How can I learn to be intelligently slow?

Answer: Read this lovely anecdote by Martin Seligman from his book Flourish:

There is more to intelligence and high achievement than sheer speed. What speed does is give you extra time to carry out the non-automatic parts of the task. The second component of intelligence and achievement is slowness and what you do with all that extra time that being fast affords you.

Mental speed comes at a cost. I found myself missing nuances and taking shortcuts when I should have taken the mental equivalent of a deep breath. I found myself skimming and scanning when I should have been reading every word. I found myself listening poorly to others. I would figure out where they were headed after their first few words and then interrupt. And I was anxious a lot of the time–speed and anxiety go together.

I 1974 we hired Ed Pugh, a perception psychologist who worked on exacting questions such as how many photons of light are needed to fire off a single visual receptor. Ed was slow. He wasn’t physically slow ( he had been the quarterback of his Louisiana high school team), and it wasn’t just the drawl, it was his rate of speech and his reaction time to a question. We called Ed “thoughtful.”

I found myself at a party with Ed, and during a long pause . . .I asked Ed, “How did you become so slow?”
“I wasn’t always slow, Marty. I used to be fast; almost as fast as you are. I learned to become slow. Before my PhD, I was a Jesuit. my socius [the mentor who socializes the Jesuit student, in contrast to the other mentor who grades the student] told me I was too fast. So every day he would give me one sentence to read, and then he made me sit under a tree for the afternoon and think about that sentence.”

“Can you teach me to be slow, Ed?”

Indeed he could.

We read Soren Kierkegaards’s Fear and Trembling together, but at the rate of one page a week, and to top it off, my sister, Beth, taught me transcendental meditation. I practiced TM faithfully forty minutes a day for twenty years.  I cultivated slowness, and I am now even slower than Ed was then. (p 110-112).

wisdom in an anecdote

  1. “My friend Stephen Post, professor of Medical Humanities at Stony Brook, tells a story about his mother. When he was a young boy, and his mother saw that he was  in a bad mood, she would say, “Stephen,  you are looking piqued. Why don’t you go out and help someone?”

    Empirically, Ma Post’s maxim has been put to rigorous test, and we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the simple most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

    (From Flourish by Martin Seligman, 2011, p 20.)


  2. [Giovanni] endured himself to me forever the first night we met, when I was getting frustrated with my inability to find the words I wanted in Italian, and he put his hand on my arm and said, “Liz, you must be very polite  with yourself when you are learning something new.”

    (From Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, p 59.)


  3. “My thoughts turn to something I read once, something the Zen Buddhists believe.  They say that an oak tree is brought into creation by two forces at the same time.  Obviously, there is the acorn from which it all begins, the seed which holds all the promise and potential, which grows into the tree.  Everybody can see that.  But only a few can recognize that there is another force operating here as well —  the future tree itself, which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being, drawing the seedling forth with longing out of the void, guiding the evolution from nothingness to maturity. In this respect, say the Zens, it is the oak tree that creates the very acorn from which it was born. I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life that I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life, liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other than myself.  I think of everything I endured before getting here and wonder if it was me–I mean , this happy and balanced me, who is now dozing on the deck of this small Indonesian fishing boat–who pulled the other, younger, more confused and more struggling me forward during all those hard years.  The younger me was the acorn full of potential, but it was the older me, the already-existent oak, who was saying the whole time: “Yes–grow!  Change!  Evolve!  Come and meet me here, where I already exist in wholeness and maturity!  I need you to grow into me!” (From Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, p 344-5)..
  4. “I have a history of making decisions very quickly about men.  I have always fallen in love fast and without measuring risks.  I have a tendency not only to see the best in everyone, but to assume that everyone is emotionally capable of reaching his highest potential.  I have fallen in love more times than I can count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself, and then I have hung on to the relationship for a long time (sometimes far too long) waiting for the man to ascend to his own greatness.  Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism.”(From Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, p 298-9)..
  5. “[Wayan] said, “I know cure for broken heart.” Authoritatively, and in a doctorly manner, Wayan ticked off her fingers the six elements of her Fail-Proof Broken-Heart Curing Treatment: “Vitamin E, get much sleep, drink much water, travel to a place far away from the person you loved, meditate and teach your heart that this is your destiny.” (From Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, p 276)..

  6. Karma is a philosophy I have always liked.  Not so much literally.  Not necessarily because I believe that I used to be Cleopatra’s bartender–but more metaphorically.  The karmic philosophy appeals to me on a metaphorical level because even in one lifetime it’s obvious how often we must repeat our same mistakes, banging our heads against the same old addictions and compulsions, generating the same old miserable and often catastrophic consequences, until we can finally stop and fix it.  This is the supreme lesson of karma (and also of Western psychology, by the way)–take care of the problems now, or else you’ll just have to suffer again later when you screw everything  up the next time.  And that repetition of suffering–that’s hell.  Moving out of that endless repetition to a new level of understanding–there’s where you’ll find heaven.”(From Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, p 274).

  7. “I keep remembering a simple idea my friend Darcey told me once — that all the sorrow and trouble of this world is caused by unhappy people.  Not only in the big global Hitler-‘n’-Stalin picture, but also on the smallest personal level.  Even in my own life, I can see exactly where my episodes of unhappiness have brought suffering or distress or (at the very least) inconvenience to those around me.  The search for contentment is, therefore, not merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act, but also a generous gift to the world.  Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way.  You cease being an obstacle, not only for yourself but to anyone else.  Only then are you free to serve and enjoy other people.”(From Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, p 273)..

  8. “Three twelve-year-olds are heading to a soccer field for gym class. Two athletic-looking boys are walking behind–and snickering at–the third, a somewhat chubby classmate. “So you’re going to try to play soccer,” one of the two says sarcastically to the third, his voice dripping with contempt. The chubby boy closes his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. Then he turns to the other two and replies, in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, “Yeah, I’m going to try—but I’m not very good at it.” After a pause, he adds, “But I’m great at art—show me anything, and I can draw it real good…” Then, pointing to his antagonist, he says, “Now you—you’re great at soccer— really fantastic! I’d like to be that good someday, but I’m just not. Maybe I can get a little better at it if I keep trying.” At that, the first boy, his disdain now utterly disarmed, says in a friendly tone, “Well, you’re not really that bad. Maybe I can show you a few things about how to play.”That short interaction offers a masterly display of “social intelligence.” By keeping cool, the aspiring artist resisted the pull to anger from the other’s sarcastic taunt and instead brought the other boy into his own more friendly emotional range.”(from Social Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, p 82)..

  9. “A woman whose sister had recently died got a sympathy call from a male friend who had lost his own sister a few years before. The friend expressed his condolences, and the woman, touched by his  empathic words, told him poignant details of the long illness her sister had suffered, and she described how bereft she  herself felt at the loss. But as she talked, she could hear the clicking computer keys at the other end of the line. A slow realization dawned: her friend  was answering his e-mail, even as he was talking to her in her hour of pain. His comments became increasingly hollow, perfunctory, and off-point as the conversation continued. Aftter they hung up, she felt so dejected that she wished he had never called at all.  She’d just had a gut punch of the interaction the the philosopher Martin Buber called “I-It”. (from Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, p 105).

  10. Albert Ellis, founder of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy, is affectionately regarded as the grandfather of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  At 19 he was painfully shy and eager to change his behavior. In one exercise he staked out a bench in a park near his home, determined to talk to every woman who sat there alone. In one month, he said, he approached 130 women. “Thirty walked away immediately,” he said in the Times interview. “I talked with the other 100, for the first time in my life, no matter how anxious I was. Nobody vomited and ran away. Nobody called the cops.” Though he got only one date as a result, his shyness disappeared, he said.He similarly overcame a fear of speaking in public by making himself do just that, over and over. He became an accomplished public speaker.“The trouble with most therapy is that it helps you feel better,” he told The New York Times in an interview in 2004.  “But you don’t get better. You have to back it up with action, action, action.” (reported in his Obituary in the New York Times)..
  11. “I was in a gym one time with a friend of mine who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology. He was focusing on building strength. He asked me to “spot” him while he did some bench presses and told me at a certain point he’d ask me to take the weight. “But don’t take it until I tell you,” he said firmly.So I watched and waited and prepared to take the weight. The weight went up and down, up and down. And I could see it begin to get harder. But he kept going. He would start to push it up and I’d think, “There is no way he’s going to make it.” But he’d make it. Then he’d slowly bring it back down and start back up again. Up and down, up and down.Finally, as I looked at his face, straining with the effort, his blood vessels practically jumping out of his skin, I thought,“This is going to fall a nd collapse his chest. Maybe I should take the weight. Maybe he’s lost control and he doesn’t even know what he’s doing.” But he’d get it safely down. Then he’d start back up again. I couldn’t believe it.When he finally told me to take the weight, I said, “Why did you wait so long?”“Almost all the benefit of the exercise comes at the very end, Stephen,” he replied. “I’m trying to build strength. And that doesn’t happen until the muscle fiber ruptures and the nerve fiber registers the pain. Then nature overcompensates and within 48 hours, the fiber is made stronger.”I could see his point.. It’s the same principle that works with emotional muscles as well, such as patience. When you exercise your patience beyond your past limits, the emotional fiber is broken, nature overcompensates, and next time the fiber is stronger.”

    (from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, p 290-291)


  12. Let’s consider your belief that it would be terrible if someone disapproved of you. Why does disapproval pose such a threat?. . .Suppose you were visiting the psychiatric ward of a hospital. A confused, hallucinating patient approaches you and says, “You are wonderful. I had a vision form God. He told me the thirteenth person to walk through the door would be the Special Messenger. You are the thirteenth, so I know you are God’s Chosen One, the Prince of Peace, the Holy of Holies. Let me kiss your shoe.” Would this extreme approval elevate your mood? You’d probably feel nervous and uncomfortable. That’s because you don’t believe what the patient is saying is valid. You discredit the comments. It is only your beliefs about yourself that can affect the way you feel. Others can say or think whatever they want about you, good or bad, but only your thoughts will influence your emotions.

    . . .Imagine that you made a second visit to the psychiatric hospital ward. This time a different hallucinating patient approaches you and says, “You’re wearing a red shirt. This shows you are the Devil! You are evil” Would you feel bad because of this criticism and disapproval? Of course not. Why would these disapproving words not upset you? It’s simple–because you don’t believe that the statements are true. You must “buy into” the other person’s criticism–and believe that you are in fact no good–in order to feel bad about yourself.

    Did it ever occur to you that if someone disapproves of you, it might be his or her problem? Disapproval often reflects other people’s irrational beliefs.

    (from Feeling Good:The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns, p 291-2)

The secrets of a happy marriage — from “Tuesdays with Morrie”

Have you heard of the book Tuesdays with Morrie?

It was published in 1997 and has sold 14 million copies.  It’s about American writer Mitch Alborn, who, every Tuesday visits his old professor, Morrie, who is dying, to learn what life has taught him.

One day, Mitch asks  Morrie about marriage:  

Mitch:  Is there some kind of rule to know if a marriage is going to work?

 Morrie:  Things are not that simple. Still, there are a few rules I know to be true about love and marriage: 

If you don’t respect the other person, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble.

If you don’t know how to compromise, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble.

If you  can’t talk openly about what goes on between you, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble.

And if you don’t have a common set of values in life, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble.

Your values must be alike. And the biggest one of those values is your belief in the importance of your marriage. 


My comment: Morrie is talking about marriage, but his advice applies equally well to close friendships.