The beauty of Labor Day
As a holiday, Labor Day is 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 Silicon Valley 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.
“Totally false,” the investor Keith Rabois wrote on Twitter in reply to a fellow VC who had tried to argue that, “not hanging with friends and family because you’re working isn’t ‘cool'” and that ” your competition isn’t beating you because they are working more hours than you. It’s because they are working smarter.” To Rabois, young people needed to embrace the grind, to succeed through extreme feats of discipline and commitment.
Just look at the reaction to Andrew Luck, who shocked the football world by announcing his early retirement and an intention to add more balance to his life. To Doug Gottlieb, the Fox Sports Radio host, it was, sarcastically, “the most millennial thing ever.”
In fact, the relationship between work and leisure — drive and rest, hobbies and occupations — is essential and not explored often enough. We should start with the fact that most people don’t even understand what the word “leisure” means, because it’s certainly not as simple as lying in bed.
In Greek, leisure is rendered as scholé — that is, school. Leisure historically meant freedom from the work needed to survive. It was the freedom for intellectual or creative pursuits. It was learning and study and the pursuit of higher things.
As society advanced and jobs became increasingly less physical, but more exhausting mentally and spiritually, it became common for leisure to include a diverse array of activities, from reading to woodwork or fishing or playing sports. Ultimately, that’s what Labor Day was designed to help encourage and facilitate. A country is only as good as its workers, and those workers must be given time and space to rest their bodies as well as their minds.
The impulse to celebrate work is a good one. Sloth is considered a vice for a reason. But it was Aristotle who believed that virtue was the result of balance, of finding a middle ground. It’s probably not a coincidence that he also said, famously, that, “This is the main question, with what activity one’s leisure is filled.”
Winston Churchill is a great example. Yes, he was a man who served in government for six and a half decades, wrote 43 books and gave roughly 2,300 speeches. We speak of his incredible efforts and tireless work ethic during World War II, which has been catalogued in reams of scholarship and celebrated in countless movies and documentaries. But casual students of history know far less about the hobbies and habits that made this possible — because it wasn’t simply sheer workaholism.
As Paul Johnson, one of Churchill’s best biographers, would write, “The balance he maintained between flat-out work and creative and restorative leisure is worth study by anyone holding a top position.” In addition to his political legacy, Churchill also left behind some 500 paintings, which he created for fun while he took time off from work. He also left behind several cottages and outbuildings on his estate in the English countryside, which he built by hand. Churchill spent hundreds of hours in his life laying bricks. He rested from his labors … through manual labor.
This kind of respite is all the more crucial in a time when digital devices make work ubiquitous. Many ordinary people are, today, more reachable and more on call than heads of state like Churchill were even during world crises. Our phones are not lifelines, they are worklines. They keep us connected to our profession constantly and allow business to intrude regardless of the importance.
Who has time for a day off? To read a book? To paint? To go for a three-hour bike ride? To hang out with friends and family?
Work beckons. Responsibilities call. The office needs you for a meeting.
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?
We need to insist on time away from our work and from our devices, so that we can recover and restore our minds. Culturally, we must understand that nobody succeeds when they are burned out. Bleary-eyed employees are a sign of a bad manager, not a good one. Sometimes the best way to move forward is through stillness. Sometimes the best way to rest is to do something that tires you out, as many voluntary hobbies illustrate.
It’s a paradox, but true to life.
Labor Day is a beautiful holiday in that it enshrines at least one day of rest into federal law. It reminds us that as wonderful as work is (and the accomplishments which derive from it are), it is not sustainable unless balanced by rest.
In a famous essay, the philosopher Josef Pieper wrote that “the ability to be ‘at leisure’ is one of the basic powers of the human soul.” It’s also a human right. One that we celebrate today for good reason.
It’s one we need to protect and practice on more than one day a year.