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In Praise of Doing Less: From Ancient Societies to the Modern Hustle

Updated: Jun 6

Overworking is not a new phenomenon. It traces back to old societies that saw unending labor as a sign of goodness. Yet, today’s ‘hustle culture’ carries a significant toll on us as humans. We must remember, our worth is not measured by our productivity.

Have you noticed how obsessed our society is with the idea of constant hustling? Just look at shows like Succession or Inventing Anna that glorify people working insane hours on endless side-gigs. But here's the thing - this fixation on nonstop work isn't a new phenomenon. It goes back thousands of years to ancient civilizations like Egypt where Pharaohs proved their worth by forcing slaves to build massive pyramids through sheer backbreaking labor.

Today, we've become brainwashed by this "hustle culture" mindset that celebrates busyness as a badge of honor. Yet historically, this mentality served a different purpose - for the ancient Romans, hard work was seen as one's crucial duty to society. Similarly the Pyramids showed Egypt's ability to get many people to work very hard on building them.

Wall painting showing various ancient Egyptian labourers.
Tomb of Menna at Thebes, 18th Dynasty.

But the question is, at what cost? Today, psychologists warn that this hustle-at-all-costs approach leads to debilitating burnout, anxiety, and depression. As the historian Yuval Noah Harari points out, ancient societies balanced grueling work with restorative periods of rest and community celebrations - something our modern culture sorely lacks.

Let's be clear - endlessly praising this "cult of hustle" comes at a massive personal price while hindering true fulfillment. We've bought into a dangerous myth that ceaseless toil is the only path to meaning, when precisely the opposite is true. The real progress stems from embracing work-life balance as a catalyst for motivation, joy and sustainable contributions to society.

The facts are staggering: Employees working over 55 hours weekly face a 35% higher risk of depression, according to the American Journal of Public Health. Countless studies link long hours to increased stress, lower life satisfaction and even premature death. And get this - after around 50 hours, working more utterly tanks our productivity levels. So much for the idea that burning the midnight oil leads to better output.

We can look to history for a cautionary tale of prioritizing labor over all else. Those ancient Egyptian pyramid-builders were so maniacal in their monument construction that they likely diverted resources away from spiritual, artistic and scientific advancement. When a society becomes too focused on only one goal, it is a big warning sign that the society's view has become dangerously one-sided.

Thankfully, some modern societies chart a healthier course - actively valuing rest, leisure and work-life integration. In Denmark, people work around 37 hours per week on average yet consistently rank among the world's happiest countries. Their cultural embrace of balance breeds creativity and life satisfaction that ultimately makes people more productive anyway.

Now, hustle-culture die-hards might argue that pushing people to work endless hours is necessary for innovation and economic growth. But that's simply not backed up by research. Well-rested, motivated employees consistently do higher quality work and stick around at companies far longer - benefiting businesses and society exponentially more than burned-out workers running on fumes.

The implications of shifting from hustle-obsession to a work-life balanced perspective could be truly transformative. More humane scheduling and work policies could lead to healthier, more resilient workforces. Organizations may see improved retention, team morale and even innovative breakthroughs when people feel cared for. And most importantly, collectively redefining ambition to include self-care could start mending modern plagues like loneliness, anxiety and community disconnection.

Through the ages, we've been seduced by the same toxic myth - that ceaseless toil is life's highest purpose. But we have a choice to embrace a more sustainable ethos. One that honors our humanity, fuels creativity through balance, and positions rest as a catalyst for true progress - not a sign of laziness.

Rather than glorifying the modern hustle, we must transcend these ancient shackles restraining our full potentials. The path to meaning and impact doesn't require us to perpetually slog in productivity's salt mines. It can joyfully coexist with nourishing personal lives filled with presence and community. Because when we're truly cared for and recharged, that's when society soars to its greatest heights.

About the Author

D Parihar is the guy behind and Explorative Letters. Likes writing long letters and playing long chess games and losing them.

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One aspect of your essay that i appreciated most deeply is the connection you drew between community, spiritual upliftment, and restorative balance in one’s life. I find, personally, that when I work 50+ hours/week for weeks on end, my connection to nature, community, and my community’s wise elders becomes very faint. And, then I experience the second arrow of guilt because I sense and feel that separation from all the sources of life-affirming growth in my life. I think the ancient Greeks had at least a sense of working with the seasons and resting with them, too.

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