The Joy of Not Working: a book review

by Government Worker FI | Last Updated: March 19, 2019

I enjoyed “The Joy of Not Working” by Ernie Zelinski so much that I had to check it out from the library twice and am now planning on buying my own copy.  Ernie Zelinski fully strikes down any fallacies we have that working/busyness is inherently good. It also provides several great exercises on how to find happiness and fill your time if your unemployed/retired/FIRE’d/ or otherwise unoccupied.

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I do not believe The Joy of Not Working is canonical FI/FIRE literature. However, it is a perfect companion book for those people interested in financial independence.  This book has definitely changed my life for the better— let me share my story with the book.

Scathing critique of the Puritans who founded North America

The first four chapters are basically a manifesto against North America’s obsession with work.  When we meet someone, the first question we ask is “what do you do”. We then we secretly judge and size up the other person.  Having a stressful job is a status symbol today. In the Joy of Not Working, Zelinski makes the case that it’s okay to be proud of not working.  Here are some of the chapter subheadings:

This part of the book is quite humorous but also cuts deeply.  We have a problem with our jobs in North America. Unlike The Emperor’s New Clothes, nobody is willing to call us out on it, except perhaps Ernie Zelinski.

One of my favorite parts about this book dispels the myth that it is natural to work long hours.   The Joy of Not Working states that many Greek philosophers thought that work was vulgar. Furthermore, Zelinksi points out that working long hours has only started since the Industrial Revolution.  Before that, people worked much less. The book also presents data from people who live in remote areas of the world not affected by trade. These subsistence farmers perform about 4 hours of work a day. They devote the rest of their time to leisure activities.

Get a life

The remainder of the book focuses on the development of a “get-a-life tree”.  The “get-a-life tree” is the culmination of exercises presented in the Joy of Not Working and is a list of activities that you enjoy doing.  In other words, it’s a list of activities you’d enjoy devoting your life to if your job wasn’t getting in the way. Here’s what mine looks like:

I had a lot of fun creating my “get-a-life tree”.  It made me want to quit my job tomorrow and devote the rest of my life to leisure.

When I made my “get-a-life tree”, I remembered that I used to be passionate about music. One of my favorite activities was performing music for other people. Unfortunately, I decided to give up practicing music so I could be successful chasing a STEM career. Ironically, I’ve achieved my goal of being “successful”, but am not incredibly fulfilled. (Note to 18 year old self, success is overrated).

My “get-a-life tree” has definitely been the motivation I’ve needed to get serious about getting back in touch with my musical abilities. I’ve also tried to envision how I could perform with various groups in early retirement: joining a community band, volunteering to play music at a retirement home, and if I can get my sh*t together, perhaps playing at a piano bar on weeknights.  (I distinctly remember being at a piano bar at midnight on a Tuesday night and thinking “where did they find this guy”.  Perhaps it was the whiskey.  But maybe I could be the crap talent they use on off nights, if I practiced really hard...).  

Timing is everything: when I read The Joy of Not Working

I checked out The Joy of Not Working in early December of 2018.  I had some “use or lose” vacation that I had not taken and so was spending one day per week sitting in front of the fire reading books.  It was heavenly. I was spending my vacation days reading, playing piano, drinking espressos, and having creative time. (Well, I was doing that for half of the day and spending the other half cleaning the house and cooking dinner so the family could have a relaxing night).

Shortly after reading The Joy of Not Working, the government shut down. For a month. In the beginning of the shutdown, I ran the numbers and realized we could just use cash accounts/equivalents to pay for our expenses for about 18 months. (See post on privilege/advantage). And so, without the financial worries, I was quite happy to spend my days with my copy of The Joy of Not Working, dreaming of a post-vocational existence.  It was one of the happiest times in my life. I had plenty of fun times with the kids playing board games and doings crafts. I had time to work on a couple of house projects, vacuumed the whole house daily, and had dinner ready when Mrs. Gov came home from work.  It made me want early retirement so badly.

Summary:

In short, I can’t say enough things about The Joy of Not Working.  Even though it was written ca. 20 years ago, it’s still a great read.  Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to be a popular read with the FIRE community. (Based off of the fact that none of my FI/FIRE Twitter peeps follows Mr. Zelinski).  So, if you haven’t already read this book, you definitely should. Hopefully it changes your life as much as it did mine!