disarm Pain?
22. Stop Worrying about Your Pension and Get a Life
23. Sail Away from Rudeness and towards a New Era of Courtesy, Civility, and Grace?
24. Self-Important Puritans Must Die?
25. Live Free of the Supermarkets
26. The Reign of the Ugly is Over; Long Live Beauty, Quality, Fraternity
27. Depose the Tyrant Wealth?
28. Reject Waste; Embrace Thrift?
29. Stop Working, Start Living

-Sheila Burgel

Order “How To Be Idle” on
Order “How to Be Free” on

Thanks to Sheila Burgel for this piece, which we reposted from her website. The original post can be found on ChaChaCharming.

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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