For some things Harvard suffices; this blog is for the rest.

On Wasting Time

When it comes to the idea that the value of creative work, which in the broadest sense includes, for example, decision making and problem-solving, is not tied to time, a story about Pablo Picasso is often cited. This story was first told by Mark H. McCormack and is probably not true, but it illuminates the main point very well:

It always reminds me of the story about the woman who approached Picasso in a restaurant, asked him to scribble something on a napkin, and said she would be happy to pay whatever he felt it was worth. Picasso complied and then said, “That will be $10,000.”
“But you did that in thirty seconds,” the astonished woman replied.
“No,” Picasso said. “It has taken me forty years to do that.”

Now, the moral of the story should be clear to everyone, so why am I writing about it?


I recently told this story to someone to illustrate another underappreciated but equally important point. I discovered, however, that I had misremembered the story—or perhaps I had heard a different version of it somewhere. In my version of the story, Picasso is sitting in a restaurant and is inspired to paint something beautiful on a napkin. Then the woman comes and wants to buy it; the story ends as usual.

This may sound like a small difference from the original—and it is—but that change can teach us a second lesson: In creative work where inspiration is important, wasting time is not a meaningful concept. Picasso may have gone to the restaurant every day for three months and never felt inspired to paint, but it is wrong to say he wasted his time. Sure, he did not produce any art during that time, but would he have been inspired on that day if he had not gone out fifty times before? Moreover, if he had not gone out at all and had a quick meal at home to “save time,” then he might not have been inspired whatsoever. There is no way of knowing how and why the inspiration struck him in that moment—and what factors contributed to it. In a sense, all the other times he painted nothing were worth it—and not “time wasted”—because of the one time he did paint something.

So not only did it take him a lifetime of learning and practice to paint on that napkin, but it also took him many dinners without inspiration; many “useless” hours away from his workplace “wasting time” in restaurants. Those hours only look wasted after the fact, but it is impossible to tell the difference beforehand.

For example, I do not get any good ideas at all on most of my walks. But most of my interesting ideas for aphorisms, essays, or AngelList, come during walks. Therefore, none of them are “wasted”; it is just not a meaningful concept. In other words:

To come up with great ideas, one has to waste a great amount of time.


I would like to end this short essay with a digression that also functions as a book recommendation. That I misremembered the story and learned something new as a result brings to mind an essay by G.K. Chesterton. In Architect of Spears, he tells the story of how an illusion helped him discover the secret truth that makes Gothic architecture so special, namely “first, that it is alive, and second, that it is on the march.”

I highly recommend his collection of essays. I am not sure I agree with him on this point, but that may just be because I have not experienced the same illusion. To change that, I am going to take a walk now and waste some time looking at Gothic architecture—maybe you should too...Maybe to be more productive, try to waste more time.