Slow Down

When doing challenging things we sometimes get stuck. Often the instinct is to quit, or rush over the difficult parts. I think this is the wrong approach.

I've found that a more useful approach is to take it slow, pay attention, and focus on systems not goals. It is in these difficult moments, when we are stretched to our limits, that the greatest learning and insights occur.

One of my favorite stories on mastery comes from the Chuangzi. It is the story of Cook Ting, a master chef who cuts up an ox with such mastery that everyone is astounded.

Says Cook Ting:

"However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until -- flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away."

And there is a line, repeated often in martial arts, that "Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast".

In in his excellent How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler makes a similar point. Difficult passages, the ones we struggle to understand, must be read slowly and carefully. To be a good reader is to know that different parts of a book are to be read at different speeds.

I think this wisdom applies to any craft, and to life itself. When we come to complicated places it often pays to slow down.