Nautilus

Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too

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.

The National Archives and Records Administration


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

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