Rest By Alex Pang: Summary & Key Quotes

Rest By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

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My Short Summary

Alex Pang makes sense of the idea of “rest” through his own journey taking a sabbatical after leaving Academia and the corporate world. What he discovers is that we have lost connection with an ancient idea and broader conception of Leisure as one of a mix of contemplation and action. He explores how our modern work beliefs have crowded out rest – both the active kind (like exercise) and passive kind (contemplation) – in favor of the 40+ hour work week and being “productive.” An antidote to our empty work beliefs. Recommend.

Key Themes & Quotes

When our identity as a person becomes too wrapped up in being a worker we become lost

How taking an identity as a “worker” undermines your existence

If your work is your self, when you cease to work, you cease to exist.

The business world has been overtaken by a cult of “busyness” where we have lost the connection between “hard work” and “good work.” Americans are uniquely obsessed with work and have some of the worst problems with overwork in the world, dating back hundreds of years.

William James diagnosis on Americans

Consider William James’s diagnosis of overwork in his 1899 essay “Gospel of Relaxation.” He argued that Americans had become accustomed to overwork, to living with an “inner panting and expectancy” and bringing “breathlessness and tension” to work.

In 1899 William James noted that that many Americans had gotten “into a wretched trick” of overwork and overextension, which increased “the frequency and severity of our breakdowns.” An anonymous writer in Singapore’s Straits Times observed in 1913, “The tendency of the present age is to mental overwork and the exhaustion of the brain force.” Two years later, Bertie Charles Forbes noted that the modern industrialist “works harder than any of his workmen,” and the banker “gets early to his office and performs more work—and brainier work—than any other three men in his nerve-wrecking profession.” Such men had made America the envy of the world, he said, but they were “committing suicide by overwork.”

And the modern cult of busyness and “performing busyness”:

As a result, service workers and professionals are rewarded not just for performing work but also for “performing” busyness at work.

Today’s workplace respects overwork, even though it’s counterproductive, and treats four-hour days as “contemptibly slack,” even though they produce superior results.

On how companies are manipulating people based on our broken ideas of leisure to get people to stay in the office:

As sociologist William Davies argues, today’s workers are told that passion is their greatest asset and that they should do what they love (or at least love what they do); employers, meanwhile, have come to see happiness as a strategic resource that boosts employee productivity, decreases absenteeism and turnover, and increases customer satisfaction. In a few very privileged companies, where competition for talent is ferocious, this translates into free food, entertainment, on-site dry-cleaning, and other perks; elsewhere, it’s deployed as a kind of weaponized positive psychology, in which automated systems watch for signs of discontent, negative voice tone during customer phone calls, and indicators that happiness is at suboptimal levels. In environments like these, the ability to detach from a workplace that wants to commoditize your emotional life, and to cultivate a private life rather than succumb to easy alternatives that keep you in the office, is more valuable than ever.

Leisure once had a deeper meaning – it used to be an active engagement with life through contemplation or engagement in things that brought you alive. Our modern conception of it is as a passive pursuit and often merely in the aim of “recharging” for work.

The Roman and Greek conceptions of leisure and rest:

Of course, I can’t claim any special insight here. The ancient Greeks saw rest as a great gift, as the pinnacle of civilized life. The Roman Stoics argued that you cannot have a good life without good work. Indeed, virtually every ancient society, recognized that both work and rest were necessary for a good life: one provided the means to live, the other gave meaning to life. Today, we’ve lost touch with that wisdom, and our lives are poorer and less fulfilling as a result. It’s time we rediscovered the good that rest can do.

Referencing Josef Pieper and his discussion of work in Germany after World War II, he references Piepers idea of leisure that seemed to be lsot in the culture

Pieper described as not just a “result of spare time” but “an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm.”

This idea of leisure – one of “inward calm” was slowly eroded and then looked at skeptically and ow dramatic this shifted our culture:

Anything created through contemplation (or religious revelation, or intuition) was, by definition, less impressive and trustworthy.

These philosophical arguments might seem arcane, but the assumptions that knowledge is produced rather than discovered or revealed, that the amount of work that goes into an idea determines its importance, and that the creation of ideas can be organized and institutionalized, all guide our thinking about work today. When we treat workaholics as heroes, we express a belief that labor rather than contemplation is the wellspring of great ideas and that the success of individuals and companies is a measure of their long hours.

Pieper shares the idea of the ratio and the intellectus, which is that ideas can be formulated through work (ratio) or intellectus (spiritual means):

Devoting yourself only to the first (to ratio, in other words) and neglecting the second (intellectus) might make you more productive in the short run but will make your work less profound in the long run.

Another example from history, he cites Sun Tzu

Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “It is the unemotional, reserved, calm, detached warrior who wins, not the hothead seeking vengeance and not the ambitious seeker of fortune.” In The Book of Five Rings, written around 1645, Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi advised, “Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm.”

Breaks can be vitally important, but a vacation within the context of full-time work probably will only give you 3-4 weeks of relief

At this rate you’d need to take a week vacation every month to really “recharge”

Psychologists have since discovered that a similar effect holds for even relaxing vacations: the benefits don’t last very long. When they measure mood, energy levels, engagement, and happiness levels among workers before and immediately after a vacation, then weeks or months later, psychologists find that the emotional boost that a vacation provides lasts about three or four weeks. After that, your happiness and job satisfaction levels return to their prevacation levels: it’s “lots of fun, quickly gone,” as one article puts it. (And for perfectionists and workaholics, the fade-out effects happen even faster.)

Looking back in history, you find many prolific creators did not work as the people we glorify today. There is a consistent convergence around 4-hours of deep work. Our modern work culture has lost connection to good work because we orient around a 40-hour work week instead of looking at the worth of the output.

Here is how Darwin spent his day”

After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by eight and worked a steady hour and a half.

At nine thirty he would read the morning mail and write letters. Downe was far away enough from London to discourage casual visitors, yet close enough to allow the morning mail to reach correspondents and colleagues in the city in just a few hours.

At ten thirty, 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 three he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk around the Sandwalk, then return to his study until five thirty, when he would join his wife, Emma, and their family for dinner. On this schedule he wrote nineteen 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.

Anyone who reviews his schedule cannot help but notice the creator’s paradox.

Henri Poincaré

Toulouse noted that Poincaré kept very regular hours. He did his hardest thinking between 10 a.m. and noon, and again between five and seven in the afternoon. The nineteenth century’s most towering mathematical genius worked just enough to get his mind around a problem—about four hours a day.

A study of scientists in the 1950s:

A survey of scientists’ working lives conducted in the early 1950s yielded results in a similar range. Illinois Institute of Technology psychology professors Raymond Van Zelst and Willard Kerr surveyed their colleagues about their work habits and schedules, then graphed the number of hours faculty spent in the office against the number of articles they produced. You might expect that the result would be a straight line showing that the more hours scientists worked, the more articles they published. But it wasn’t.

The data revealed an M-shaped curve. The curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between ten to twenty hours per week. The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent twenty-five hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working thirty-five hours a week were half as productive as their twenty-hours-a-week colleagues.

It looked something like this:

Companies and people find tremendous value in taking extended leave – sabbaticals – and they are probably underutilized in modern society – both for individuals and within companies

He is a big fan of sabbaticals, having discovered the idea for his first book during his own sabbatical. Here is an example from Korea he mentions:

Organizations can also benefit from sabbaticals, as the experience of Samsung Electronics shows. In 1990, when it was still struggling to expand outside Korea, Samsung started an overseas sabbatical program for its most promising executives. Every year, two hundred people attended a three-month boot camp heavy on language immersion, meditation, and education in local customs; they then headed off for six months to one of eighty countries, where they learned the local culture, made friends, and essentially played amateur anthropologist; they then spent another six months working on a business-related project of their own design. Within a decade, the experiences of these graduates were contributing to Samsung’s dizzying rise as a global brand. Today, graduates of the sabbatical program are among the company’s most senior executives, both in Seoul and around the world.

He cites the example of Stefan Sagmeister who gave a TED talk about he takes a year off from work every seven years.

“EVERYONE WHOSE JOB description includes ‘thinking’ or coming up with ideas will benefit from” taking a sabbatical, Stefan Sagmeister says. His

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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