Thinking Time

by Nick on June 16, 2015

In my inbox an invitation to a workshop caught my attention. It’s title, Slow writing and reading in an age of distraction was followed by the question: In today’s frequently stressful, noisy, inspected and interrupted world, can slower, more thoughtful writing, reading and conversations make a positive difference to our respective projects? * Good title, good question.

The idea that we’re so busy being busy that we’ve lost sight of quality and the bigger picture is not new. In the 1960s, US media man Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum challenged blind intellectual arrogance, ‘We look at the present through a rear view mirror; we march backwards into the future.’ Has anything changed?

In 14th century England, Edmund of Abingdon is attributed with a quotation that also challenges us to place our attention judiciously, ‘Live as if you would die tomorrow; study as if you would live forever.’ The pre-Homeric Delphic Oracle simply said, ‘Know Thyself;’ an injunction – I realise at this stage in my life – that will undoubtedly take more than one lifetime.

The world has always been speeding up it seems and human beings have mostly had a preference  for the quick and expedient over the slow and wise. Recently psychologists and neuroscientists have made the same point. For example, Guy Claxton is his book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind; and Daniel Kahneman from a slightly different perspective in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Both authors make the point that consciousness, which is a state manifested by the slower processing meditative mind, is essential for managing the energetic rapid brilliance of our cognitive brain.

In truth we need to think both fast and slow depending on the nature of the task at hand. But the workshop invitation reminded me that I’m not alone in thinking there’s perhaps too much of a tendency to over-preference the fast track. We need to slow down to find time to connect, not with the easy answers that immediately come to us from conventional thinking, but with the profound simplicity that only exists on the other side of complexity.,

As always stories have much to say on the subject. Here are some examples of urban myth, popular anecdote, and traditional folk wisdom on the topic. Insights to chew on at your own pace:

Quality & time

“I’d have written you a shorter letter; but I didn’t have time.”  Blaise Pascal

Peter Drucker , sometimes called ‘the Father of Modern Management’ was invited to a prestigious US Business School to talk for an hour to a 2000+ audience on the secrets of successful management. He walked to centre stage, cleared his throat and began. “People in organisations  are not mind readers. There are just two secrets to becoming a successful manager. If you want something, ask; if you need something, say. That’s all there is to it.” And then he walked off stage. Just before reaching the exit someone shouted out, “Is that what I paid 500 bucks for?” Yes Sir,” Drucker replied, “And there’s one more essential thing you should know. Be brief!” And then he was gone.

A Japanese martial arts sensei (teacher) was approached by a highly motivated student. “I want to  work with you and master your system. How long will it take?” “Five years,” said the sensei. “But that’s too long! I’m prepared to work very hard. I’ll practice twelve or more hours a day if necessary.” “In that case it will take you ten.”

Quality & complexity

Isador Rabi won the Nobel Peace Prize for physics in 1944. He said he owed it to his mother. “When I was at school all the other mothers asked their children: ‘What did you learn in school today? Instead my mother’s question was, ‘What did you ask in school today?”

My schoolmates learned to see each problem only from a narrow and limited perspective. I learned to see any problem within a complex set of contextual possibilities. I learned to experience the world as fluid and dynamic. I learned to find natural solutions that engaged all elements of a system in a creative and sustainable tension.”

Quality & perspective

In Richard Flanagan’s excellent Man-Booker winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, one of the central characters, Dorrigo Evans, is asked, ‘What on earth comes into your head?’ Evans is a surgeon, commanding officer of the Australian prisoners-of-war at one of the death camps on the Siam-Burma railroad (of River Kwai fame). He is playing cards with the Japanese commanding officer to ‘win back’ a prisoner the Japanese want to punish.

‘What on earth comes into your head?’ ‘My only idea ever … is to advance forward and charge the windmill. It’s only our faith in illusions that makes life possible … It’s believing in reality that does us in every time.’

For information on the workshop go to:

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Vintage Books (London) 2013

Versions of the other stories can be found in:

Nick Owen, The Salmon of Knowledge. Crownhouse (Carmarthen) 2009

© Nick Owen

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