Former Googler attempts to live a more idle life
“You sit at a desk twelve hours a day and you have nothing to show for it except some numbers that won't exist or be remembered in a week. You're leaving no evidence you lived. There's no proof.” -- The Circle, Dave Eggers
“We are at the global epicenter of busyness,” Joe Cannella said, munching a scone at a bustling San Francisco Tuesday-morning cafe. “The cultural line is that tech will set us free, but everyone is working on the tech and not much on the being free part.”
It’s been over two years since Cannella made the move from tech to freedom, when he quit his nine-year tour of duty in Google’s ad sales department. For most of the time since, he has been documenting this transition on his blog Idle Times (tagline: “Together, we can do less”).
I first met Cannella last spring, at one of San Francisco’s thousands of startup happy hours, where he and his wife were slinging samples of their premium cinnamon liquor, the first offering from Cannella Spirits (cannella is Italian for cinnamon).
The cinnamon cordial now has a distributor and can be found in five (fairly posh) San Francisco bars, and four spots in the East Bay, zeroing in on the high-end Fireball market, hoping to become mixologists’ cinnamon ingredient of choice.
At the coffee shop on Tuesday morning, Cannella withdrew a small jar filled with brown powder from a pocket.
“Everything the company does will be cinnamon. I’m creating a spice blend, sourced from four different countries. Did you know they grow cinnamon in Madagascar? My plan is to go over, meet the farmers, understand how it gets from there to here.”
The spiced spirits are just one aspect of what Cannella says he hopes for, and chases.
“Personally, I want a hybrid existence,” he says.
In addition to the liquor and the (free) newsletter, Cannella has recently begun doing some coaching, specifically around how to make time for oneself, and how to figure out what to do with said time.
In this regard, he’s recently distributed a free five part “course” in attaining idleness, and has just launched the Idle Thirty Challenge, “a four-week challenge to take thirty minutes a day for yourself.”
“To me idleness is not the same as laziness. Laziness is not living your life, not paying attention. I’m a big fan of action actually,” Cannella said.
For him, that meant leaving an unfulfilling job. He was burnt out, he says, and had returned to work after a profound health scare “With fresh eyes, some kind of PTSD, and the realization that Google (ironically) did not have the answer. I planned my escape.”
Cannella’s story of employee dissafection at Google lacks the shock value of the accounts of Amazon’s “purposeful Darwinism” that surfaced last week in the New York Times.
“Employees have to be aware and make their own choices. well-treated employees stick around longer. At Google, burnout happens on a time delay,” Cannella said. “It’s a very comfortable environment to hang out in everyday, there are mental wellness retreats, yoga...but it’s all under the company umbrella, which makes it difficult to find the right balance,” he said.
“Burnout seeps in around the edges when you become sort of Google-branded as a person.”
Cannella credits the British author Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler, as an influence in his initial change of course, but says recently his interests have ventured older, citing E.F Schumacher’s 1973 “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered” and the Whole Earth Catalogue. Some of his principles are even older than that.
“I think we should bring back neurasthenia as an acceptable diagnosis: like a way of saying, I’m burnt out, and it’s not good for anyone. There is a taboo around that.”
He’s also a fan of technology.
“The plan is that the tech replaces more and more work. I’m for a 0 marginal cost economy, and I’m a small part techno-utopian. But I think the social side is underdeveloped, and the tech is carrying things forward.”
He says most of the people that he talks to have come to the idle arts from the negative time loops of overly busy lives. They generally have had a recent adverse experience, or just an extended vacation, or a maternity/paternity leave – “With these sorts of things people gain perspective and ask themselves, why would I want to go back? Anything that shakes you can be useful.”
For the shaken, Cannella says he’s built a process for reclaiming one’s time, sustainably -- it’s about making a plan, having an accountability partner and setting up the right structure. Oh, and finding out what you want to do. While many projections get made about the trajectory of Silicon Valley tech, few people concern themselves with the outcomes for the region’s workers. What are their exits? What comes next?
“I don’t preach quit your job and follow your passion. I think you should just at least find what that is, but everyone is not going to have some burning passion. It’s more just a completely selfish goal for a more interesting world.”