Grow Up Slowly

About a year ago, I had lunch with a very successful couple.  The husband had made a great deal of money early in life on a business start-up in a big city.  After running the firm for a time, he sold most of his shares and the family moved to a picturesque rural dwelling.  He spends but a few hours a week involved with his business, and the rest of his time is spent pursuing his passion for music and a great many other things.  His wife is busy pursuing her passions in art and other cultural affairs.

I asked what prompted such a dramatic change at this early phase in life, especially when they could have easily continued with managing the business, or started another.  They said, in complete agreement, “We moved out here because we wanted our kids to grow up slowly.”

I told my wife about the conversation, and those words have stuck with us ever since.  Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of it.  We haven’t fully internalized it, but I know it was important for us to hear and consider while raising our own children.  It’s easy to get stressed when they don’t walk right at the average age for walking, or don’t read or ride a bike or swim as early as your friend’s kids.  It’s easy to try to cram their heads full of practical and theoretical knowledge and get them up to speed quickly.  You imagine what you would be if you had been more learned early on.  Or you simply want them to gain independence quicker so you won’t be as limited as a parent.

These are not necessarily bad desires, but this business about letting them grow up slowly just resonates on a deep level.  There is something beautiful about the naivety of kids; about watching them try things they’re not prepared for; about how unaware they are of just how real the world can be.  When they learn organically, on their own time, it’s amazing to see.  Feeling free to sit back and soak it in as a parent is truly wonderful.

Even as I am trying to learn how to let my kids grow up slowly, I’m beginning to understand the benefits of slow growth for myself.  While reading the fascinating book, How They SucceededI came across some interesting words by Alexander Graham Bell.  The author and interviewer asked, “[I]s not hard study often necessary to success?”  Bell replied,

“No; decidedly not. You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth. Ideas do not reach perfection in a day, no matter how much study is put upon them. It is perseverance in the pursuit of studies that is really wanted.”

I’m the first to say that just getting things done is the key to success.  Does an action bias contradict Bell’s words?  I’m not sure that it does.  Perhaps in the realm of action, haste is a great virtue, but in the realm of thought, slow growth is preferred: act fast, think slow.  Not the best slogan, but there’s something to it.

The things we need to get out of the way – certain credentials, experiences, legwork, etc. – just need to be hammered through.  But the really important stuff – our life philosophy, an entrepreneurial venture, a new paradigm, a book – needs to grow slowly with our experience and knowledge.  It needs persistent mental activity, but not forced completion.

Since blogging every day, I have found occasions where I have nothing for the next day’s post.  There are two ways to remedy the problem.  The first is to quickly scan the news feeds, inbox, or bookshelf, come up with something, and type it.  The second is to search for ideas that have been incubating for a long while, often subconsciously.  A drive, walk, or talk with a deep-thinking friend can help me discover nascent ideas I didn’t even realize were under the surface.  Those tend to be better than the posts I think up and crank out on the spot.  I’ve also found that viewing a post as the beginning of my own understanding of the topic, rather than my final word or magnum opus, is intellectually enriching and produces a wealth of new ideas down the road.  But more on that later…

Bell concludes on the topic,

“Man is the result of slow growth; that is why he occupies the position he does in animal life. What does a pup amount to that has gained its growth in a fevv days or weeks, beside a man who only attains it in as many years. A horse is often a grandfather before a boy has attained his full maturity. The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion. That intellectuality is more vigorous that has attained its strength gradually. It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider, and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation, persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”