In his latest book philosopher Ollivier Pourriol shows how taking it easy à la française can reap rewards. Here’s an extract…
This book came about as the result of a conversation with my publisher and friend, Elsa Lafon. It’s important to specify “friend” because we weren’t working at the time, we were just having dinner. It wasn’t a professional discussion; I wasn’t there to outline a project or negotiate a contract. It was just a conversation for conversation’s sake, over a simple family meal and a good bottle of wine. In fact, I can’t even remember what we were talking about – maybe about the children, who were still running around and should have been in bed. What effort we expended – to no avail – trying to get them to do what we wanted! Maybe it would have been best just to ignore them and wait for them to tire themselves out. Sooner or later they’d go to sleep. After all, that night was slightly special: there was no school the next day. What greater pleasure, for a child, than to end up falling asleep on the sofa, lulled by the adults’ conversation? Late to bed, happy to bed – it makes for sweet memories. “How right you are,” Elsa said. “Why struggle? Let’s have another glass of wine.”
A few minutes later the children were gently sleeping, through no effort on our part, without our even noticing. “In the end it was easy,” Elsa said. And I think that’s when we started talking about it. Ease – what a marvellous subject. We always think we have to make a huge effort in order to get good results, that we have to suffer to be beautiful and must work hard for everything, whether it’s seducing someone, or learning to play the piano, or tennis, or to speak a foreign language. Even therapists talk about “working on yourself”, because we are taught at a very young age that everything must be earned, that effort brings just rewards, and that nothing comes from nothing. But I am convinced that the opposite is true. In certain cases, making an effort is not just useless, it’s actually counterproductive. No one ever became more beautiful by suffering, for example. Unless they love suffering for its own sake. Beauty rests rather on serenity, on tranquillity, on being at peace with oneself. I’m not saying there’s no point making any effort at all, but rather that there are some goals that can only be reached indirectly. By sincerely abandoning any attempt to attain them. Without aiming for them. In other words, easily. Seduction, for example: what could be less seductive than someone who’s trying to seduce you? It’s too direct – there’s no room for naturalness, or imagination. If you try, you’re bound to fail. In fact, you’ve failed before you’ve even started. It’s obvious: when you’re trying to get someone to like you, you become clumsy, precisely because you’re trying not to be. But the reverse is also true – what could be more seductive than someone who isn’t making a play for you, who’s happy just to be, and do their own thing? Seduction is the art of succeeding without trying, without taking aim. It’s a question of charm, really. In essence, it’s a foregone conclusion. And we know it. Either there’s a magnetism between two people or there isn’t. So why bother being shy, or paralysed by your goal? There is no goal, no target to be hit, no mountain to be climbed.
Take cooking, for example. Think of the times you’ve been chatting away to a friend, enjoying yourself, and forgot to turn down the gas on the hob. Oh well, those onions will be nicely caramelised now. It even holds true for washing up: when you burn a pan the best thing is to let it soak, rather than to scrub at it like a maniac. I’m not saying you should never scrub, but that you need to know when there’s no point scrubbing. Letting time do its work doesn’t mean you’ll never do any yourself. It just means working more efficiently.
I love airport books, the kind you buy just before you get on a plane, that you read while looking out the window. Books you read out of the corner of your eye, but which imperceptibly change your way of seeing and behaving. Not quite philosophy, not quite journalism, nor personal development; more like a journalism of ideas, along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell. He gets interested in an idea, investigates it to see how it has changed people’s lives and then writes an article or a book on it. If I had to write an airport book, I’d write one about ease.
Elsa put down her glass. “So when do we publish?”
This book was born that day, out of a conversation that was going nowhere in particular, over a dinner between friends. It too was born out of the corner of someone’s eye, in keeping with its subject: easily. It wasn’t a project, there was no effort to make, no prior intention, no one to convince, no negotiation. It was just perfectly obvious.
Extracted from The French Art Of Not Trying Too Hard by Ollivier Pourriol (Profile, £12.99).
Ollivier Pourriol was a guest on A Drink with the Idler on Thursday 11 February. Click here to watch the interview