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Joseph Campbell’s daily routine for “the most important period of my scholarship and study”

Charles Chu
Oct 29, 2017 · 3 min read

“I went up to Woodstock and just read, and read, and read, and read, for five years. No job, no money. I learned then that you don’t need money to live if you’re a young man who didn’t get himself involved sooner than he should have, before he had the ability to support what this involvement might be.

“So during the years of the Depression I had arranged a schedule for myself. When you don’t have a job or anyone to tell you what to do, you’ve got to fix one for yourself. I divided the day into four four-hour periods, of which I would be reading in three of the four-hour periods, and free one of them.”

“By getting up a eight o’clock in the morning, by nine I could sit down to read. That meant that I used the first hour to prepare my own breakfast and take care of the house and put things together in whatever shack I happened to be living in at the time. Then three hours of that first four-hour period went to reading.

“Then came an hour break for lunch and another three-hour unit. And then comes the optional next section. It should normally be three hours of reading and then an hour out for dinner and then three hours free and an hour getting to bed so I’m in bed by twelve.

“On the other hand, if I were invited out for cocktails or something like that, then I would put the work hour in the evening and the play hour in the afternoon.

“It worked very well. I would get nine hours of sheer reading done in a day. And this went on for five years straight. You get a lot done in that time.”

Over five years, Campbell spent over 16,000 hours spent reading — far more than the 10,000 some say (though I am skeptical) you need for mastery.

A sketch I made of Campbell’s four four-hour blocks: yellow is reading time, green leisure and gray “other.” Portrait by urielstempest.

“Reading what you want, and having one book lead to the next, is the way I found my discipline. I’ve suggested this to many of my students: When you find a writer who really is saying something to you, read everything that writer has written and you will get more education and depth of understanding out of that than reading a scrap here and a scrap there and elsewhere. Then go to people who influenced that writer, or those who were related to him, and your world builds together in an organic way that is really marvelous. Whereas the way these things are taught normally in college and school is a sampler of what this one wrote and that one wrote and you’re asked to be more interested in the date of the publication of Keat’s sonnets than in what’s in them.”

For more reflections from Joseph Campbell, see The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work.

The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand

Charles Chu

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The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand