Marcus Aurelius had workaholic tendencies. Even if he hadn’t had the most important job in the world, we get the sense that he would have treated his work that way. He was one of those all-in types. When he discovered philosophy, he slept on the floor and practiced poverty to his mother’s frustration. When he found an author he liked, he dove deeply into their work. And when he became emperor, he was available around the clock, he hardly ever took extended time off, and his idea of leisure was attending philosophy lectures.
“People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it,” he wrote, “they even forget to wash or eat.” Yet he also seemed to know that this was unhealthy, because in another spot in Meditations he says that in life you can’t be all about business. He knew that we needed balance in our lives, outlets for our stress and passions, whether they were sports or hunting or journaling or taking walks outdoors. Even meditation or reflection was a way to do that—a way to “reach utter stillness.”
The comedian Nate Bargatze talked about this recently. “There’s nothing I can do that can shift my brain from stopping working except golf,” he said. “It’s how much focus has to go into golf. It’s the only time that I feel like I’m not thinking about comedy or career. You just go out there, you almost forget you have a phone, you forget everything… It’s unreal.”
As discussed in Stillness Is the Key, elite performance is best when balanced out with hobbies and leisure. Churchill found solace painting and laying bricks. For William Gladstone—prime minister of England in the generation before Churchill—it was chopping down trees. For Seneca, it was writing philosophical letters to friends and family members. For Epictetus, we can infer it was lifting weights. For Marcus Aurelius, it was hunting and possibly wrestling. For John Cage, it was mushroom hunting. For David Sedaris, it’s walking back roads and picking up trash. For Herbert Hoover, it was fishing.
Reading, boxing, swimming, puzzles, coding, journaling, golfing—whatever it is, you need to have something that takes your mind off work. You can’t be all about business.