Ten years ago, an interview between Tavis Smiley and Will Smith went viral. When Smiley asked what set Smith apart toward the end of the session, Smith laughed and said:
The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill… I will not be outworked. Period.” —Will Smith (December 12, 2007 | PBS original segment 24:23; YouTube clip 6:22 | uncaptioned)
There’s something about hard work rhetoric that’s incredibly compelling in this culture. The United States, after all, has a workforce culture that promotes intense labor, even at the cost of workers’ health and well-being. In academia, it’s called the “eight days a week” effect, and whether workers are passionate about their research and teaching or have the hustle motive that Smith talks about, it can be deeply unsustainable for early career folks and those still in training.
But it’s still affirmed anyway, and rewarded in cash, opportunity, and social approval.
There are contrasting perspectives from the world of fitness, however. The Hairpin‘s recurring column on women’s weight training recently responded to a question about how to balance cardio and resistance workouts. Columnist Casey Johnston writes:
If your sense of Accomplished is inextricable from your sense of Busy, you need to untangle them, right now… It is not fitness to push yourself to the max constantly with no end in sight.” —Casey Johnston (January 3, 2017)
In other words: the domain that gave Smith his key metaphor disagrees with his approach. It’s not a question of being a lazy worker or a lax trainer. Instead, as Johnston carefully explains, it’s essential to work wisely, to balance work with rest, to allow time for recovery, to vary weight and pace, and not press so hard that one risks death on the conveyor belt.
When I was in grad school, my mother told me dry as ice that she was sure my university awarded posthumous degrees. The lesson, of course, was that such an award would be worthless to me.
So even as I admire what Smith and his family have accomplished through hustle and persistence, I think the rest of us need to supplement that wisdom with a few solid breaks between sets.