I recently discovered an essay by the surgeon William Heneage Ogilvie titled “In Praise of Idleness,” which I found while looking for stuff on Bertrand Russell’s essay of the same name. This “Praise of Idleness” appeared in the April 16 1949 issue of the British Medical Journal, and talks about the importance of down-time in the development of physicians:
My thesis is the very simple one that the man who works hard and conscientiously does his most important work when he outspans his mind and allows it to wander at its own pace round the paths over which it has been rushing, and that science is advanced further in a shorter time by the informal chatter of a few like-minded friends over cocktails than by the formal exchange of papers or by any number of congresses.
(As you’d expect from 1949, the piece only speaks about men. But Ogilvie was giving a talk in South Africa, and mentions that it had taken five days via seaplane to get there from London— “I have once again enjoyed the pleasures of idleness, the armchair existence of a five-days flight in a Plymouth flying-boat”, he says— so it really was a different era.)
Anyway, this is the part that jumped out at me:
We can recognize among our students two types. At one extreme we have the overpowering enthusiast who attends all lectures and takes down every word. After a hurried meal he goes to the library and pores over a textbook til the time comes for a ward round, when he listens eagerly to every comment and again enters it in his book. At the other extreme is the footballer who strolls into the lecture a little late and does not really get into his stride as a listener til he has filled and lit his pipe and gets it drawing to his satisfaction. [Ed: The image of the athlete smoking is kind of anachronistic, too!] His notes are sparse, and at rounds he is attentive but not verbose. Yet when it comes to a practical task the second one approaches it with a common-sense outlook; when he is asked a question whose answer is not in the textbook he is able to see through the problem to its essentials and give an answer that may not be the right one but that embodies his personal experience; at examinations he beats his more studious fellow student, in the practicals at any rate, and when he goes into the world he makes a better doctor.
Most of us have passed through both of these phases, through spells of hard conscientious work and through spells of idleness. In the first we have acquired knowledge; in the second we have built up wisdom. In the first we have been worthy workers. In the second we have made, or started the train that has brought us to, those personal contributions by which we hope to be remembered when we are dead. For the human mind which has been driven hard does its best work when the tension is outspanned and it is allowed to find the natural paths that shape themselves in idle periods.
This aside is also kind of striking:
For many of us the war has provided such a sabbatical break. We have worked hard even in uniform, but for long times we have remained idle. Then it is that we have discovered to our joy that the disconnected visions of our student days are all fiting into a pattern. Figuratively, we have sprung like Archimedes from the bath in which we have been dozing and have shouted “Eureka.”
This may sound unlikely, but one of the first studies that established that the restorative properties of time away from work (like on vacation) are determined less by how long you’re away, than by how mentally detached you are from your job and normal life, focused on reservists in the Israeli Defense Forces.
Anyway, the advice remains sound, even in an era of jet travel and women professionals.