The Slow University?

Not long ago I delivered a Slow sermon in Vienna.

Well, not exactly a sermon. More a secular keynote to a group of high-octane business folk.

But the venue itself could not have been more holy: a thousand-year-old crypt with gilded altarpieces, flickering candles and burning incense. With thick walls blocking out phone and WiFi signals, the silence felt almost spiritual.

After my talk on the virtues of slowing down, the church’s monsignor, who also attended the soirée, came up to me to make a confession.

“As I was listening to you, I suddenly realised how easy it is for all of us to get infected by the impatience of the modern world,” he said. “Lately, I must admit, I have been praying too fast.”

We both laughed at the irony of a man of the cloth behaving like a man in a suit, but his transgression underlined just how far the virus of hurry has spread.

These days, it’s not just high-octane business people living in fast forward. Even those who devote their lives to serene contemplation in thousand-year-old crypts can end up racing the clock.

My encounter with the fast-praying monsignor came to mind the other day in Durham, England.

I was up north attending a seminar entitled The Slow University? Its purpose: To explore whether higher-education could benefit from an injection of slowness.

Now, if you haven’t set foot on a campus for a while, your first response to that proposition might be: Isn’t university life already slow enough?

Surely it’s all about sandal-wearing professors leafing through dusty tomes and students rolling out of bed at noon to watch TV quiz shows. And think of all that vacation time!

Actually, that caricature bears scant resemblance to university life today.  The rising cost of tuition has helped to change the mood. But campus-dwellers also face the same forces that fuel the culture of speed everywhere else: the obsession with targets and measurable outcomes, competition, budget cuts, technology, social media, the cult of multitasking.

Like most institutions in this age of austerity, universities are under pressure to do more with less. Academics have to work longer hours and publish or perish; students feel compelled to rush through their degree with jam-packed schedules. Walk around any campus and you’ll find most of the denizens tethered to beeping tablets and vibrating iPhones.

The Durham University seminar was a wake-up call.

About 30 academics and postgraduates from a range of disciplines gathered in a cramped room to chew over what speed and slowness mean to college life. Their chief lament: the cult of speed is crowding out high-calibre thinking.

“You just don’t have enough time to mull things over, to let an idea simmer in the back of your mind, to build an argument slowly, ” said one professor. “It’s all about getting whatever thoughts you have right now out into the world, even if they’re only half-baked.”

This is a lamentable state of affairs.

Of course, thinking fast can be immensely useful. Sometimes an off-the-cuff tweet or a heat-of-the-moment blog is just what the doctor ordered. But not always.

Often it pays to think more slowly. When we are calm, unhurried and free from stress and distractions, the brain slips into a richer, more nuanced and more creative mode of thought. Some call this Slow Thinking, and the best minds have always understood its power.

Milan Kundera talked about “the wisdom of slowness.” Albert Einstein was famous for spending ages staring into space in his office at Princeton University. Charles Darwin called himself a “slow thinker.”

That slower, deeper thinking paves the way for the sort of ideas that turn the world upside down and win Nobel prizes. It cannot be measured, timetabled or accelerated. It cannot be switched on or off to meet someone else’s target. It simply happens. Or rather it happens when people are given the time, space and freedom to let the mind wander and play with ideas.

In our impatient, data-drenched, turbo-charged world, we need Slow Thinking more than ever. As Boris Pasternak said in 1917: “In an epoch of speed, one must think slowly.”

Perhaps universities, which first sprang up as havens for deep thinking and patient learning, could lead the charge.

Already, people on campuses around the world are rallying to the idea that slowing down would foster better thinking, learning and research. Just look at the movements for Slow Scholarship and Slow Science.

Or at the letter penned by the dean of Harvard’s undergraduate school urging students to shift into a lower gear. Its title: Slow Down: Getting More Out Of Harvard By Doing Less

The Durham seminar was just a starting point, with more questions than answers. The aim is to build a series of debates to thrash out whether our universities should reconnect with their inner tortoise and how to make that happen.

Where will it all lead? What would a Slow university actually look like?

At this point, no one really knows. But I’m praying (slowly, of course!) that something useful comes out of this….

Guest Blog: the power of Daydreaming


This is a post from Del Shannon, a civil engineer who also writes books for children. His full bio is down below.

Here he muses on the joys and benefits of daydreaming, for grown-ups and kids.

Hope you enjoy it!



My wife, when she’s not infuriated by the behavior, calmly points out to nearly everyone she meets that I disappear sometimes. I’ve tried to politely point out that this most often happens when she’s making a very important point about one of her sisters, but I’ve learned this isn’t a viable defense and so now I just keep my mouth shut.

Fascinating conversations about my wife’s sisters aside, I’ve been doing this – call it daydreaming, escaping, out-to-lunch, zoning out – all my life. When I first read the “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” I thought James Thurber had somehow crawled inside my head, taken a few notes, and changed my name to Walter before writing his short story.

Even amongst the frustrations this causes to those around me I’ve never tried to seriously rein in this little quirk about my personality. Being able to let my mind wander to distant lands while someone raged for 15 minutes about the misuse of assigned parking spaces during a work meeting was a pretty handy little skill. Why would I mess with that?

While it is tempting to offer up this behavior as irresponsible or even immature, recent research is pointing to the very tangible benefits of daydreaming and exploring your imagination. A March 2012 study in the online journal Psychological Science found a direct correlation between the amount of daydreaming a person does and their working memory capacity. In general terms, the higher an individual’s working memory capacity the higher their reading comprehension, IQ score and other measures of intelligence.

It turns out we all get distracted, but the authors found that those with the highest working memory capacity were those who let their mind wander and daydream the most. On the surface, that can appear counterintuitive. The smartest people are also those who can’t stay focused on a single task? But when you dig into it a bit you start to see the logic. Levinson and Davidson found that your working memory also works to prioritize the most pressing problems from the also-rans. It’s as if the brain, all on its own, bypasses the boring parking space meeting and gets back to the real problems at hand.

Creatively solving these problems is also directly impacted by daydreaming. In a 2009 Psychology Today article about the benefits of daydreaming, Columbia University cognitive psychologist Malia Fox Mason reinforced this idea. “By allowing your mind the freedom to roam, the chances that you’re going to have an insight are much higher. It’s likely that you are going to recombine pieces of information in a novel way.”

All of this brings us to a paradox. I would argue that most of us want to better ourselves, our lives, our position in this world, and to do this we are often shown the template of working harder, learning more, cramming more into your day as the path to achieve these things. It would be folly to try and disagree that this path has led many to better financial lives.

But there might be another, less obvious path to consider as well. By slowing down and allowing more time to let our minds wander, daydream, and revel in the deliciousness of unscheduled hours, you may actually be accomplishing more than the person who schedules their day into 15 minute increments. Very few will argue with the physical benefits of slowing down your life, and now there appears to be tangible productive benefits as well to slowness. By slowing down, our minds are allowed more freedom to daydream, sort through the long list of priorities we all carry around, and approach problems from unique perspectives. Conversations with your spouse’s/partner’s/roommate’s/co-worker’s siblings is a highly recommended place to start.

The same holds for our children. From over-scheduling in the name of cramming as much knowledge as possible into their heads, to stifling their daydreaming by labeling it unproductive, many of our children have been boxed into unimaginative and monochromatic lives. Providing our kids the time and freedom to daydream, explore and imagine on their own is a vital part of their development and we should be encouraging they do more of it…preferably while wearing a cape and a mask.


Del Shannon is a civil engineer who designs and constructs (and sometimes even deconstucts) dams around the world. When not damming, he has written award-winning essays and children’s stories. His first children’s book was the serialized novella The Map, published in several newspapers. Captain Disaster is his second, a novel. Del lives with his family in Colorado and always seems to be daydreaming of Captain Disaster (which you can order here!).

Time for The Slow Fix

How are your New Year’s resolutions coming along?


Still hitting the gym every day? Eating more healthily? Putting your finances in order?


Thought so.


Most of us struggle to last a week on a new regime before sliding back into bad old habits. We lack the willpower to make deep and lasting changes in our lives. What we really want when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve is a quick fix.


Shortcut solutions to life’s problems are not new. Two thousand years ago, Plutarch denounced the army of quacks peddling miracle cures to the citizens of Ancient Rome.


But in today’s on-demand, just-add-water culture, the quick fix has become our default setting in every walk of life. And that is taking a toll.


Why? Because quick fixes seldom deliver on their seductive promise of maximum return for minimum effort. Whether it’s mending a failing company, tackling poverty, treating an illness, or rebuilding a broken relationship, the hardest problems are too complex for band-aid cures.


Newsflash: there is no such thing as “One Tip to a Flat Stomach.”


The good news is there is now an alternative to the quick fix. It’s called, not surprisingly, the Slow Fix.


You may have heard of the Slow Movement, which challenges the canard that faster is always better. You don’t have to ditch your career, toss the iPhone, or join a commune to take part. Living “Slow” just means doing everything at the right speed—quickly, slowly, or at whatever pace delivers the best results.


In other words, fast fixes are sometimes just what the doctor ordered. For certain problems, you have to channel MacGyver, reach for the duct tape, and cobble together whatever solution works right now. Think patching up a wounded soldier on the battlefield or saving someone from choking on a morsel of food by administering the Heimlich manoeuvre.


But when faced with more complex problems, the best policy is usually to apply a Slow Fix.


That means taking the time to: admit and learn from mistakes; work out the root causes of the problem; sweat the small stuff; think long and connect the dots to build holistic solutions; seek ideas from everywhere; work with others and share the credit; build up expertise while remaining skeptical of experts; think alone and together; tap emotions; enlist an inspiring leader; consult and even recruit those closest to the problem; turn the search for a fix into a game; have fun, follow hunches, adapt, use trial and error, and embrace uncertainty.


All of this takes time, and in our impatient world that can seem like an indulgence or a luxury. But the Slow Fix is neither. It’s actually a smart and essential investment in the future. Put in the time, effort, and resources to start tackling a problem thoroughly today, and reap the benefits tomorrow.


Around the world, you see more and more examples of the Slow Fix in action: Couples rebooting damaged relationships. Families ending feuds. Children resolving playground conflicts. People finding lasting ways to lose weight and boost their health. By applying a Slow Fix, I am finally conquering a back problem that has bothered me for more than 20 years.


Slow Fixes are also making inroads on problems that go way beyond the personal sphere: Reformers rescuing a failing school in Los Angeles. Norway and Singapore slashing recidivism rates among criminals. Spain transforming its organ transplant system into the envy of the world. A project lifting children out of poverty in New York. Costa Rican coffee farmers freeing themselves from the vagaries of the international commodity market. Formula One engineers fine-tuning the fastest cars on the planet. Doctors making fewer mistakes. Companies boosting sales and productivity. Designers building better stuff. Scientists making surprising breakthroughs. Developing nations rolling back tropical diseases.


Everywhere you look, from the personal to the collective, the problems we face are more complex and more pressing than ever before. Quick fixes are not the answer.


The time has come to resist the siren call of half-baked solutions and short-term palliatives and start fixing things properly.


The time has come to learn the art of the Slow Fix.






Can gaming spark a revolution in savings?

A few months, ago, I was invited to join a think called the Future Prosperity Panel. It was convened in London by Aviva, a global financial services company. There were nine members (they called us “thinkers”) on the panel, all from different backgrounds. The aim was to reach beyond the traditional confines of the City and Wall Street to find fresh ideas for reshaping financial services for the future.

Each thinker wrote an essay putting forward a single idea. Mine was that we might be able to inspire people to save more if we make saving more like a game. Since I submitted the piece, the media has been full of stories of how “gamification” is working wonders in many fields of human activity. So perhaps I was on to something.

You can read a very abridged version of my essay on Page 3 of today’s Financial Times. An interview with me will be broadcast on Radio 4’s Today Programme very soon (depending on how the News of the World story plays out).

And for the full version of the essay plus a video interview and more background on the think tank, click here.

Jump into the debate and let me know what you think….

Slow Reading

Remember that old Woody Allen joke? “I took a speed reading course. We read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.”

Sounds horribly familiar, doesn’t it? These days we skim through thousands of words a day at high speed. But how much of that ‘reading’ do we actually take in? Or enjoy?

The bottom line is that faster isn’t always better. You don’t gulp down a glass of fine wine. You don’t put Mozart on fast-forward. Sure, there are times when whizzing through a piece of text is the only option. Or maybe even the best option: I certainly don’t linger over the prose in the free newspaper on the Tube. But surely Tolstoy deserves a bit more of our attention.

That’s why the Slow Reading Movement is gaining ground.