Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too

By ALEX SOOJUNG-KIM PANG

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.

Anyone who reviews his schedule cannot help but notice the creator’s paradox. Darwin’s life revolved around science. Since his undergraduate days, Darwin had devoted himself to scientific collecting, exploration, and eventually theorizing. He and Emma moved to the country from London to have more space to raise a family and to have more space—in more than one sense of the word—for science. Down House gave him space for laboratories and greenhouses, and the countryside gave him the peace and quiet necessary to work. But at the same time, his days don’t seem very busy to us. The times we would classify as “work” consist of three 90-minute periods. If he had been a professor in a university today, he would have been denied tenure. If he’d been working in a company, he would have been fired within a week.

It’s not that Darwin was careless about his time or lacked ambition. Darwin was intensely time-conscious and, despite being a gentleman of means, felt that he had none to waste. While sailing around the world on the HMS Beagle, he wrote to his sister Susan Elizabeth that “a man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” When he was deciding whether or not to marry, one of his concerns was that “loss of time—cannot read in the evenings,” and in his journals he kept an account of the time he lost to chronic illness. His “pure love” of science was “much aided by the ambition to be esteemed by my fellow naturalists,” he confessed in his autobiography. He was passionate and driven, so much so that he was given to anxiety attacks over his ideas and their implications.

John Lubbock is far less well-known than Darwin, but at the time of his death in 1913 he was “one of the most accomplished of England’s amateur men of science, one of the most prolific and successful authors of his time, one of the most earnest of social reformers, and one of the most successful lawmakers in the recent history of Parliament.” Lubbock’s scientific interests ranged across paleontology, animal psychology, and entomology—he invented the ant farm—but his most enduring work was in archaeology. His writings popularized the terms Paleolithic and Neolithic, which archaeologists still use today. His purchase of Avebury, an ancient settlement southwest of London, saved its stone monuments from destruction by developers. Today, it rivals Stonehenge in popularity and archaeological importance, and its preservation earned him the title Baron Avebury in 1900.

Lubbock’s accomplishments were not just in science. He inherited his father’s prosperous bank and turned it into a power in late Victorian finance. He helped modernize the British banking system. He spent decades in Parliament, where he was a successful and well-regarded legislator. His biography lists 29 books, a number of them best sellers that were translated into many foreign languages. Lubbock’s output was prodigious, notable even to his high-achieving contemporaries. “How you find time” for science, writing, politics, and business “is a mystery to me,” Charles Darwin told him in 1881.

Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five.

It might be tempting to imagine Lubbock as a modern equivalent of today’s hard-charging alpha male, a kind of steampunk Tony Stark. Yet here’s a twist: His fame as a politician rested on an advocacy of rest. Britain’s bank holidays—four national holidays for everyone—were his invention, and they sealed his popular reputation when they went into effect in 1871. So beloved were they, and so closely associated with him, the popular press christened them “St. Lubbock’s Days.” He spent decades championing the Early Closing Bill, which limited working hours for people under 18 to 74 hours (!) per week; when the legislation finally passed in April 1903, 30 years after he first took up the cause, it was referred to as “Avebury’s Bill.”

And Lubbock practiced what he preached. It could be hard to manage his time when Parliament was in session, as debates and votes could extend well after midnight, but at High Elms he was up at 6:30, and after prayers, a ride, and breakfast, he started work at 8:30. He divided his day into half-hour blocks, a habit he’d learned from his father. After long years of practice, he was able to switch his attention from “some intricate point of finance” with his partners or clients to “such a problem in biology as parthenogenesis” without skipping a beat. In the afternoons he would spend a couple more hours outdoors. He was an enthusiastic cricketer, “a fast, left under-hand bowler” who regularly brought professional players to High Elms to coach him. His younger brothers played football; two of them played in the very first FA Cup finals in 1872. He was also fond of fives, a handball-like sport that he mastered at Eton. Later in life, when he took up golf, Lubbock replaced the cricket pitch at High Elms with a nine-hole course.

So despite their differences in personality and the different quality of their achievements, both Darwin and Lubbock managed something that seems increasingly alien today. Their lives were full and memorable, their work was prodigious, and yet their days are also filled with downtime.

This looks like a contradiction, or a balance that’s beyond the reach of most of us. It’s not. As we will see, Darwin and Lubbock, and many other creative and productive figures, weren’t accomplished despite their leisure; they were accomplished because of it. And even in today’s 24/7, always-on world, we can learn how to blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative, and happier.

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