I was driving home from classes near the end of my Chemical Engineering degree. It was a beautiful daily commute along an ancient oak lined parkway. The sun barely seeped through the thick leaf canopy. I should have been lost in the sublime moment, yet I was flying down the road, both hands trying to squeeze the stuffing out of the steering wheel, teeth clenched like a toddler in a food battle. I took a deep breath, shook the shoulders, relaxed my jaw, and wondered, why the hurry? Why the tension? Was the rushing really helping? Did I really accomplish more this way?
I’m going to drive home one big idea over and over again in this post. It will feel excessive, redundant, maybe even excessively redundant. It’s the most obvious point one can make – so there’s no subtlety here. But subtlety isn’t working for most of us. Here it is: We all desperately need to say no to hurry in our lives. In fact, I think the main challenges most of us face are directly connected to an addiction to hurry.
We live in a culture sick with hurry and most of us don’t realize it, and it’s killing us in so many ways. It’s robbing our joy, our ability to live in the moment, and leaving most feeling like they can never do enough. Nobody wants to live that way, yet most of us continue to be lead along with the rest of society in this maddening lifestyle.
When my family and I returned from living in Fiji for six months, I couldn’t believe how overwhelmed I was by the pace of the culture back home. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE was in a hurry. Rushing about from place to place at a frantic, frenetic pace. Yet most of us don’t realize this because it’s the river we’re swimming in. Reminds me of the story of the frog that came up to the edge of the river and asked the fish, “Hey, how’s the water?” and the fish said, “what water?” We’re all blind to the current of our culture. Hurry is firmly woven through every fabric of our society. It’s a cultural sickness that drives us along without even realizing it.
And here’s the huge challenge with that: I’ve rarely been thoughtful, connected deeply with a loved one, made a wise long-term financial decision, or grown spiritually when I’ve been stuck in a season of hurry. I’m talking about a pervasive pattern of hurry – not just the occasional need to sprint for the departing train or airplane gate. When you’re always rushing from one thing to the next and you don’t even know why, that’s a bad place to be.
I recently listened through Thirteen Days, Robert F. Kennedy’s book on the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was quite possibly the most dangerous moment an American President has ever faced. One could even argue for it being so for anyone in the history of the world. It was the moment when the world came closest (that we know of) to a war of utter destruction. The President at the time, John F. Kennedy, surrounded himself with a close-knit group who vigorously debated all sides of the issue. Nearing the end of the process, after many tense moments, and debating what was the biggest decision up to that point, RFK observed the following: “There were arguments back and forth. There were sharp disagreements. Everyone was tense; some were already near exhaustion; all were weighted down with concern and worry. President Kennedy was by far the calmest.”
When others tried to rush the President into a decision, especially ones that involved excessive military force, he refused to be pressured. He refused to be hurried. He refused to be rushed. It was a fantastic display of leadership under stress. His cool hand was a huge factor in his ability to navigate the issue successfully.
If JFK can remain calm on the brink of a global nuclear war, we can too. There is literally nothing you will face as stressful as that. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to remain calm in any situation. Well… except that we are human. I suspect even JFK lost his cool in some trivial moments.
The other day I threw my own version of an adult temper-tantrum over something one notch below a global nuclear crisis: spilled coffee. It wasn’t even that much coffee. No hazmat needed; a paper towel sufficed. In the moment, I could even hear myself saying, “DUDE – this is not that big of a deal.” And yet I kept on. Looking back, it was mostly due to being in a hurry and having little margin. I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to see spilled coffee for what it was – a very small thing. The lack of margin can escalate what would otherwise be pretty small.
How do we develop a lifestyle of calm – one that inoculates against hurry? Let’s start with lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
LESSONS FROM THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS
JFK was noticeably the calmest in the room even when he carried the heaviest weight. How was this? Two reasons stood out for his command and control, and both came from what he learned in books.
The first came from Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, an analysis of the factors leading to WWI in the summer of 1914. The book came out in 1962, just a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it had a deep influence on Kennedy. He noted how “The nations of Europe somehow seemed to stumble into war… through stupidity, individual idiosyncracies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur.” Reflecting on this, the President vowed, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, The Missiles of October,… if anybody is around to write after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace, and every effort to give our adversary room to move.” He knew that remaining calm was key to maintaining this posture.
Second, he looked to another book for some key guiding principles during the crisis. “He took his negotiating credo from the British military analyst Basil Liddell hart (whose book Deterrent or Defense he had reviewed in 1960):
- Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool.
- Have unlimited patience.
- Never corner an opponent and always assist him to save his face.
- Put yourself in his shoes—so as to see things through his eyes.
- Avoid self-righteousness like the devil—nothing is so self-blinding.”
So much could be unpacked from these strategies. Print these out and tape them to your fridge, cubicle, and the back of your phone. You’ll find yourself referencing them often. But for our purposes, the most relevant antidote to hurry to unpack is the idea of “keeping cool.” We have to begin to reprogram our thinking to come to believe calm is more productive and important and leads to more success than hurry.
CALM IS MASTERY
In fact, true mastery is often reflected in a state of calm—even apparent effortlessness. Think of the best athletes in a sport. When they are in a zone, it looks like they’re not even trying—almost bored—they “make it look easy.” The Jordan dunk, the Tiger swing, the Phelps plunge into the pool.
Bob Lepine, co-host of the national radio program FamilyLife Today is this way. He makes asking questions and guiding a conversation appear effortless. But anyone who has tried to do what Bob does quickly realizes it is incredibly difficult at many levels and Bob really is a master in his field. And he always performs in a state of calm. I watched him do dozens of interviews from the other side of the studio glass and never once thought it looked hard. Then one day he interviewed me and a friend. We left that interview session in awe of the way he asked thought provoking questions, interjected key insights, and kept the conversation moving toward a landing place at the twenty-three minute mark.
An interviewer asked rock Climber Alex Honold, the first to climb El Capitan in Yosemite without ropes (why? I don’t know – but he did) – he asked if Alex gets nervous while climbing. Honold said something like, “If I get nervous, something has gone terribly wrong. The climb should be a calm and controlled effort.” Just watching a video of him on a rock face makes my palms sweat and breath shorten. Yet he remains calm cool and collected throughout.
We must reject the notion that busyness equals significance.
Because mastery is usually accomplished in a state of calm.
STAY CALM TO GO FAST
Even the Navy Seals emphasize the tremendous power of calm. They have sayings like “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” When you rush, you’re more likely to make a mistake and have to redo even a simple task. Instead, proceed in an orderly fashion; that’s most likely to be the fastest way to accomplish the objective. They also say, “relax, look around, make a call.” In the midst of the chaos of battle, it’s important to keep your wits and stay calm to make a good decision.
Matthew Weatherly-White in the book My Morning Routine realized that hurry was the enemy of true productivity. He said, “I am more productive when I am not operating with urgency.” He recalled reading of the Chef Thomas Keller and the “pervasive sense of calm in his famous restaurant… How could such incredible food… prepared at such exacting standards, be produced in such a calm environment? The irony is, of course, that the calm environment was the reason for the productivity as it revealed total mastery of the task at hand.”
HOW TO STAY CALM, COOL, and COLLECTED
It’s easy to say, “it’s good to remain calm and cool when under pressure”, but how does one do so? Here are a few strategies for developing a life of calm.
BUILD INTENTIONAL POCKETS OF REFLECTION INTO YOUR LIFE:
Josef Pieper, in his book Leisure, the Basis of Culture compares the modern, frenetic pace of production and consumption and the contempt of leisure to that of the opposite view of the Middle Ages. He notes that “in the Middle Ages, on the contrary, the notions of idleness and sloth were closely associated with the inability to put oneself at leisure.” In fact, he says, “It was precisely [a] lack of leisure, an inability to be at leisure, that went together with idleness; that the restlessness of work-for-work’s-sake arose from nothing other than idleness.” Meaning, being busy for the sake of being busy is a destructive and thoughtless idleness because it is frenetic activity to avoid purposeful activity, which requires contemplation. Pieper says this form of idleness means that “man finally does not agree with his own existence; that behind all his energetic activity, he is not at one with himself.”
This is partly the criticism Jesus levied against Martha when he said, “You are busy and bothered with so many things, yet you have missed the greater thing, to sit at my feet.” Which was more important? Frantically preparing a meal, or listening to Jesus? Which was ‘idleness’? For Martha, sitting still and listening was much harder, and I suspect you can relate. If you often find yourself saying, “I can’t sit still. My mind goes crazy. I’m overwhelmed with all I have to do. I can never take time to read, it’s a waste of time.” I would argue that this is a clear sign that sitting still and reflecting on your life is PRECISELY and emphatically the very thing you should be doing to intentionally combat the cycle you’re stuck in.
If there is no ‘leisure’ – no time to think, plan, reflect, then there is no intentional culture making. One is merely reacting and responding to whatever comes along. And that’s a tough place to be. One of the least productive modes I find myself slipping into is being trapped in a loop of waiting for and then immediately responding to the newest email. It’s an over fascination and valuation of the new. It’s choosing the new over the good. That’s a reactionary mode where I’m now being led along by the whims of others, rather than leading myself. To break that cycle I have to step away from email and do a reset – usually exercise or reviewing or creating a to-do list, or reading something thoughtful.
ADOPT TECHNOLOGIES THAT FORCE YOU TO SLOW DOWN
What we need to help combat this tendency are devices or strategies and technologies to help us purposefully slow down.
Robert Caro, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his biographies on Lydon Johnson, recognized the value of going slowly with his writing. As a young journalist someone said he was ‘thinking with his fingers,’ meaning, he was typing out ahead of his thoughts and not producing the best quality of writing. “I determined to do something to slow myself down, to not write until I had thought things through. That was why I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper, before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter.” He figured out how to use technology (yes, even pen, paper, and the typewriter are ‘technologies’ – as there was a time when these did not exist) to help him become a better writer by forcing him to slow down.
Caro and other writers have learned that it is possible to go too fast. Writing too quickly will likely lead to lesser quality. That’s true in other areas of life. Sometimes you’ll go faster and produce better quality if you intentionally slow down. That’s one reason (among many) why you don’t take a fighter jet to the grocery store.
So what tactics can you employ? Where’s an area of life that you want to improve? How can you improve by slowing down? Pick the one area where you feel the most rushed and frantic. Think through what ‘technology’ can help you slow down (keep in mind that it might be an old technology).
IDEAS TO HELP INTENTIONALLY SLOW DOWN
- Adopt devices that slow you down.
- Swimmers will wear “drag shorts” that slow them down – it makes them stronger though. Go slow to go fast.
- Pick one day a week to drive the speed limit or slower. You’ll arrive more relaxed and less frazzled. Even if it is three minutes later than normal.
- Allow time for a stretching routine after a workout. Go slow to go far (i.e. reduce injury).
BUILD MARGIN INTO YOUR LIFE
Wenedell Berry writes in his book Jaybe Crow of a reflection the main character had about walking versus driving. I’m paraphrasing here… “why is it that you’re more likely to become irate if you have to slow down at all in a car. Yet I can’t ever recall getting mad because I had to pause along the road while walking to allow a squirrel to pass in front of me. There is something about the nature of speed that is more easily inconvenienced even though you’ll still arrive ages earlier in a car versus walking.”
Speeding up in an area of life is more likely to cause us to slip into reactionary tendencies and frustrations. Thus it is critical that the faster you go, the more margin you need to function successfully. Have you ever thought about why it takes so long for cars to get going when a light turns green? Why can’t everyone begin moving forward at the same time? Well, in theory, they could all start moving at the same time. But only if they wanted to stay the same distance at 40mph that they were sitting at the stop light. But since people tend to pull right up next to the car in front of them when stopped, they need time to spread back out. You need more margin for error as you speed up – you need more space to react the faster you go. It takes a moment for all those compressed cars to spread back out to a functional distance. And the faster you go, the more space you need to react, because the effects of every decision are multiplied greatly. MARGIN is the key word here. As speed goes up, margin must increase.
Think of a moment you lost your cool with your kid. If not you, you’ve seen it at the mall or the grocery store—a parent snapping at a kid not because the kid did anything wrong, but because mom or dad were trying to cram too much into the twenty minutes between school and soccer and a child caused a wrinkle in their time continuum. (I’m as guilty as anyone.) In reality, we should plan for the opposite. We should assume we’ll have tons of interruptions and stops and starts with kids in tow and celebrate if anything actually gets accomplished.
IDEAS TO BUILD MARGIN AND REDUCE HURRY
Below are a few ideas for reducing hurry and creating margin. There are likely too many though for any one person to absorb. Pick one that will have the greatest pay-off for your season of life and try to adopt it this week.
- When you find yourself hurrying, pause and ask “Why am I in a hurry right now?” This is like a mini-leisure moment.
- Choose a day to stay home all day. You’ll be forced to relax by not rushing around in a car. Or, one day a month, only walk places instead of driving.
- Turn off all access to the internet once a week. That can help get out of the responding-to-new-things loop.
- BREATHE! Pause and take some deep breaths. You’ll be amazed what it will do to reduce stress.
- Turn off the phone one day a week: I’ve found the phone to be one of the biggest contributors to a hurried lifestyle—and I’ve invited the distraction!
- Take a minute to hug a loved one. You’ll be amazed how that gives you a moment of calm and peace for your soul.
- Have trusted advisors in your life to help give you perspective. Find a day a month to seek out their advice.
- Daily repeat and come to believe the following: Calm and cool is better than busy and bothered (Seals vs. Martha).
- Whisper to your kids when you’re angry. Get down on their level and whisper quietly in their ear. You’ll be amazed how this helps you calm down (and don’t yell-whisper. Truly whisper.)
In Summary, here are the big ideas from this post:
- I rarely hear from God when I’m in a hurry. Joseph Pieper: “Only the silent hear.”
- A frenzied, reactionary pace of life is a sign that I’m not in control of my life but being driven by outside forces. Fred Mitchell said, “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.”
- True Mastery occurs in a state of calm.
- We must fight for moments of True Leisure (i.e. thoughtful reflection that leads to getting in sync with one’s self.)
- I’m more likely to be easily frustrated as the pace of life increases and the margin for error decreases.
- Intentionally go slow: Go slow to go fast.
- Build margin into your life. Especially when you know you’ll have to accomplish more than normal.
- Our culture is sick with hurry and we have to fight against the addictive tendency to be busy accomplishing secondary or unimportant things. Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “Never become unduly absorbed in things that are not of first importance.”
Try to get a mental picture of yourself as a person who remains cool under pressure, who stays calm when others are freaking out, who is able to see the big picture and not get derailed by secondary things, who builds margin and pockets of reflection in one’s life, who refuses to be lead along by outside forces and instead takes control of one’s own life and direction. Fix this picture in your head and daily strive to live out that reality. You’ll be amazed at the increased quality of life as you reduce hurry and increase calm. And who knows, maybe you’ll be preparing yourself to avert the next global nuclear war. Or at least halting your own meltdown over spilled coffee.