Wilder Penfield on the uses of idleness

Wilder Penfield, from his 1962 address “The Use of Idleness,” republished in The Second Career:

The best rest for doing one thing is doing another until you fall into a sound sleep. It is the vigorous use of idle time that will broaden your education, make you a more efficient specialist, a happier man, a more useful citizen. It will help you to understand the rest of the world and make you more resourceful….

I have known a few men that I would call truly great. They were all men who had vivid interests in idle time, interests that enriched the mind and made them more resourceful in their specialties. The man of narrow training and narrow outlook may work longer hours and yet fail to see what such men saw.

It’s nice to come across a source that economically and elegantly makes your argument– particularly because Penfield is someone I write about in other contexts in my book.

Penfield turns out to be a brilliant example of someone who had a fantastically productive career– two careers, in fact– not because he was a workaholic and sacrificed his health to his work, but because he recognized that “the best rest for doing one thing is doing another.”

He discovered this early. In college, he was a football player, and even deferred his Rhodes scholarship for a year so he could coach the Princeton team.

This is a picture of him from his Princeton days. Not the stereotypical science nerd.

(The incredible thing is, he wasn’t even the best-looking member of the football team. That prize would have gone to quarterback Hobey Baker, “the blonde Adonis of the gridiron,” one of the best athletes not just in the Ivy League but the nation. Baker went to Wall Street after graduation, but would catapult back into the national eye in late 1918, when he died during his final flight as commander of the 141st Aero Squadron. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who as a freshman at Princeton had seen Baker play, later used Baker as the model for Allenby, a character in his 1921 book This Side of Paradise.)

Anyway, Penfield is an interesting case study for the book, both for the example of his own life, and for what he has to say about how to have a balanced, interesting career.

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