Who hasn’t dreamt every now and then of saving up enough money and retiring to live contentedly in some earthly paradise? This was Tom Wilson’s plan, the main character in Somerset Maugham’s 1935 short story, The Lotus Eater. Wilson is a hard-working bank manager in London, who at the age of 35 loses his wife and daughter, two of the worst setbacks anybody could suffer. Hoping to forget his sorrows, he travels to Italy, where he visits the island of Capri, an idyllic spot that bewitches him.
Upon returning to his routine job in London, Wilson begins planning early retirement in Capri. Now without familial responsibilities, he believes that his pension from early retirement, along with the sale of his house and his savings, will provide him with enough money to survive for the following couple of decades, given that the average life expectancy in the early years of the twentieth century for men was around 60. Wilson puts his plan into action and begins to enjoy a frugal, but peaceful, life in Capri.
Time passes by inexorably, and after two decades of the contemplative life, his income has dwindled down to nothing, at which point he decides to end his own life. He locks himself in his room, lights a charcoal fire that will fill the room with carbon monoxide and poison him, and lies down on the bed to die. But the next day, he is found unconscious, but alive. However, the fumes have left him brain damaged. Wilson lives on for a few years more, penniless, on the margins of the community, and sleeping in a shed provided by his former employees. In the final lines, the narrator, commenting on Wilson’s situation, notes: “I think on the whole we all get what we deserve," … "But that doesn’t prevent its being rather horrible."
Maugham’s assertion that “we all get what we deserve” is arguable, particularly bearing in mind the role that moral luck can play in our lives. In any event, we make decisions at important moments in our lives that influence the rest of our existence. The Lotus Eater provides a good example of what can go wrong when we prematurely retire to earthly paradises without sufficient funds to live comfortably. At the very least, if we were to take such a decision, it would be advisable to build a business, or to look for a job in the paradise of choice; and not simply to finance a life the duration of which we cannot guess, but also to keep us in form physically and mentally.
This is not a view that Wilson shares: "Leisure," …"If people only knew! It’s the most priceless thing a man can have and they’re such fools they don’t even know it`s something to aim at. Work? They work for work’s sake. They haven’t got the brains to realize that the only object of work is to obtain leisure."
Do you share Wilson’s opinion? Interesting enough, a recent Gallup survey shows that just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work. Around the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of employees who feel engaged at work is only 13 percent (1). In light of this, it seems likely that most people would leave their jobs tomorrow and head of to their respective paradises were their fortunes to improve dramatically, for example by winning the lottery or inheriting a large sum of money.
Wilson lost his family: it is clear that one of the main reasons that we continue to work is to sustain and improve the living conditions of our loved ones. That said, I would like to look at some of the internal reasons that motivate us to keep working, and that have to do with the job itself and our personal disposition, rather than external factors, such as raising a family.
We’ve all had rainy days at work. On such occasions, like Wilson, we might find ourselves dreaming of flying off to some paradisiacal destination where we could spend the rest of a tantalizing trouble-free life. What measures can we take to improve our disposition towards work, to enjoy it, and even be happy carrying out our profession? Below are a few suggestions:
- In the first place, enjoying your work depends primarily on you, and nobody else. Your proactive approach and mood are decisive when it comes to changing things in the workplace. If you will allow me to paraphrase a renowned piece of advice: do not think what the others, your boss, and your colleagues, can do for you at work; rather, think what you can do to turn your company into a respected and preferred organization.
- Put together a short, positive pitch about your job and responsibilities, your achievements and professional objectives; something along the lines of the kind of presentation you might make at your child’s school on parents’ day. Try to make this presentation inspiring, and that would earn you your listeners’ praise. I am convinced after doing this a couple of times you will feel a stronger bond with your work.
- Think about and plan out your company’s development objectives, and how you would like your career to advance over the next five years, and taking into account the training and education that might be required for this.
-Set out the most important tasks for the coming few days. Some people believe that during leisure time it is essential to disconnect completely from work. I don’t agree. I think that work and leisure should flow naturally in your life. If you come up with good ideas during free time, write them down or record them.
- Similarly, prepare your free time so that you can properly enjoy your hobbies and leisure pursuits. Some people see free time as a blank space, or decompression chamber. This might be understandable in the aftermath of particularly stressful periods at work, but it is a good idea to plan for and diversify leisure activities.
-One final piece of advice. Look into the progress that has been made in positive psychology in recent years. If you think that you need outside help, talk to a coach about how they can help you focus on your career.
Wilson’s choice for Capri is easy to understand. The Island has long provided a refuge for emperors, writers, aristocrats, and business people. Over the centuries, many people have succumbed to the beauty of its landscape, the charm of its people, its benign climate, and its wonderful food. It is an island on a human scale, where each stopping off point can be travelled on foot, its landscape verdant, colorful, and perfumed. The views out to the Faraglioni, of the sea from Monte Solaro or Villa Tiberio, or of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples are among the most lovely anywhere on earth. Maugham describes the Piazza in Capri as, “a perfect setting for an opera by Donizetti, and you felt that the voluble crowd might at any moment break out into a rattling chorus.”
In short, it’s the perfect paradise for “il dolce far niente”. Sadly, any latter-day Wilson considering retirement to Capri would have to find far greater resources than our hapless bank manager: the island is now one of the most expensive places in Europe to live.
Maugham took his title from Homer’s Odyssey, which at one point tells of an island whose inhabitants consume lotus leaves, which induces in them a state of akrasia, or indolence, allowing them to forget their homelands and families and to live contentedly. But let’s not kid ourselves: Wilson’s is very much a cautionary tale.
(Photo: View of the Faraglioni and Cape Punta Tragara from the Island of Capri)