Aesop, the Greek fable writer, famously reminds us that “slow and steady wins the race”:
And smiling at the thought of the look on the tortoise’s face when it saw the hare speed by, he fell fast asleep and was soon snoring happily. The sun started to sink, below the horizon, and the tortoise, who had been plodding towards the winning post since morning, was scarcely a yard from the finish. At that very point, the hare woke with a jolt. He could see the tortoise a speck in the distance and away he dashed. He leapt and bounded at a great rate, his tongue lolling, and gasping for breath. Just a little more and he’d be first at the finish. But the hare’s last leap was just too late, for the tortoise had beaten him to the winning post. Poor hare! Tired and in disgrace, he slumped down beside the tortoise who was silently smiling at him.
“Slowly does it every time!” he said.
Our western culture is built on a pace for manic speed with an insatiable appetite for increased production. ‘More‘ and ‘faster‘ are buzzwords tethered like a millstone around the neck of the American worker. Presently within the fearful context of an eroding global economy and threat of unemployment, the typical worker feels the pressure to immerse themselves in greater output vocationally to prove their indispensability. We are a people driven towards innovation and efficiency and our best idea is faster, stronger and more. When someone can output this kind of idealized effort, we say they are a ‘machine’.
I thought we created ‘machines’ so that we didn’t have to work so hard all the time and everywhere. The post World War II consumer marketing movement promised us the ‘good life’ of luxury, leisure and free time for our pleasure pursuits. In the words of Dr. Phil: “how’s that workin’ for ya?” With more time, more convenience and more space for constant communication and data-sharing, we created a monster, not a machine. We falsely believe that we control the monster, but increasingly it is the monster of muchness and manyness that in fact controls us? When does the carousel stop so we can get off? Perhaps a bigger question is, would we get off if we believed we had the choice to do so?
What if what we want is not a machine, nor a monster, but rather simply just to be human again? This is the milieu where Daniel Patrick Forrester enters with his book, “Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization“. This book was very timely for me to read at the onset of the season of Lent that I try to pay attention to each year to peal off the scales of inhumaness still stuck on me. Forrester lays out a sound argument that for organizations and individuals, if you don’t take the time to reflect, think and wonder; then you are a train wreck waiting to happen.
We type A’s, like the hare, believe that speed and busyness will always win. This may finally be an idol that needs to die if we want to see a revolution of being human again. One of the sacred cows that Forrester filets is the misnomer of the idea of ‘multi-tasking’. MRI’s of the human brain through studies confirm for us “that our minds function best when pursuing only a single task”. (15) The fallacy of trying to accomplish multiple crucial tasks at the same time is a recipe for doing none of them effectively nor thoughtfully. If your endgame is merely pragmatic, then just get it done. If your endgame is perpetual beauty/creativty/ingenuity/sustainable design/unique perspective or a thorough and nuanced plan; then turn your phone off and take time to think and reflect.
Reflection and time for thought is a choice, you are not a victim. Let me re-state that, I am not a victim. I really do struggle with this idea of shutting down, unplugging and seeking my reflective cell. A large part of me craves it more than the Americano in my right hand, but I falsely and consistently don’t build in time for it until the urgency of matters are met. I just hope that life will magically slow down, that my iCalendar will automatically block out my free times and that I will have nothing left to do but to pursue a genunine state of wonder. The problem is that I’m not 20 anymore, life is far more complicated and in fact more crucial. My mistakes cost more, they affect more people than just myself, others are relying on me, I walk with the burden of leadership upon me (and gladly), so how can I not take the time to think and gain perspective? Forrester says:
Reflection is the deliberate act of stepping back from daily habits and routines (without looming and immediate deadline pressures), either alone or within small and sequestered groups. It’s where meaning is derived through reconsideration of fundamental assumptions, the efficacy of past decisions and the consequences including the downside of future actions. It’s where space is given for the “totally unexpected” to emerge. (18)
This kind of planning happens on purpose and with real intentionality. The culture of present reality will not feed you the time of solitude and reflection you need. We have the choice to tell our calendar what to do, we have the power over the off button on our phone. We can give the ‘other’ in front of us our full attention and not continue the fallacy of multi-tasking, this may be a gift to your family. Meaning is found in slowing down and emptying ourselves into a state of self-reflection. This may in fact be a gift to yourself. If you want to smell the roses, you need to plan some time to walk in the garden, they aren’t coming to you.
Forrester illustrates his point of the oppressive master of communication technology through the words of John Freeman in “The Tyranny of Email”:
We need context in order to live, and if the environment of electronic communications has stopped providing it, we shouldn’t search online for a solution but turn back to the real world and slow down. To do this, we need to uncoouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of speed from efficiency, pause and step back enough to realize that efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships. (101)
The problem with slowing down, with pulling back, with minimalizing, with taking time away is that it challenges our self-confidence and leadership identity. Are we secure enough to believe that for an extended block of time, our organizations don’t need us? Are we okay with the idea that we aren’t neccessary? We complain about always having to be ‘on call’, but deep down leaders can be infected with the sickness of the “need to be needed.” Can we cut the apron-strings of co-dependency and seek new freedoms of thoughtfulness and true perspective? Do we have the confidence to rest and it doesn’t shame us into meaningless toils under the sun? The leader who can slow down is the leader that has the capacity to lead in any culture, in any economy and in any crises. They lead out of a steady center, one that has been fought for on purpose, not by accident. Rest is a kind of humiliation, it requires actual confidence to thoroughly enjoy and benefit from it.
In Forrester’s final chapter he leaves the reader with some prophetic warnings for America: “The only way that reflection winds up happening in the United States is for it to be forced. A catastrophic event must happen in order to create reflection.” (Kyle Bass, 204) The old mantra is that people don’t change unless they have to, that it is neccesity that is the birth of invention. I scarcely cannot disagree with Forrester on this point, I don’t see a tipping point on the horizon for our culture to slow down and consider being human again. However, the signs are layered everywhere that what we are presently pacing is not only not working, it isn’t sustainable. Will we fight for our future with a thorough reflection, or will we enter into reactivity and lament revealing all the cracks in the foundation just below the surface?
Forrester concludes his thoughts with this gem, “Time for reflection is an open invitation to discover what awaits us. . . ” (217) That kind of leadership requires a steady confidence and a centered being that yet believes in hope. That does not come from the race of the hare, it comes from the tortoise who reminds us that “slowly does it every time!”.