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Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: The importance of doing nothing

Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: The importance of doing nothing
Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: The importance of doing nothing

A couple of weeks ago, I was leaving an alumnae gathering when one of our alums ran after me with a book in her hand. I glanced down and saw that the title was “How to Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell. I looked up, and her knowing smile told me everything. “I thought you could use this one,” she said. 

Since then, I have been intrigued and, at times, mesmerized by the thought of doing nothing. It seems that everything in our culture, and I will admit, especially a school culture, works against that notion. The search for purpose in our lives is often tied to a list of accomplishments. Productivity is a badge of honor and is valued along with efficiency and excellent time management. Multitasking is seen as a good thing — even, heaven forbid, when we are driving a car.   

Some may say that the Protestant work ethic helped form the early achievement-oriented culture in this country, and it has endured for generations. Some say that idleness is a bad thing and something to be avoided at all costs. The culture of busyness and productivity has only increased with modern technology. We expected computers and iPhones to give us more free hours in the day by giving us a world of reference information at our fingertips. Instead, these devices have given us the ability to accomplish more — or to be distracted by more. Sitting still and thinking or letting the mind wander is almost unheard of with technology always in hand, but that calm is extremely important in clearing the clutter in our minds and lives.

We can all learn a valuable lesson by being able to do nothing at all. It is important for our girls and for us, as parents, to know life doesn't always have to be about moving from one task to another. There is power in being comfortable in our own company. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is simply sit with our thoughts. It doesn't mean we are being lazy; instead, we are giving our minds a rest and letting our creativity and emotions breathe.

These moments of deprogramming our minds from life’s fullness and complexity can be productive in a different way. A recent article in Quanta Magazine reviews neuroscience that shows "even when we’re daydreaming or at rest, our brain is hard at work making it happen." It is what brain researchers call "default mode." Vinod Menon, the director of the Stanford Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Laboratory, theorized that brain functions during "default mode" may be helpful in constructing an internal narrative. In his view, the default mode network helps individuals think about who they are in relation to others, recall past experiences, and then make connections to create a coherent self-narrative.

This approach is not without its challenges. It requires us to redefine success, to honor the quiet moments as much as we do achievements, to be comfortable with stillness, and to listen attentively. This can be as simple as spending a few minutes each day without any screens, devices, or distractions. Even just sitting quietly, listening to nature, or letting the brain catch up to the experiences of the day can make a tremendous difference in how our girls feel and how they approach their challenges.

For our girls, learning to enjoy their own company and to be at peace with their thoughts is crucial. It teaches them self-reliance, emotional resilience, and the importance of self-care. Moments of doing nothing can actually be some of the most productive times, allowing girls to recharge and reflect on who they are and who they want to become.

In the unscheduled moments, we find not emptiness but fullness. By doing nothing, we find our creativity, our joy, our resilience, and our deepest selves. It is a lesson that will illuminate our girls' paths long after they leave our halls. 

Perhaps this talk of doing nothing is a justification for the downtime that many of us will experience during the upcoming school break. I hope at some point over the next 10 days, each of you will have a chance to do nothing — absolutely nothing.

Happy Spring Break!