The Most Successful People Make Room For Rest

A century-old series of studies still offer lessons for today.

Posted Feb 27, 2018

Alex Pang
Grand Central Station, New York, 2016
Source: Alex Pang

Overwork is one of the great problems of modern life. The pace of business is accelerating, companies demand longer hours, smartphones allow us to carry the office around with us 24/7, and being busy is a badge of honor. But while overwork now has the quality of a public health crisis, for professionals, entrepreneurs and executives in America it’s nothing new. In 1878, a doctor lamented in the New York Times that rest was a "forgotten art." In the 1890s, Harvard philosopher William James lamented Americans’ love of overwork, and argued his fellow citizens would be more productive if they embraced “the gospel of relaxation."

But one of the early twentieth century's most consistent critics of chronic busyness and overwork was one of the most unexpected: Bertie Forbes, the pioneering business journalist and founder of Forbes magazine.

Bertie Charles Forbes was born in 1880, and spent his childhood in the Scottish Highlands. At seventeen he became a reporter in Dundee; in 1901 he went to South Africa to cover the Boer War, then in 1905 moved to New York, where he became of the leading financial reporters of his day. He then started the B. C. Forbes Publishing Company; his eponymous magazine first appeared in 1917.

One of Forbes' specialities was the biographical profile of industrialists, bankers, and inventors who oversaw the growth of its modern industrial and corporate America. In his profiles of leading businessmen (and in the early twentieth century they were pretty much all men), Forbes almost always noted the strategies his subjects discovered—often after periods of overwork and burnout—for maintaining their health, restoring their mental and physical energy, and balancing hard work with recreation. He anticipates by a century current research (summarized in my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less) that finds that rest doesn't just restore mental and physical energy, but-- when taken in the right ways-- can stimulate innovative thinking and sustain creative lives.

Forbes' profiles almost always called attention to the hobbies of the era’s industrial giants. Andrew Carnegie "lived a well-diversified life in New York, with frequent trips to Europe, interspersed with journeys to the Orient and other distant places,” and “no man goes in more whole-heartedly for sport and other forms of recreation than" Coleman du Pont. Teddy Roosevelt was an exemplar of the busy public figure who “boisterously… enters into recreation.” US Steel president James Farrell and mining entrepreneur August Heckscher were avid sailors. Railroad magnate James “Empire Builder" Hill was an accomplished violinist. Retail pioneer John Shedd praised golf as "one of the greatest blessings of modern times… for it has drawn men of responsible affairs away from their tasks into the open air."

Others, Forbes reported, preferred more down-to-earth pursuits. Charles Nash would hunt and fish in the forests of Michigan and Wisconsin when he wasn’t running Nash Motors and turning around distressed companies. Tire giant Harvey Firestone spent weeks camping, albeit in the company of figures like naturalist John Burroughs, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and President Warren Harding. "Tramping and camping in the woods is the best thing I know of for developing, not only a man's physique, but his mentality and his soul,” inventor Cyrus McCormick told Forbes.

Executives’ respect for the restorative power of rest sometimes influenced company policies. Dodge CEO Frederick Haynes declared that while he "would never think of putting up a recreation building at the plant” since "men want to get away from the plant after their day's work, to be with their families,” his company supported worker-organized clubs and teams. George Reynolds implemented a five-day week at his Chicago bank, arguing that in modern finance, "The pace is so rapid and the pressure so great that a man cannot stand up against it... if he works more than five days a week."

For someone who subtitled his magazine "Devoted to Doers and Doings," this attention to recreation may seem odd. But Forbes argued that the right kind of rest, taken in the right doses, was essential for success.

According to Forbes, successful people revealed that “How we spend our non-working hours determines very largely how capably or incapably we spend our working hours.” It was essential to recognize that "Real recreation quickens aspiration,” and helps "to increase our fitness, enhance our usefulness, spur achievement.” Too many people ”confound recreation with dissipation," wasting their time on idle amusements and subverting their careers. Other more senior executives “are committing suicide by overwork.”

But this did not mean that recreation was the purpose of life, or that work was to be avoided. America’s industrialists had “taught effete aristocrats of Europe that industry is no disgrace, that honest work and money-making soil not the best of hands.” Indeed, the idle rich "are of all men the most miserable,” Forbes argued, for “[w]ithout toil there can be no blissful relaxation or recreation.” Hard work and healthy rest balanced and justified each other. "The person who has no work,” Forbes said, "can have no recreation, no relaxation.”

So what sorts of rest were the most restorative? Choosing a hobby, Forbes argued, couldn’t be done on a whim; “You need to settle that wisely and not by chance.” Recreation had to balance a busy life. Office workers and sedentary professionals needed sports and exercise; merchants and traders would benefit from retreats in contemplative and artistic activities; executives bearing the solitude of leadership needed the companionship of others in similar situations. Forbes was especially keen on exercise, advising readers to join a golf club or gym, or even "move into the country where you will have to walk a mile to catch the train even in the dead of winter.”

Forbes was not along among early business writers in taking rest seriously. Walter Dill Scott, who pioneered the use of psychology in advertising, advised his busy readers on the need to balance long hours with a hobby "so absorbing that when he is thus engaged, business is banished from mind." Winston Churchill wrote that "The cultivation of a hobby" is "of first importance to a public man."

Today, businesses and busy professionals are beginning to rediscover that, as Forbes put it, "Whether we use our leisure to re-create power or dissipate power is of decisive moment." Efforts to improve work-life balance, encourage workers to take vacations, to unplug in the evenings, get more exercise, or even take catnaps during the day all recognize that rest need not be work’s competitor, but can be its partner. Neuroscientists and psychologists are documenting the value of walks for stimulating creative insight, of time in nature for restoring emotional balance, and of a healthy social life for promoting resilience.

And as I explain in my book Rest, many highly creative, prolific, and successful people organize their days around bouts of hard work and “deliberate rest,” and choose leisure that stimulates their creativity, supports good habits, and sustains long creative lives. The careers of Nobel Prize-winners, authors, artists, and even generals show that, as Forbes wrote a century ago, success "is most often won during non business hours, the hours that are spent away from the bench or the office; the hours during which we are our own masters; the hours we are at liberty to use or misuse.”

It's high time we re-read Forbes' lessons, and applied them to our own lives.