Slow Motion

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When I first moved to Portland from Los Angeles, I couldn’t believe how fun it was to drive here.

Driving in Los Angeles had meant spending three hours a day trapped in my car going 10 to 15 miles an hour in bumper-to-bumper. During those rare times when there was not a traffic jam, there was just a long tailgating parade stretching out to into the horizon with everyone driving 75 to 80 miles an hour and darting in and out of lanes.

And even this was an improvement over driving in San Francisco, where I grew up. In that town you don’t think twice about crossing a double yellow line to make a right angle turn to get your cars nose into a parking space. If you do this you can block both directions of traffic and lay claim to your own exclusive slice of metered parking real estate a mere five blocks from the Afghani place where you will be dining that evening.

But Portland was just different. For one thing there was always parking, everywhere. And for another thing everyone just drove slower. And finally everyone’s first impulse seemed (strangely) to be to let the other guy in. How laughable!

I felt kind of like a shark in a sea of orphaned Harp seal pups. If I wanted the left lane and 80 miles an hour all to myself, all I had to do was turn on my blinker and merge.

R9C0109Mmmmmm….baby harp seals

But over time a funny thing happened. The general lack of competition for parking spaces, and lack of traffic jams, and lack of driving distances, and the relentless niceness of my fellow drivers, conspired to make me less competitive and less eager to go fast.

Before I knew it, I was just another a harp seal driving 50 miles an hour in the right-hand lane. And the harp seal was me.

And surprisingly, being prey was a lot of fun. It was less stressful. It was happier.

Which is kind of the point of this post.

This is really about the power and happiness-inducing properties of going slow.

At first glance fast is cool and slow is lame. No one ever strived to be the slowest kid in their class.

But maybe they should have?

Consider this battle: fast food versus slow food.

Fast food is: industrialized, convenient, unhealthy, mass-market, inhuman, unsustainable, junky, marketed, and efficient.

I suppose there are times when a drive through hits the spot. But they are few and far between.

After a while fast food is the nutritional equivalent of mass-marketing. It’s aimed at the irrational bits of our brain. Our efficiently lazy bits.

We don’t learn anything from a chicken McNugget. We just sink our teeth through the crispy outer layer of lipid encrusted,sodium saturated, simple starches into the moist bodiless animal composite flesh nugget. Our taste buds have been mapped out before hand like the human genome project by a team of food scientists aiming their Excel spreadsheets squarely at our weakest points. Fat. Check. Salt. Check. Sugar. Check. Glutamate’s. Check.

Repeat.

We emerge from the McNugget, slightly less healthy, having learned nothing, and wanting more.

But slow food is different.

Slow food is: Artisanal, local, seasonal, reflective of the individual that makes it, influenced by the environment that produces it, inconsistent, unpredictable, and intensely human.

Sometimes you make something the traditional way, and it doesn’t turn out just right. The pizza is a little bit oblong. The micro greens picked from your front yard have some brown spots. The lemon juice added to your vinaigrette is a little sourer than you anticipated.

But good God, when you taste something created the old-fashioned way by expert hands with local ingredients, it can be transformational.

I think of the mackerel sushi that my wife’s aunt always makes when we visit Kyoto. It’s a ton of work for her . And the fish is strongly flavored and oily and silvery skinned and dark fleshed. But she makes it the way her mother taught her (whose mother taught her etc. etc.) and to eat this perfect piece of sushi is to understand a little bit about what life is (and has been) like in that specific part of that specific city in that specific country.

Or what about fast transit versus slow transit?

Driving somewhere local is: comfortable, convenient, effortless, unsustainable, isolating, and predictable.

If you drive somewhere anything is possible. No effort is expended. (Almost) no package is too big. No thought is wasted. But there are limited sensations. And a limited sense of those around you. And there is a sense of isolation that makes you more likely to react with anger towards others. (It’s easier to yell at someone when you know they can’t hear you.) And let’s face it, there are externalized costs environmental and otherwise that we’re not really pricing into the experience.

Walking or biking somewhere local is: more strenuous, tiring, cardiovascular, less isolating, more social, less consumerist (you can only buy what you can carry,) And almost perfectly self-contained. (If you walk too far you may get tired, or blisters, but you’re unlikely to be putting the costs of your movement on a credit card to be paid by your grandchildren.)

And I just think about how different I feel after I’ve walked five or six blocks to the grocery store, picked up a couple of bags of groceries and walked back home. I may have seen my neighbor and chatted for a sec. I probably passed a homeless person or two. Maybe I briefly checked out the new store being built in my neighborhood.

But my body feels pretty good. And I feel like I’ve actually been living for the entire experience. (Whereas if I drove to the store most of the time would have been spent in transit and parking and locking doors and closing doors. And my body wouldn’t feel as good, and I would less palpably feel like a member of a larger, connected, group of people.

And finally what about change? Fast change and slow change are very different.

I used to believe that true change was almost impossible. And I’m beginning to believe that I was wrong. And the reason I think I was wrong is because I was blind to the power of slow change.

Fast change, like other fast things, is often possible, but seldom sustainable.

Take weight-loss. It’s easy to lose a lot of weight quickly. You can fast, or go on an Atkins type diet, or count your calories to a significant deficit. But while the weight may fall off, it seldom stays off. For these changes are temporary and they feel temporary to your body and your mind. The weight comes off before your body has really changed or adjusted. And you still have the same old lifestyle to go with the slightly lighter body. The inertia has not been broken and things in motion tend to stay in motion. And we tend to revert to the mean (which in this case is our old way of eating.)

One of the things I like about VB6, is that it’s so slow. The changes are minor, and the weight-loss is gradual. But the weight-loss is no more rapid than your changing state of mind and your bodies changing equilibrium. And you’ll have to check back with me in 15 years, but my feeling is that this way of eating is very sustainable.

Or take financial planning.

On this one I’m almost sure that the correct path towards riches is slow and boring.

SlothDWA

(Old Money)

Small changes in our spending and saving have drastic effects over time. At the same time our savings are slowly growing and compounding and this compounding effect accelerate’s upon itself, so are our needs slowly shrinking.

And it all happens so slowly that it’s tough to perceive. We tend to perceive of things in seconds, and minutes, and hours. But wealth (and true change) is accumulated slowly, in months, and years, and decades.

But the numbers don’t lie. And the slow method of pairing back and saving more and investing passively and in the whole market is the smart money play.

Getting rich fast as is possible, as is winning the lottery. But they’re certainly not probable. And to pursue these paths is to take on bigger odds of ending up poorer.

In this way the patient passive investor is like the casino winning it’s fortune one penny at a time. While the get rich schemer is like a highroller putting his whole stack of money on black, and hoping to come up the big score.

Which I think is a reason why people who get rich quickly (think lottery winners and professional athletes) often end up poor. The money comes to them before they are truly wealthy. They haven’t learned how to accumulate and keep money along the way.

They are like the crash dieter whose mind is fat while his body is newly thin. He is light but not thin. And they have wealth but are not wealthy.

Which is why slow is the way to go.  It moves at the speed of us.  (And so it’s sustainable.)

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8 Responses to “Slow Motion”

  1. Mo June 25, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    What a great post. Just about 2 weeks ago I started forcing myself to just slow down in everything I do and everything you wrote is resonating with me.

  2. Eric June 26, 2014 at 6:48 am #

    Alexi, your blog keeps getting better and you are truly finding your voice as a writer. This post really resonates with me. As a native New Yorker who is still in the rat race but (relatively) recently discovered the world of early retirement (and jumped in with both feet), I am starting to learn to “slow down.”

    • Miles Dividend M.D. June 26, 2014 at 11:36 pm #

      Thanks Eric,

      One of the things that is so nice about the early retirement philosophy is that it is intensly self sufficient. We must hustle and scrimp in order to earn our own future rest. Somehow this awareness of the possibility of future freedom has made me feel less rushed even as I hustle through by busy days. I don’t know if you have noticed a similar paradox since you started your journey.

      Alexi

      • Eric June 27, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

        That’s a nice way of putting it. I’ve had the same experience. On the other hand, I also find that I’ve become so obsessed with the countdown to financial independence that I sometimes forget to stop and enjoy life now in the meantime.

  3. Robert June 26, 2014 at 8:10 am #

    I have 2 comments to this well-written post:

    First, I have to laugh about the driving part. I am a Type A hard-driving person, and hard-driving included behind the wheel. Even when I didn’t have to, I always drove at least 10 mph over the speed limit, using my radar detector to avoid a ticket. (Valentine One–the best!). I figured I had better things to do with my time than sitting in my car. And driving to work? That was the Indy 500. I had a relatively short commute, usually 20 minutes. But I knew every detail of the route, including where the bottlenecks were, where cars backed up in a given lane to make a turn, which types of cars were most likely to be first off the blocks at a light change (and thus the ones to line up behind), and many other tricks of the trade. I’d lane change for a single car length advantage at a light! I’d be in full adrenaline mode for 20 minutes on my way to work, just to be sure I made it in 20 and not 21 or 22!

    But then I retired. The day I retired, I was driving home from work and as the old habits kicked in, I caught myself. Why am I doing this? I have PLENTY of time! And, realizing that I also had a tight budget due to my early retirement choice, I figured I couldn’t afford a ticket or an accident. So why should I speed? I set the cruise control at the speed limit and relaxed. My wife couldn’t believe it the first time she rode with me. That was over 2 years ago and I am still usually driving slowly. I have sped on a few occasions when circumstances seemed to require it, but my habit now is to drive the speed limit. Retiring changed my mindset. The driving is a metaphor for the rest of my life too: less stress, less rushing around, less sense of urgency (though I don’t think in an inappropriate way), less anxiety when chit-chatting with people (which I’d normally be trying to escape to “do something”).

    Which brings me to the second point: I made the switch in driving behavior instantly–like flipping a switch. I could have done it slowly, I suppose. i.e., dial back speed in 1 mph increments over the course of a few years. But I think this is an example of a change that can effectively happen instantly. The reason is that there was a mental change at the same time. A paradigm shift, if you will. I was no longer the hurried, harried working man. I was a leisurely retired man. Once this mental change had occurred, it was EASIER to make a sudden change than a gradual one–the sudden change brought with it release from having to watch for police and watch my speed. A gradual change would only have reduced risk somewhat rather than eliminate it, so wouldn’t have brought the same mental benefits that the sudden change did.

    My wife and I often debate which is the best way to make a change–gradually or rapidly. I’m for instantaneous; she’s for gradual. I think what is easiest may depend on personality. For me, I’d rather go “cold turkey”. She’d rather ease into it. When it comes to friends making changes (cf. your previous blog), I find that some friends make changes suddenly, while others find it easier to take a series of baby steps.

    Maybe it relates to feedback loops and motivation, though I don’t think this explains everything (personality plays a role). When feedback loops are strong and rapid, I think quick change is easier. When feedback is slow and diffuse, it is hard to make quick changes unless your mind has undergone a very strong shift in thinking (i.e., as when I retired). Thus, for example, a friend whose kids constantly had ear infections who finally agreed to try dairy-free and found that the infections quickly cleared up and didn’t return, easily maintained the change. The feedback loop was strong and fast. Another friend took 3-4 months to begin to notice changes in psoriatic arthritis after trying to go dairy-free and wheat-free; for her, the transition has been much slower and harder because the feedback loop was weaker–in part because she cheated. I find for myself that it is easy to do a cold turkey change because I can see the results more quickly and thus find the motivation to continue them. My wife seems to be able to do baby steps and find the motivation in the small incremental improvements that result to continue with more baby steps.

    Unfortunately for baby-steppers, not all changes follow a linear or first order dose-response curve. Some phenomena have exponential curves, and some even follow discontinuous functions with a non-responsive region followed by a step-function change at a threshold dose. With these kinds of phenomena, baby steps may not result in a noticeable change and thus motivation will be lacking and you’ll give up before seeing a benefit. By contrast, a “cold turkey”, “all-in” approach will get a response and thus you’ll find motivation to continue and succeed. Removing (or adding) an allergen to your environment may follow such a threshold type of dose-response curve. Malthusian population growth/collapse in ecosystems follows exponentials in reverse (i.e., a gradual decrease in fishing is not going to prevent total collapse of marine fisheries once over-fishing has destroyed the food chain or reduced populations below the level at which natural predators will finish them off).

    On the other hand, some phenomena have peaks in dose response. Some even have shifting dose-response curves (sensitization/desensitization). Exercise is an example of these. Going slow/gradually is generally best. If you go from sedentary to “all in” and run a marathon, you’d probably hurt yourself. You might be unable to even walk for a long time. By the same token, to continue to see improvements, you must continue to increase the level of exercise intensity (weight lifters are familiar with this), as your body develops tolerance and the dose-response curve shifts.

    Change is indeed a complex phenomena. I don’t know that there is a single “best” way to make change. I suspect it depends on both the phenomena and the person involved. I also suspect that belief/faith is critical–you have to believe that the change will bring desired results or you won’t do it. If strong enought, this belief/faith can sustain you even if you don’t get quick feedback. Maybe that is where our personal stories come in. When you can share with a friend that “When I changed X I got Y but it took several months or years to see the results”, that story can sustain the faith of the friend during the initial period when change brings no obvious gain and sometimes even pain.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. June 26, 2014 at 11:30 pm #

      Robert,

      I too am by nature impatient. And there’s nothing wrong with immediate gratification. But mastery and success are often dependent on persistence and grit, rather than rapid execution.

      I suspect your mathematical/scientific bent, gives you some sensitivity to the power that small repetitive changes have to exert big effects on outcomes when it comes to logarithmic processes.

      AZ

  4. John June 26, 2014 at 8:32 am #

    A big turning point for me in my early thirties was learning
    The distinctions between net worth and cash flow (active and passive).
    Keeping financial score in this way gave me a framework, compass bearing, and a trajectory in earnings and savings that kept me clearly on course for these past 30 years.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. June 26, 2014 at 11:25 pm #

      John,

      That is a good point. Documenting progress allows us to see it. We are what we measure…

      Alexi

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