How America’s first billionaire destroyed the myth of hard work (i.e., “hustle”)

The lazy, concentrated, approach to work that made John D. Rockefeller

I attribute my good condition to my almost reckless independence in determining for myself what to do and the rigid adhering to regulations which give me the maximum of rest and quiet and leisure, and I am being richly paid for it every day.” — John D. Rockefeller Sr.
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Work ethic (i.e., “Hustle”) is important to any type of success. But work often seeps into many parts of our lives, following us into our inboxes at home and cell phones. Some of us might feel we don’t do anything but work. And that’s fine, because work is evolving. Today, we define ourselves by our busyness, and we search for both money and meaning in our work.

It’s a romantic idea, one closely tied to our thirst for ambition and rising through the classes. Our society sees exhaustion as a status symbol. But there’s a difference between feeling productive and actually being productive.

Good work demands consistency and longevity, both of which rely on something other than more action. Good work requires rest.

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As a young man, Rockefeller frequently burned the midnight oil in the office. However, as pressure mounted and he began tackling larger problems, he knew this type of work ethic wasn’t sustainable. Instead, he would take the opposite approach — an aggressively leisurely one — on order to ensure longevity. Biographer Ron Chernow describes Rockefeller’s schedule in Titan:

He worked at a more leisurely pace than many other executives, napping daily after lunch and often dozing in a lounge chair after dinner. To explain his extraordinary longevity, he later said, doubtless overstating the matter, “I’m here because I shirked: did less work, lived more in the open air, enjoyed the open air, sunshine and exercise.” By his midthirties, he had installed a telegraph wire between home and office so that he could spend three or four afternoons each week at home, planting trees, gardening, and enjoying the sunshine. Rockefeller didn’t do this in a purely recreational spirit but mingled work and rest to pace himself and improve his productivity. In time, he became something of an evangelist on health-related issues. “It is remarkable how much we all could do if we avoid hustling, and go along at an even pace and keep from attempting too much.”

Instead of multitasking and trying to do a million things at once, Rockefeller worked slowly and believed in the power of concentration:

Much of the time, he was closeted in his office, where he had oil prices chalked on a blackboard. He paced this spartan office, hands laced behind his back. Periodically, he emerged from his lair, mounted a high stool, and studied ledgers, scribbling calculations on pad and paper. (During meetings, he was a restless doodler and note taker.) Frequently, he stared out the window, motionless as an idol, gazing at the sky for fifteen minutes at a stretch. He once asked rhetorically, “Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things . . . fail because we lack concentration — the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?”
Rockefeller adhered to a fixed schedule, moving through the day in a frictionless manner. He never wasted time on frivolities. Even his daily breaks — the midmorning snack of crackers and milk and the postprandial nap — were designed to conserve energy and help him to strike an ideal balance between his physical and mental forces. As he remarked, “It is not good to keep all the forces at tension all the time.”

Good work doesn’t necessarily require constantly pulling all-nighters every week. Mark Burnett says in an interview with Esquire:

If you are the leader, you don’t have the right to say things like “Ugh, didn’t eat this week I was so busy.” “Haven’t slept.” I look sideways at those signs of bravado, which are intended to make one feel that the person is working so hard. I don’t think that way.
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Ironically, the key to better work might be to work less. Instead of spending countless hours grinding, focus on conserving your energy and concentrating when it counts the most. Don’t let games of bravado or a culture of “outworking” someone with more hours get to your head. It’s all an illusion. Do your work during your best hours, and take time throughout the day to rest and relax. You’ll get back to work refreshed and produce better results, and you won’t feel like you overexerted yourself.

Take care of yourself. Your work will be better for it.


Herbert Lui is a former staff writer for Lifehacker. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Quartz, and The Globe and Mail. He writes a monthly newsletter where he shares quotes from his favorite books (like this one).

This post was originally published at HerbertLui.net.