When you examine the lives of history’s most creative figures, you are immediately confronted with a paradox: They organize their lives around their work, but not their days.
Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking. Their creativity and productivity, in other words, were not the result of endless hours of toil. Their towering creative achievements result from modest “working” hours.
How did they manage to be so accomplished? Can a generation raised to believe that 80-hour workweeks are necessary for success learn something from the lives of the people who laid the foundations of chaos theory and topology or wrote Great Expectations?
I think we can. If some of history’s greatest figures didn’t put in immensely long hours, maybe the key to unlocking the secret of their creativity lies in understanding not just how they labored but how they rested, and how the two relate.
Let’s start by looking at the lives of two figures. They were both very accomplished in their fields. Conveniently, they were next-door neighbors and friends who lived in the village of Downe, southeast of London. And, in different ways, their lives offer an entrée into the question of how labor, rest, and creativity connect.
First, imagine a silent, cloaked figure walking home on a dirt path winding through the countryside. On some mornings he walks with his head down, apparently lost in thought. On others he walks slowly and stops to listen to the woods around him, a habit “which he practiced in the tropical forests of Brazil” during his service as a naturalist in the Royal Navy, collecting animals, studying the geography and geology of South America, and laying the foundations for a career that would reach its peak with the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. Now, Charles Darwin is older and has turned from collecting to theorizing. Darwin’s ability to move silently reflects his own concentration and need for quiet. Indeed, his son Francis said, Darwin could move so stealthily he once came upon “a vixen playing with her cubs at only a few feet distance” and often greeted foxes coming home from their nocturnal hunts.
Had those same foxes crossed paths with Darwin’s next-door neighbor, the baronet John Lubbock, they would have run for their lives. Lubbock liked to start the day with a ride through the country with his hunting dogs. If Darwin was a bit like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, a respectable gentleman of moderate means who was polite and conscientious but preferred the company of family and books, Lubbock was more like Mr. Bingley, extroverted and enthusiastic, and wealthy enough to move easily in society and life. As he aged, Darwin was plagued by various ailments; even in his 60s, Lubbock still had “the lounging grace of manner which is peculiar to the Sixth-Form Eton boy,” according to one visitor. But the neighbors shared a love of science, even though their working lives were as different as their personalities.
Even in today’s 24/7, always-on world, we can blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative, and happier.
After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half. At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and set out on a long walk on the Sandwalk, a path he had laid out not long after buying Down House. (Part of the Sandwalk ran through land leased to Darwin by the Lubbock family.) When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters. At 3 he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk around the Sandwalk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife, Emma, and their family for dinner. On this schedule he wrote 19 books, including technical volumes on climbing plants, barnacles, and other subjects; the controversial Descent of Man; and The Origin of Species, probably the single most famous book in the history of science, and a book that still affects the way we think about nature and ourselves…