Today in the United States, it is Labor Day. Yet on its face, Labor Day seems a bit paradoxical. We honor work…by not working. How could that possibly be right?
It’s an idea that seems particularly out of step with the glorification of long hours and hustle that has come from the startup world. We’re supposed to be working 80- to 100-hour weeks, coming into the office on weekends, dedicating ourselves exclusively to our careers or our businesses, moving fast and breaking things. We’re supposed to, as Marcus Aurelius himself said, find something we love and wear ourselves down doing it.
Just look at the reaction to Simone Biles, who created global controversy by withdrawing from the Olympics, prioritizing her mental health over her athletic performance. She was called “selfish,” a “quitter,” a “shame to the country,” and the proof that, “we are raising a generation of weak people.”
In fact, the relationship between work and leisure, working hard and taking it easy, hustling and relaxing, is ancient and essential. It was Aristotle who believed that virtue was the result of balance, of finding a middle ground. It’s no coincidence that he also said, famously, that, “This is the main question, with what activity one’s leisure is filled.”
The word leisure, in Greek, is scholé—that is, school. In antiquity, leisure meant freedom from the work needed to survive. It was the freedom for intellectual or creative pursuits. It was learning and studying and the pursuit of higher things. It was Marcus’ warning, “to not be all about business.” It was Seneca reminding his friend Lucilius, “The mind must be given relaxation. It will rise improved and sharper after a good break. Just as rich fields must not be forced…so constant work on the anvil will fracture the force of the mind.”
This warning is all the more crucial in a time when digital devices and working from home make work ubiquitous. Who has time for leisure? For a book? For a long bike ride? For an afternoon with friends and family? Emails and Zoom calls beckon. Responsibilities call. This client needs you and that coworker needs you to check Slack.
But what kind of shape will we be in if we do this without respite? If we stigmatize and shame people who prioritize their long-term mental and physical health over the short-term gain of tasks completed, meetings attended, emails returned, conference calls joined? If we don’t heed that ancient advice to not be all about business?
Your brain is not meant to be constantly connected. You need time to relax, recover, and restore. You need to celebrate Labor Day. You need to honor work by not working. You need to not be all about business.