Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Arts (page 1 of 2)

“the key to his fantastic work… was that he was phenomenally boring”

Sophie Beck’s essay on Joan Miró gets at something important:

I came to believe that the key to his fantastic work, to the sheer volume of work—he kept working without pause from age nineteen to ninety—was that he was phenomenally boring.

Miró didn’t do the sorts of things I can sensationalize—he just dug in and worked after a sensible breakfast like an accountant sitting down to his ledger. I stopped, aware that everything I had to say of Miró had boiled down to the subject of ordinary toil.

According to his friend and biographer Jacques Dupin, Miró’s routine and life were “utterly free of disorder or excess…. Nothing is left to chance, not even in his daily habits: there is a time to take a walk, a time to read, there is a time to be with his family and there is a time to work.”

There’s boring, and there’s boring with a purpose. Miró was the second.

Creative professionals are overworked (surprise!)

According to Fast Company,

A new survey suggests creative professionals are being asked to do more work in less time–and it’s taking a toll.

The survey found that

the speed at which creative teams are expected to work and the volume of demand for their work were respondents’ No. 1 and No. 2 concerns, respectively.

Part of what’s happening is that while the “strategic” importance of design is considered greater than ever, the field is still very much at the beck and call of others: almost 40% of respondents said they have 50 or more internal stakeholders they need to deal with.

Another issue is that while the work of creating and editing any individual image may be easier (no more pots of glue and Xacto knives), the total number of images you have to produce has gone up dramatically. It’s no longer enough to do one web site; you have to optimize for different browsers, for desktop/tablet/mobile, maybe for different countries and languages. In fact, according to a 2011 survey, “71% of creative workers were producing 10 times more work in 2015 compared with 2010.” (My emphasis, because that statistic is totally insane.)


Plenty of mundane tasks endemic to creative work have been automated–but others haven’t. 46% of the survey’s respondents report spending three to seven hours a week on administrative tasks, like chasing briefs and getting projects approved. 34% spend a whopping seven hours a week on administrative work–that’s almost a full day out of a 40-hour work week.

(I suspect that the automation of mundane tasks is a really good way to tell if a job is valued.)

Anyway, it’s another reminder that, as I argue in Rest, just because you “do what you love,” you shouldn’t do it 24 hours a day– especially if you have to do it for dozens of different clients, some of whom will want different and mutually exclusive things, and many of whom knowingly exploit your passion and pride in your craft.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: “I should take more vacations”

the room where it happens!

It’s always worth repeating: Lin-Manuel Miranda came up with the idea for Hamilton while taking his first vacation since In the Heights. Now that Hamilton is opening in London, it’s worth revising the story.

As I explained in Rest,

Lin-Manuel Miranda had the idea for Hamilton when he read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton during a vacation to Mexico. He had been working for seven years on his play In the Heights, and as he later put it, “the moment my brain got a moment’s rest, Hamilton walked into it.”

Miranda is one of many people who had great ideas on vacation: Princeton physicist Lyman Spitzer came up with the design for a fusion reactor while skiing in Aspen; the agile software development manifesto was written at a ski lodge in Utah; and 20% of startup founders say they got the idea for their companies while on vacation.

Fortunately, while he’s been busy taking advantage of the crazy variety of offers that the success of Hamilton has brought him, the Guardian notes that Miranda recognizes that rest is important, too:

These are manic, sometimes confounding times for Miranda. Hamilton took the best part of six years to write but now life seems to be happening in fast-forward…. He would also like to start work on a new musical, but he probably just needs to lie in a pool to figure out what the subject is.

“You’re right,” he exclaims, “I should take more vacations, thank you! Yeah, that is the hardest lesson to take hold of: the good idea comes when you are walking your dog or in the shower or resting. And waking up from sleep. I don’t believe it’s an accident that on my first vacation from In the Heights, the best idea of my life shows up. So I have a couple of ideas, but I’m waiting to see which one grabs hold and doesn’t let go.”

So Lin-Manuel fans, don’t worry too much; the odds are good that at some point he’ll slow down, go on vacation, and figure out the next musical.

Hyejin Kang’s Sequence 01

One of the nice things that comes from publishing a book like REST is that it connects you with some pretty interesting readers. In the old days, this used to happen in slow motion: while I was researching REST, I spent a very happy couple days in the British Library, working through the papers of John Lubbock (who I introduce in this excerpt in Nautilis), and reading the letters sent to him by fans of his essay on the importance of rest.

British Library

Today, that connection happens a lot more quickly: I’ll see people following me on Twitter or Facebook. Which is how I found out about the work of Hyejin Kang, including this awesome piece, Sequence 01:

“vacations meant rather a variation of mental employment than absolute rest of mind”

In Rest, I talk about several people who became noted literary figures, but had careers in other fields. JRR Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, was a professor at Oxford; Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, was a theatre manager; James Herriott was a Yorkshire vet. For these people, I argued, writing was a kind of “deep play,” a form of active rest that was both mentally engaging and challenging, and yet also psychologically restorative and rewarding.

Another great example of a figure whose literary second life was deep play is Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. As most of us know, Dodgson was a mathematics professor at Oxford (though one biography describes his work as “rather conservative but certainly thorough and careful”), but he was most famous for Alice in Wonderland.

Not surprisingly, Dodgson was also a great fan of the theatre, as Stuart Dodgson Collingwood’s The life and letters of Lewis Carroll explains:

From early college days he never missed anything which he considered worth seeing at the London theatres. I believe he used to reproach himself unfairly, I think with spending too much time on such recreations. For a man who worked so hard and so incessantly as he did ; for a man to whom vacations meant rather a variation of mental employment than absolute rest of mind, the drama afforded just the sort of relief that was wanted. His vivid imagination, the very earnestness and intensity of his character enabled him to throw himself utterly into the spirit of what he saw upon the stage, and to forget in it all the petty worries and disappointments of life. The old adage says that a man cannot burn the candle at both ends ; like most proverbs, it is only partially true, for often the hardest worker is the man who enters with most zest into his recreations, and this was emphatically the case with Mr. Dodgson.

So one can add Dodgson to the list of people who learned how to practice deliberate rest.

As I explain in Rest, it really is that the case that “often the hardest worker is the man who enters with most zest into his recreations,” as Collingwood puts it. Or as the great neurologist Wilder Penfield put it, “The best rest for doing one thing is doing another until you fall into a sound sleep…. Real rest from the day’s job is doing something else, doing something that brings you delightful preoccupation such as come to a child in his play.”

This is a perspective on rest that has fallen out of favor, but which I think well deserves to be revived.


“By exercising and exhausting myself, I can get to restful states much quicker:” On exercise and creativity

In the BBC Radio 4 show The Quest for Rest, poet SJ Fowler talks about the creative value of working out. We often don’t think of working out as a form of rest, but in fact it is for lots of people, and it is for him. “By exercising and exhausting myself, I can get to restful states much quicker,” Fowler says. “Rather than having to take a lot of time trying to mentally calm myself, I can sweat it out immediately by exercising.”

This is a pattern I devote a chapter to in REST: a lot of very creative people integrate long walks and exercise into their daily routines, and they do so with an eye to being more creative. Fowler’s remarks, though brief, are a good illustration of this pattern.

First, he says, “I’m definitely using exercise to get to certain states of mind where I can be creative.”

This is one reason walking is so popular: it’s super-accessible, something we can easily do, and as the work of people like Jenny Roe and Marily Oppezzo have shown, it stimulates at least some kinds of creative thinking. There’s a good reason the phrase “solvitur ambulance“– it is solved by walking– was a commonplace of philosophers and theologians from ancient times.

Path from Cambridge to Madingley

Hiking also has a stimulating effect. For others, swimming, with its repetition and solitude, provides a state where ideas can flow.

Fowler continues, exercise can also be a way of “switching the mind off… [a] direct way to take yourself out of yourself, to stop thinking about what you’re doing.”

This is a different but equally important use of exercise for creative thinkers. While moderate exercise is an opportunity for mind-wandering, extreme exercise is a way to work yourself into a state of mental exhaustion, and to have a break from work.

For really creative people who otherwise have a hard time switching off their brains, having a practice that gives them a mental break is really critical. Exercise is very popular, though by no means is it universal: Winston Churchill loved watercolor painting because it so completely occupied his attention, it gave him a rest from work.

"Armed with a paintbox, one cannot be bored"

However, exercise is the route for lots of other creative, driven people. Alan Turing, for example, ran long distances because his computer research was “such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard.” No one who’s familiar with Turing’ life can have any doubt about his intellectual ambition and capacity for obsession. But he recognized that the way to do that was not to obsess over work 24/7, but to have some times when he wasn’t consciously thinking about computers.

Likewise, Charles Darwin saw the virtue of taking his mind off research that otherwise would occupy him day and night. As Darwin told his publisher when he received the page proofs for Origin of Species,

You may rely on it, that my extreme wish for my health sake to get the subject temporarily out of my head, will not make me slur over the proofs: I will do my utmost to improve my style” (my emphasis).

Darwin felt the need after nearly twenty years to have a break from thinking about evolution “for my health sake,” but he still dealt with the edits. You gotta respect his game.

A few years later, when he tried riding as a break, his second cousin William Fox wrote to Charles about its virtues: “You get air and exercise without fatigue and must perforce, give that big brain of yours some rest” (again my emphasis).

Third, Fowler says, “I’ve trained myself to look forward to those moments… [and] the consciousness-changing effects of exercise.”

This is a very important point. We’re not just born with these abilities. We can develop them.

Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock was famous for taking long walks to get into a more creative state. McClintock was the discoverer of “jumping genes” and one of the twentieth century’s great geneticists, and she was famous for taking long walks to think. As Nathaniel Comfort wrote,

One of McClintock’s favorite pastimes was to walk the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory grounds. Rain or shine, from at least the early 1950s through the 1980s, alone or with a friend, she hiked through the woods or strolled down Bungtown Road to the Sand Spit and back. Evelyn Witkin recalled that “every couple of feet she would see something growing that she would point out to me and give me a little lecture about it.” The walks, though relaxing, had a serious component. Out in nature but near the lab, these walks led to a string of minor discoveries that sparked her synthesis of the races of maize and controlling elements. On these walks, she integrated heredity, development, and evolution.

McClintock first felt herself able to control and really use this process in her early 40s, when she was working on the tiny chromosomes in the plant mold Neurospora.

Beautiful day at Stanford

She later recalled a long walk around the Stanford University campus during which she did some “very intense, subconscious thinking,” culminating in her literally visualizing the solution to a problem that had eluded other geneticists, including her friend and fellow Nobel laureate George Beadle, the world’s expert on Neurospora.“I jumped up, I couldn’t wait to get back to the laboratory,” she told Evelyn Fox Keller; “I knew I was going to solve it.”

Stereotypical Stanford Quad picture

Her Stanford walk, she later said, was the first time she felt she had mastered the process. Previously, McClintock said, walking had only episodically worked as a tool to stimulate her creativity; after her Stanford visit, she claimed, she could “summon it when needed,” and “use it in the service of scientific discovery.”

The habit of integrating exercise into your daily routine, and particularly in doing so in a way that aids your creativity, is not one that comes automatically; for lots of people it takes time and patience to see the results. But the benefits are long-lasting.

“The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton’ walked into it”

“It’s no accident that the best idea I’ve ever had in my life — perhaps maybe the best one I’ll ever have in my life — came to me on vacation,” Miranda said.

“When I picked up Ron Chernow’s biography [of Hamilton], I was at a resort in Mexico on my first vacation from ‘In The Heights,’ which I had been working seven years to bring to Broadway,” he continued. “The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton’ walked into it.”

Source: Lin-Manuel Miranda: It’s ‘No Accident’ Hamilton Came To Me On Vacation

Mind-wandering and Edge of Tomorrow

One of my favorite movies is the under-appreciated Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt movie Edge of Tomorrow, in which Cruise has to relive a disastrous battle hundreds of times— but thanks to Emily Blunt, is able to survive a little longer each time, and ultimately manages to save the day. (That would be a spoiler alert except even if you haven’t seen the movie you know that’s what’s going to happen.)

It never occurred to me to treat it as a metaphor for mind-wandering, but Paul Bloom did, in an essay in The Atlantic:

You probably aren’t living in the moment. Most people spend their leisure time in imaginary worlds—reading novels, watching television and movies, playing video games and so on. And when there isn’t a book or screen in front of us, our minds wander.

This seems to be the brain’s natural state. Neuroscientists describe the brain regions involved in mind wandering as the “default network,” so-called because it’s usually humming along, shutting down only when something demands conscious attention.

He then brings in the movie:

It takes place in a near future in which the Earth is attacked by aliens. Tom Cruise plays a public relations officer with no combat experience who ends up engaged in battle, and is promptly killed. For reasons too complicated to get into here, he finds himself in a time loop, and is reborn before the battle begins, with memories of the events leading up to his death. He is able to learn from his past experience, and so he fights over and over again, getting better each time, until ultimately he defeats the aliens. The movie’s tagline is: Live. Die. Repeat….

The experience of repeated failure is unpleasant, especially if you’re stuck in a time loop. But one can see how it would be an extraordinary power to repeatedly explore one’s options and learn from failure, with no real permanent consequences.

And this is what we do with our imagination. We use simulated worlds to prepare for the real one.

In other words, unlike distraction (which often seems similar), mind-wandering allows us to safely explore future scenarios, including unpleasant ones, and think out potential solutions or ways of avoiding them.

Anyway, Bloom’s is a nicely-done piece, and a good introduction for those who aren’t familiar with this particular advantage of mind-wandering.

“This is an attempt to make the two-dimensional book into three-dimensional ambience and experience”

As someone who’s done plenty of readings at bookstores (and, I hope, will do plenty more in 2016!), I really appreciate the thinking behind Morioka Shoten, a bookstore in Tokyo which only stocks a single book each week.

Morioka Shoten is a tiny bookstore of “a Single Room with a Single Book” in Tokyo. It sells only one book; more precisely, multiple copies of one title that changes weekly, with a small book-inspired art exhibition on the walls. Its challenging, minimalistic philosophy and well-curated shows attract numerous visitors from all over the world…. It’s a place where a blissed conversation between readers and authors emerges through slow reading – just like a Japanese traditional tea room.

As owner Yoshiyuki Morioka explains in The Guardian:

This bookstore that sells only one book could also be described as ‘a bookstore that organises an exhibition derived from a single book’. For instance, when selling a book on flowers, in the store could be exhibited a flower that actually appears in the book. Also, I ask the authors and editors to be at the bookstore for as much time as possible. This is an attempt to make the two-dimensional book into three-dimensional ambience and experience. I believe that the customers, or readers, should feel as though they are entering ‘inside a book’.

It’s completely different from the kinds of bookstores we’re familiar with, but I’d be interested to see what it’s like for myself. For me, part of the pleasure of bookstores is that they’ve got lots of books, and afford a measure of serendipity: you wander in just to have a look, and walk out with an armful of books you never knew existed.

What I’m thinking about is a bookstore like this one in Vienna (the picture is mine from a couple years ago):


Or the magnificent Topping and Company, in the wonderful medieval town of Ely:

Best. Bookstore. In England.

Compare that to Morioka Shoten (from Takram Design Engineering):

Earlier this week, my daughter took me to Alegio Chocolate, a store in Palo Alto that sells chocolate that’s grown and processed from a plantation in São Tomé and Príncipe. You eat it incredibly slowly: it’s so pure, and real chocolate is so complex and unfamiliar, that you need to really take your time with it. (It’s also eye-waveringly expensive, thanks to the total absence of vanilla, soy lecithin, and other additives.) It makes for a very different experience than you normally have with even good chocolate: it requires a kind of patience and concentration that we don’t normally given to food. It would be really interesting to have that same experience applied to a book.

Silence as performance art

It’s kind of amazing that this needs to be a thing, and can be seen as an avant-garde phenomenon: a distraction-free concert.

In classical circles, a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by a rising-star pianist like Igor Levit would be enough to compel attention…. Yet this week, at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory, Levit’s live performances will be surrounded by an additional artistic program that is meant to complement the presentation of Bach’s enduringly popular piano work. For these dates, Levit is collaborating with artist Marina Abramović on an installation environment, intended to deliver the audience into a collective state of purer listening.

Upon entering the Armory, ticket-holders will be presented with numbered keys, which will lead to individual lockers installed in the venue’s spacious foyer. Inside a specific locker, each audience member will find an initial round of instructions (to surrender their cellphones, watches, computers, and other trappings of the distracted self). Then, in the Armory’s massive Drill Hall space, attendees will be given noise-canceling headphones before choosing one of the reclining deck chair-style seats (arranged in the round).

At first, there will be nothing at all in the auditorium’s makeshift center. And for 30 minutes, listeners will be required to wait, in silence and near-darkness.

The performance will begin after that.

I love the idea of immersing listeners in 30 minutes of silence before the concert (even if some number of them nod off); and doing it before playing the Goldberg Variations will heighten the experience in a way that a half hour of slience before, say, a Mono concert might not.

But it’s also kind of amazing that this is a performance piece, and that we have to have something like this to remind us of the virtue of silence.

Actually, I also suspect that we’re also seeing silence turned into a luxury. Like water, which has gone from a basic human right to just another commodity (albeit one that you can’t live without), I suspect that we may be in the midst of a reconceptualization of silence– and its attendant stillness, a lack of competition for your attention, etc.– as something you need to pay for, like private security or a concierge. Or fresh food.

It would be sad if that happens, but not surprising.

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