Slow down!

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A car approaching a bend in the road, with a large speed limit sign ahead.
Maybe slowing down would be easier if the dangers of speed were clearer. OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay, manipulated by lee lim

Nobody seems to care where they go as long as they get there fast

The culture of glorifying speed is all around us. It has been decades since we opted for fast food, where the time between walking in and having your food ready has progressively been cut down, often along with the quality of the food being served. Online and in bookstores, the selection of books promising some sort of fast reward or another only seems to grow.  

Some people want their ideal body in six weeks, some want to learn the buzzword technology of the week in 72 hours, and some are as ambitious as to look for a book that helps them find happiness and meaning in five simple steps. 

Our entertainment landscape is also changing. Fewer people reach out to a book that calls for deep, sustained focus and perhaps days of engaged reading. There was a time when the competition for the deep mental demands made by books was the relatively shallow demands of a movie or a TV show. Since then, we have only become even more efficient with our time. Today, the primary form of entertainment is social media reels and YouTube videos, and anything above 30 seconds is getting swiped away with one smooth motion of the thumb.  

Everything around us, from the pursuit of a meaningful life to just being entertained in our downtime, is now reduced to snappy one-liners and catchy taglines. It seems we are losing our ability for patience, focus, and above all, nuance.  

So, why is that a problem? If people are happy with 30 second reels, crash courses on crypto currencies, and fad diets that have you eating carbs only when there is a full moon and a crow faces East, why am I whining? Well, for one, I enjoy whining. But, secondly, I am not convinced that what makes us happy here and now is what is good for us months and years down the line. 

The weight we lose with some extreme fad diet can leave people with an eating disorder, and we gain it all back as soon as we stop tracking the phases of the moon. We miss out on masterpieces of cinema, television, and literature because we cannot sustain attention on anything long enough to enjoy the subtleties of art the greatest craftsmen of the world have brought us.  

How do you enjoy and relish every second of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds if you have to look at your phone every time there isn’t an explosion on the screen? How do you enjoy the beauty of Stoic philosophy or Jewish mysticism if you have to check your social media every few minutes? And while you might be able to manage a surface level knowledge of the latest crypto currency in 72 hours, will you ever really be able to compete with someone who understands the fundamentals of it and has spent a decade mastering every aspect of those fundamentals? 

What is easily earned is often easily lost. That is why our obsession with the fastest and easiest routes to reaching a goal might be worth getting a grip on. Further, this relentless drive for more, and to get it as quickly as possible, is hurting us, if not killing us.  

The number of people struggling with mental health challenges is steadily on the rise. Most of us are unsatisfied with our own lives, often because we are comparing it against not merely a neighbor or peer, but the supremely curated social media posts of everyone we are acquainted with. Like a friend of mine once remarked, no one posts photos on the days when everything has gone wrong, their favourite jeans are caked in mud, and all they have to eat is canned tuna. We post photos of our best moments, and yet when we look at those of others, we are convinced this is how they live, look, and feel every day. 

To me, what it all boils down to is that we have become impatient, and unwilling to sustain attention on hard things. At some level we have become, or are quickly becoming, unable to do hard things. At the first sign of mental strain, of pushback, we reach for our phones and get entertainment on demand. If there are ever five minutes in a day when we are not being amused, we reach into our pockets. And over time, we need more and more entertainment. 

Except, how can we advance in our education and our professions if we cannot persist and work hard on things that do not initially come easy to us? What would the world of literature be like if Stephen King stopped writing every time he felt a block, and scrolled TikTok instead? How long would it have taken humanity to unravel the mysteries of the universe if Sir Isaac Newton kept interrupting his work on gravitation to be entertained, or did not have the perseverance to figure out the completely new kinds of math his work called for?  

These may sound reductive, but how do we know that some of the most promising minds today, the ones who could find cures for cancer or end world hunger, are not constantly bombarded by distractions and feeling pressured to do something quick and simple? We have glorified fast, easy, and shallow. What I worry about is that most of our advancement has happened by doing things that are slow, hard, and deep. 

I want to see this trend change. I want to see more and more people refusing the glitz of quick gratification, of pursuing some constant stream of shallow entertainment. I want to see more of us choose to do less, but with more passion. I want to do hard things that leave me a little tired, but over time help me feel like I am becoming a better person.  

I want to make demands of myself to pursue a deep, focused life. And I hope many, many others will join me in saying no to fast, shallow, and easy. 

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