The Low-Down, Dirty-Rotten, No-Good Worship of Work
Our Greatest Achievements were Born of Leisure, but We Remain Committed to a Culture of Burnout.
I like the story of Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity. You’ve heard it: he’s sitting under an apple tree on the farm, and an apple bonks him on the head. From this, he theorizes that there is a constant pull upon all objects and presto! a new science is born. Of course, it didn’t happen quite like that; Newton’s noggin was apple-free. The story does, however, tell us something important about his scientific methods.
Newton had entered school in Cambridge in 1661, but an outbreak of plague sent him home again to Woolsthorpe Manor and the family farm. (Sound familiar, parents?) He spent the next two years at his leisure, kicking up his heels in the family orchard, and during that time, he developed his theory of universal gravity. He published his first principle about it after returning to Cambridge — but you can hear about his apple adventure in the words of his friend and biographer William Stuckely:
“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some apple trees… he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind…. occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood.”
This is the 17th century, and Newton was comparatively well off. After a dinner someone else prepared, the gents went along with their tea into the grove, all lace and fine leggings. A polymath, Newton was a mathematician, physicist, astronomer, and theologian, and is often called the greatest and most influential scientist of all time. But his best ideas? He came up with those on vacation.
Let us consider another great: Charles Darwin. He was a naturalist, and yes, that was an official job. It entailed taking a lot of walks, collecting stuff, drawing pictures in notebooks. I am being a bit tongue-in-cheek here, but think about what this “job” must have looked like to the other crew members of the HMS Beagle. (If you spent all day hauling ropes on a 90-foot long ship you might not be wholly impressed with an insect collection).
Darwin’s voyage brought him to the Galapagos, where he would collect the finches that later helped him theorize about evolutionary principles. It would have been hard going in cramped conditions, but Darwin didn’t come up with his ideas on the ship. He did that at home, on a spreading estate, as the son of a wealthy physician who had married the even wealthier daughter of industrialist Josiah Wedgwood.
Darwin was a Gentleman Naturalist. That means other people’s money funded his long hours collecting native plants at home and reviewing his notebooks from the Beagle. He didn’t need a university position and didn’t want one; he never went on to any graduate level study. Instead, his days passed quietly in tranquil countryside as he worked on his book — for twenty-eight years. He boarded the Beagle in 1831; his Origin of Species published in 1859, a leisurely pace to be sure.
Newton and Darwin had a thing or two in common, namely family money. If you didn’t have to spend all day in back-breaking labor (and you were curious and intelligent) you could do rather a lot. It explains why so many of the early discoveries were made by “gentlemen” scientists, naturalist, and chemists, people who never had a 9 to 5 in their whole lives. You might say the latter-day Thomas Edison was an exception, himself a product of industry and used to long hours… but Edison had a whole workshop of other people to put in the graft for him (though he got the credit for all inventions). And if we are going to talk electricity, we have to consider Nikola Tesla, who came up with the electric motor on a walk through the park while convalescing from illness. As it turns out, some of our best and brightest ideas have come from having down-time. A lot of it. So why do we revere and reward long hours of painfully intense work?
The United States has been called the “most overworked nation in the world,” with 85.8 percent of men and 66.5 percent of women working more than 40 hours per week. The “cult of overwork,” as its sometimes called, considers the exhausted worker a marker of success.
You might think that COVID would have changed things for us, with more people working from home and re-evaluating their priorities. But studies from May of 2021 suggest we are putting in an average of 9.2 hours a week of unpaid work. That’s up from 7.3 percent in the year before. In fact, losing the boundary of “at work” and “at home” is part of the increase. An extra Zoom meeting when you would have been on a commute home, or messages on Slack, WhatsApp, and Gchat proliferate with after-hours emails. It’s quite literally killing us.
Why do we do it, then? In 2014, the New Yorker called devotion to work a cult — and that its devotees get a sense of purpose and even excitement from the practice:
“We glorify the lifestyle, and the lifestyle is: you breathe something, you sleep with something, you wake up and work on it all day long.” (Anat Lechner, clinical associate professor of management at New York University)
But do we really glory in this abuse? Or is it something hardwired into the systems of which we are part? We can trace it, perhaps, to the “Protestant work ethic,” which equated morals and profit. Acquiring wealth could be saintly; spending it, sinful. You can see how such an idea would reward someone who always worked and never played. Then again, it began in the 16th century, before Newton or Darwin, and it is a particularly American phenomenon (due to the way it took root in the colonies). It might explain why burnout is so prevalent in the US, but not its by-now global and epidemic status.
Jobs are precarious, unemployment high. For many, the loss of a single paycheck is more than they can bear. If you work in a culture that sees overwork as better, as more likely to lead to success and progress, you can’t help but try and keep up. The problem may have roots in industrialization itself, with quantity over quality, fabrication over craftmanship.
It seems we have lost sight of two things. First, the power of creativity and its role in the progress of any field… And second, the now-proven fact that creativity is enhanced by rest and decreased by over-exertion. The latest research on the brain proves that working fewer hours each day actually makes you smarter. In particular, brain scans reveal that moments of creativity take place when the mind rests.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, suggest that burnout culture is influenced by mechanics; more work=more productivity might be “true of machines,” but it doesn’t work for people. We have made the mistake of adjusting ourselves to the machinery, instead of the machinery to ourselves.
The truth is, there are systemic, overwhelming reasons for the worship of work — and that includes divisions that are economic, class-based, and frequently racist in nature. Leisure increasingly belongs only to the 1%, our modern day “gentlemen farmers” who have set their sites on space travel and Mars colonization, among other things. Meanwhile, those who toil in the factories and service jobs, and even those who are researchers, academics, and health workers, work far more than 40 hours a week. How many breakthroughs have never happened because those with the mind and heart to make them never had time off? How much of our own creativity has been stifled because a weekend is scarcely enough time to get the other things done, much less to sit reflectively in an apple orchard with tea and scones?
Burnout and overwork remain critical problems, and for most of us, there isn’t a lot we can do about it. After all, it isn’t usually the workers that venerate overtime. Even so, perhaps we can try. I know I’ve been setting new boundaries since the pandemic — refusing to open some emails or to respond after hours, and carefully curating what events and projects I’ll agree to. I’ve also let other things slip; clean up the kitchen or take a long walk? I’ll take the walk. Minor things, I know. But worth it to combat the low-down, dirty-rotten, no-good worship of work.