4 min read
It is ironic that by slowing down and focusing on what is truly essential, one can actually do things faster and achieve maximum growth.
Slow growth is no oxymoron. Growth is slow.
If one happens to force growth, there will be collateral damages or externalised environmental costs, as we see clearly with the ongoing climate crisis that really takes its roots in centuries, if not millenia, of human and environmental exploitation.
Likewise, many forest monocultures grow very fast, and are wiped out just as fast when a bad storm comes along. Oak trees, and related hardy bark-strong siblings, grow slowly, but also stronger. They may even outlive dozens of human generations.
So let’s nurture our roots. Each at their own pace.
Learning to see the roots
Inspired by many others, I have written a few pieces about minimalism and its implications for cities, the built environment and slow growth. This post I wrote 2017 briefly covers the design aesthetics, philosophical, and engineering dimensions of minimalism and resource efficiency. A more recent post presents a deeper dive into the slow growth and self-discovery dynamics of getting more from less, including this very fuzzy experience sometimes labelled as ‘contentment’. Finally, another contribution serves as companion explorations to a slow urban manifesto which led to the name to this blog, marked by a tribute to late Leonard Cohen, who always took it slow, but was no less ‘successful’ than any other iconic songster of our troubled, modern times.
As with beauty, speed and efficiency are in the eyes of the beholder. Slow may well be the new fast, and a minimal mindset the most reliable way to maximise our contribution to the world. But there again – who is watching anyway?
In devising our own lives, careers, projects and innumerable daily practices and rituals, it always pays to pay homage to those who have made it possible for us to live in the first place, and to extend their work whichever way we can. As I researched the aesthetic dimensions and cultural identities present in post-war jazz in my undergrad dissertation, I came across the fascinating figure of the Signifying Monkey, a core if tacit aspect of much Afro-American culture with specific overseas roots that have been traced back to Yoruba culture. In essence, to name something is to ‘signify’ it – to refer to it with due respect and gratitude, if not praise. To signify is also to appropriate, interpret and make our own. By extension, to name is also to extend others’ work and legacy.
Seeing the roots of why we are able to achieve great things, or fail miserably while trying, can be the great equaliser that helps us to grow in gratitude and memory of all those who have come before. We really stand on the shoulders of giants.
The Signifying Monkey is at the heart of jazz music, rap music, and all manners of artistic and creative endeavours that ‘borrow’ from others in style, philosophy or content. Scholarly work, as are crafts and trades and other relational careers, constitute the practice of referring to constellations of other practitioners, not least of which our own mentors and masters/teachers/leaders who have transferred their way of doing and seeing to us, so we may make it our own. As Picasso would have it: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. Hence the (nearly as famous) signifying book by Austin Kleon Steal Like An Artist.
So next time you make something that’s great (or rubbish, for that matter), you can always look back at the roots to see who (or what) really made it. As these types of roots always seem to lead to more roots, you might find that what you consciously signify is only a very small part of what is being really named. Although the roots of creativity and naming reach infinitely in time and space, it can also just be a light, casual practice. A bit like the way Odyssey sang in Going Back to My Roots…
Leveraging much more from much less, and great speed from underrated slowness
Having identified and named some of the roots that empower and bring meaning to your work, one can be more intentional about it to leverage its greatest value, faster and bigger.
So the next we want to go really fast, consider slowing down the pace to focus on what is most worthy. And the next time you want to own the whole wide world, start by appreciating all the great things that are already there without even trying.
But don’t take my word for it. I’m just learning.
Here are five helpful resources
The 40 hour workweek (13 min Youtube video), by Matt D’Avella Where it comes from, what it means for the Great Resignation, and how it might evolve into an Icelandic-type 32 hour flextime week that trades clocked-in time for real tangible output. Witty and serious at the same time. Check out also The Ground Up Show podcast trail featuring video interviews of 100+ intentional entrepreneurs who serve their community like no other.
Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less, and Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most – two game-changing books by Greg McKeown. Check out also the What’s Essential podcast to really get at the core of things. Being more essential(ist) is also about intentionally making the most of our limitations and the scary finitude of our short human lives – which can be immensely helpful regardless of our worldviews – whether we identify as stoic, spiritual, religious, ‘happy-go-lucky’, existential, sceptic or anything else.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport – a classic book about why self-efficacy, skill and the satisfaction of nurtured contribution trump passion in the career(s) you pursue. The book features rich real-life interviews with people who learned it the hard way – starting with a disillusioned Zen-monk turned mindful Everyman at a high-paying company.
→ You can also find the gist of that central argument in Scott Galloway’s 2 minute presentation: ‘Don’t follow your passion’ — and this other remarkable career advice video by him (4 min) that provides a compelling counterbalancing act to the 4 hour week utopia. Among others, skill is about grit and excelling at two core competencies in your field that don’t naturally fit together (e.g. data science AND critical urban studies). Highly recommended watch, engaging watch leveraged by a superb graphic design crew.
Life is easy, why do we make it so hard? TEDx talk by Jon Jandai (15 min). It’s all about choice between intentional simplicity and perpetual ‘busyness’, and the inherent limitations each life path entails.
Life Lessons from 100-Year-Olds. A golden video worth at least 300 years of cumulative experience, in less than 14 minutes.