Take it slow

While I was living in Prague, I read a very delightful book called The Discovery of Slowness, by German novelist Sten Nadolny. The 1983 novel is a fictionalized and romanticized account of the life of Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), a British naval explorer whose attempt to find the imagined Northwest Passage in the icy Arctic seas of the North American continent ended in disaster.

Image of relics of Franklin 1845 NW passage from Illustrated London News
The slowness referred to in the novel plagued Franklin as a child. He was awkward and couldn't keep up with his classmates in school or at games. But his slow, steady approach to problem-solving made him uniquely qualified in his British naval career, where he established his reputation as a man of valor and skill by finding and eliminating snipers in battle.

His downfall was his obsession with being the first to find the Northwest Passage, a quest which did not play on his strengths of resolution and persistence but instead involved him in a race against the harsh climate and geography of grinding ice and chilling cold. Franklin paid with his life for not sticking with what he could do best--achieving success by patience and close observation of things that can be best understood slowly.

Sir John Franklin. Lithograph.
I loved this book and was intrigued by the premise of slowness as an asset. American life rewards the quick and the clever, the people who are ahead of the crowd and act decisively in changing conditions. Never have I seen a prize for slowness in a marathon, nor have I noticed the best baseball scores going to those who fumble the ball, miss the catch or get caught between bases. Fast wins; being first is all that counts in most American competitions.

In Europe, The Discovery of Slowness was a blockbuster success, hailed as Nadolny's masterpiece. Its careful examination of the nature and advantages of slowness started a modest trend, maybe something like the slow food trend in the US. Slowness became the preferred way to live, encouraging people to take time to look around and notice things that are not necessarily going to help them break speed records or win a business contract, but might help them see the world in a more meaningful way.

Lately I have been contemplating Nadolny's novel and the benefits of slowness. Living in the US again has reawakened my competitive streak and nudged me into the fast lane. I end each day overstimulated, scolding myself for my paltry accomplishments. This is an unrewarding way to live, and I am calling a halt to the urge to go faster than need be. I will discover and practice slowness, like Franklin. "Take it slow" is my motto for the day.


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