Alex Soojung-Kim Pang delivers a timely message that rest needs to be deliberate, or our work will become debilitating
Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Basic Books, 320 pages, $27.50, Hardcover, December 2016, ISBN 9780465074877
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang has long had an intense interest in what makes us creative, in how the process works and how we can improve it. And it just so happens that we live in an era when the scientific community is making creativity more understood and attainable than ever before, and he has taken advantage of those advances and much more to explore the topic.
What he’s found: creativity is not the product of tortured genius, or unrelenting effort, or overwork and long hours. At least sustainable, long-term creativity is not. It is the product, in part, of rest. And how did he come upon this conclusion? Not by slothily stumbling upon it, but by chasing the idea and immersing himself in the issue. In other words, by working really hard on it, which he tells us he finds “as emotionally fulfilling and essential as being in love.” This is not a man who shies away from work:
So my interest in rest doesn’t arise from a distaste for work. It starts with a sense that we should embrace challenges, not avoid them; that work isn’t a bad thing but an absolutely necessity for a meaningful, fulfilling life. But I’ve also come to see our respect for overwork as, perhaps a bit paradoxically, intellectually lazy. Measuring time is literally the easiest way to assess someone’s dedication and productivity, but it’s also very unreliable.
And just as overwork is, “perhaps a bit paradoxically, intellectually lazy,” rest is, perhaps a bit paradoxically, extremely active—and not just because Pang puts exercise and physical activity into the realm of rest where it belongs, but because the mind at rest is much more productive than we give it credit for.
Yet another counterintuitive premise of the book is that rest is a skill we must learn. He knows what you’re thinking, that “The only thing more natural than resting is breathing,” so why would we have to work on it (let alone read an entire book on the topic)? But he has a solid counter:
Yes, breathing is natural. That’s why learning to control one’s breathing is something that virtually everyone doing physically strenuous or mentally challenging work must master. Disciplined breathing is one of the most powerful tools we have to counter stress, fear, and distraction. Learning to breathe more deeply helps athletes compete harder. It helps soldiers and sailors remain calm in battle. It helps musicians sing with greater control. It enables actors and politicians to project their voices.
Rest is the same.
My favorite books are those that plumb both history and science for insights, and introduce me to new examples to frame them with. Rest has that in spades. In the very first chapter, Pang introduces us to Santiago Ramón y Cajal—one of the founders of modern neuroscience whose 1897 book, Advice for a Young Investigator, warned that overwork led to wasting energy on small and superficial problems instead of producing profound insights—and Josef Pieper, whose book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, published just after World War II, admonished that:
"The whole field of intellectual activity [has been] overwhelmed by the modern ideal of work and is at the mercy of its totalitarian claims."
Now that so much work is being automated, that “modern ideal” must change, and it is a time ripe for that change. The idea that advances in technology and automation will provide us with greater leisure is at least as old as Keynes’ Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, and yet most of us are either working longer hours than ever before or not working at all. Especially since the financial crisis of 2008, during which so many were laid off and those left in the workforce were left with even greater amounts of work to manage, we have been ever harder pressed to find time to let our minds rest at work, to let those insights and connections bubble up into our consciousness from a more introspective space. Our busyness is getting in the way of one of the most important elements of creativity—time to step away and reflect, even let our minds wander.
We blame these circumstances on forces like “automation, globalization, the decline of unions, and the growth of a winner-take-all economy” that have emerged ever more strongly since the 1970s, but Pang takes a longer view that shows it as the result of a longer intellectual history dating back all the way to Kant, and a shift from the idea that culture and knowledge are the result of a certain amount of leisure to being the result of intense labor. This solidified into the status quo with the rise of industrialization, which took work out of the home and into factories and offices, and bifurcated our daily lives into our work lives and our home lives. (Well, at least for half the population. Alex rightfully points out that “men could believe that the home was a retreat from work so long as they did no work there; for women it was a different story.”)
His argument also contains echoes of Cal Newport’s in Deep Work, noting that today’s frenetic work culture and open office environments make a faulty assumption that “new ideas emerge from a stochastic process of people and ideas bouncing off each other, from brainstorms and chance encounters, rather than from contemplation and deep thinking.” Rather, it makes our work more shallow and predictable, rather than creative and connected to the real larger whole, that outside of our offices and workspaces.
We often hit a wall when we’re engaged in rigorous intellectual pursuits. The best solution is not to bang our heads endlessly against it, but move onto other puzzles or challenges, or get away from them entirely. Doing so can reroute your neural pathways in a way that unclogs the mental block you’re struggling with. Taking a vacation from work is often the best way to reengage in our work. Santiago Ramón y Cajal knew this, as a rather romantic passage Pang quotes from Advice for a Young Investigator attests:
Even getting there can provide creative stimulus: “the powerful vibration of the locomotive and the spiritual solitude of the railway car,” he says, will often “suggest ideas that are ultimately confirmed in the laboratory.”
Of course, with our smartphones in hand, we don’t allow ourselves much “spiritual solitude” these days, even if we happen to be travelling on something as seemingly anachronistic as contemporaneously analogous to Cajal’s locomotive. But we can learn to provide ourselves with that space—that solitude, that rest—and it is essential we do so.
But it isn’t just anecdotal evidence, history (of which there is an almost ridiculous wealth of examples from) or philosophy that Pang brings to bear on the issue. Modern science is at the heart of his thesis, and proves these ideas out. What it shows is that letting our minds wander and rest is extremely productive. Modern brain imaging techniques show just how literally electric our brains are with activity when we rest and sleep, filing memories, making sense of the information we’ve ingested and untangling problems even while we’re not consciously aware of it—leading to those eureka moments and flashes of insight that are famous throughout history.
I can’t think of a better book to dive into before beginning a new year, with its requisite making of resolutions. I may even alter some of those resolutions for the better, just as rest makes our work better. It is a brilliant book, and a timely reminder that rest needs to be deliberate, or our work will become debilitating.