A Short Treatise On Rest

Commonplace Newsletter #30

Welcome readers to the latest of Thomas J Bevan’s weekly essays on life, literature and flâneury. 

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I try not to be too didactic with these newsletters. Telling people what to do- even if you know it is for their own good- is largely a waste of time. It is neither effective or persuasive, for the most part. And so I refrain.

But. Sometimes exceptions have to be made. A point I obliquely stress again and again here is that rest is vital. Essential. Yet, I suspect it goes unheeded for the most part, which is a great shame. So, against some of my instincts, I am going to be much more overt and quotation-based as I attempt today to make the case for everyone to relax and take it easy much more often than they do at present.

I think this idea is especially important given that these newsletters go out on Sundays, the day of rest. I believe everyone should fully embrace this day in these terms.

Rest is for me, as with everything worthwhile, something that is an end in itself and not a means. Deep relaxation is one of the things that simply makes life worth living. But as I understand that many still have much school and workplace fostered ‘hustle and grind’ programming floating around inside them, I am going to begin this argument in hustle cultures own terms. Because even if you want massive success and prestige meaningful rest will prove essential in actually getting you to that mountaintop.

Allow me to explain…

A Reclining Turk Smoking a Hookah by Henri Baron. This guy gets it.

The Gospel or Relaxation

As anyone who has ever taken bodybuilding seriously knows, it is during the periods between workouts that the muscles repair and in doing so grow. As anyone who has ever taken an artistic pursuit seriously knows it is during the time away from the desk and the studio- during walks, during naps, during baths- that the Muse whispers in your ear and the good ideas strike you like lightning.

The times outside of the work itself are where the magic happens. Yet the work must be done for these to occur. And for the work to occur, rest must be taken, and taken seriously.

As with so many other dichotomies, the work/rest dichotomy is a false one. The relationship is in fact symbiotic.

The fatal mistake that most of the multitude who have become drunk on hustle cultures intoxicating output make is to see rest as a mere physical necessity (and one that can be ameliorated with prescription stimulants at that).

Seeing rest as a mere inconvenience or an unfortunate negative space to be endured is a mindset that ironically holds the ambitious back. If only there were a story to explain all of this- perhaps an anthropomorphic one- featuring, say, an animal symbolic of steady and consistent progress, for example a tortoise, competing in a race against an animal that symbolises inefficient haste, say, oh I don’t know, a hare. One written in a way that a child could comprehend. If only.

But anyway. This misguided culture of overwork is not a new problem.

In 1899 William James wrote, in an essay called The Gospel Of Relaxation that Americans lived with an ‘inner panting and expectancy’ and so brought this ‘breathlessness and tension’ to the work they performed. Again, consider the athlete and the artist: being tight and wound up and tense during those activities is simply ineffective, if nothing else.

Rest is not a tax, it’s an investment. And like investing it is predicated on patiently waiting for the compound interest to accrue, and sticking to your guns whether the majority move in the opposite direction or not. The investor who wins in the end is the one who manages to stay in the game without burning out and burning through their resources.

Rest is a strategy. Longevity is the key (and thus burnout is the enemy) and so strategic, meaningful, deliberate rest is absolutely essential. It is quite literally the only way, the only known antidote to burnout.

So as work and rest are symbiotic, the only way to truly maximise intentional work and deliberate practice is to also cultivate deliberate rest.

But it goes deeper than that…

Rest and The Good Life

Only in recent history has ‘working hard’ signalled pride rather than shame.

~Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

If I were to indulge conspiratorial thinking I might conclude that the promoting of the getting up ultra-early, working 12+ hour days, push through the pain mentality is being done by figures who deliberately want others to fail. That’s how woeful ineffective all of this is. Maybe this is all a misinformation campaign to eliminate potential sources of competition? Who can say.

Frantic, aimless, perpetual, machine-gunning of energy is simply a woefully poor way to get the target hit. Much better to go the suitcase and telescopic lens and church tower route. The route of hitting the target with a single shot after all of the necessary calm preparation. Assassin and not clueless spree shooter is the way.

But I wonder what’s at the root of the ubiquitous quantity is better than quality misapprehension? Even the most cursory skim through the lives of the masters will yield quotes such as:

The greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less.

~ Leonardo Da Vince

Or

Either work all out or rest completely.

John Littlewood, Mathematician

And if you dig even a little into the science of top performance you will find again and again the fact that the human brain is capable at the absolute most of four hours of honest-to-God deep work. The kind of deliberate practice that actually leads to improvement and eventual mastery.

Sure you can add another eight hours of diminishing returns, tiring futile busywork on top of that so you can tick off a metric and brag about the extent of your ‘grind’. But do you actually want to improve or do you want to show off to a bunch of strangers on the internet?

Do you want to do what feels right or do you actually want to achieve what you say you want to achieve?

(This uncharacteristic little bout of tough talk comes because I suspect the young male contingent of my audience need to hear this message the most and so I have to calibrate my tone to what they have been trained to understand. Eventually age teaches you about rest and burnout, but it is a tough lesson to learn through experience. I’m trying to help them avoid that. Women, for what it’s worth, tend to have a bit more sense when it comes to this kind of stuff.)

It all comes down to actually treating yourself like someone you care about. And to reiterate the point yet again: beyond happiness, beyond quality of life and physical well-being, masochistic, self-flagellatory, every-waking-moment work practices are simply ineffective in achieving your ambitions. There is nothing ethical about this kind of work ethic.

Further- what does it say about your self-conception if you treat yourself this way? Life brings suffering enough all on its own without us opting to add on extra portions for no reason. The goal of the work, presumably, is to create a better quality of life for yourself. But cultivate the habit of self-denial that borders on self abuse and you will never be able to enjoy it should this waving mirage of a goal ever actually arrive. You have to take the direct path. And the direct path involves learning to enjoy life now, as much as you are able.

Knowing your limits is strength not weakness. Sleeping when you are tired is sensible. Pursuing hobbies and play and fun is what life is all about.

It’s sad that I have to say all of this, which to my mind all seems obvious to the point of redundancy, but such is the upside-down world that we currently find ourselves in.

The ancients saw leisure as the highest form of living, while also valuing physical fitness, mental agility, honour, wisdom and the arts. It seems we have lost our way from the good life and have become one dimensional. Rest is instrumental in finding our way back.

A Few Practical Tips To End On

‘It is neither wealth nor splendour, but tranquility and occupation, which give happiness.’

~Thomas Jefferson.

As I alluded to at the beginning, this weeks missive is somewhat of a departure from our usual routine, as I feel compelled to give more out-and-out advice. Desperate times call for desperate measures and to my mind the ‘hustle crisis’, to coin a phrase, is pretty desperate indeed.

Being stressed out and overworked does not indicate that you are serious and conscientious. If anything it’s the opposite, a dereliction of duty, a misguided (and often virtue signalling) approach which ends up contributing to the squandering of your gifts. A serious people nurture their talents, unserious people allow them to atrophy via overuse, via running around in circles.

This point is only counterintuitive because of the extent that the world has lost its way.

So what can be done?

Well to my mind there are three obvious remedies, each of which could be the subject of its own newsletter.

Firstly, there is the idea of scheduling rest. Guilt free, unapologetic, fully indulged in rest. Whether it be napping, reading under a tree, whatever helps you to relax and let go of the death-grip that you have on the idea of work.

Second, is to start taking play much more seriously. A change is as good as a rest, as my grandmother used to say and this is profoundly true. Get a proper hobby, one that has scope for improvement and mastery. Something that is rewarding for its own sake. Something that is energising and makes you feel refreshed and filled with a new perspective once your return to work itself.

And lastly, really look at and contemplate the work itself. In my observation overworking comes as a result of doubling down on work that is unfulfilling and lacks meaning as a means of hoping to transcend it. Again, try to get on the direct path.

I know this is easier said than done and I myself have spent many a year in dead-end minimum wage jobs feeling trapped and lost. I get it, I truly do. But you have to at least acknowledge problems and see them for what they are and at least begin the work of self-understanding, self-respect and indeed self-love if you are to ever go about the business of becoming your true self.

Now that’s more than enough self-improvement type advice for one week, I’m off to take a nap on the sofa.

Until next time.

Live Well,

Tom.


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Cheers.

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