Einstein had been working on a theory for the relationship between space and time for years, but had made little progress. He was again stumped, so he decided to get some fresh air and hopped on his bike for an excursion through the quaint streets of Bern, Switzerland.
As he peddled along the cobbled streets he happened to come across the Zytglogge, a famous medieval clock tower in Bern that he had passed hundreds of times before, but this particular time was different.
When we gazed at the clock tower, he had a sudden moment of clarity… the answer to special relativity was actually quite simple. Time can beat at different rates through the universe. It all depended on how fast you moved. The rest is history.
A similar story is found in how Charles Darwin discovered the theory of natural selection, where it just popped into his head when he was revisiting Malthus’ writings on population growth.
We’ve heard such stories many times, often called Aha! or Eureka moments, although I don’t think anyone says eureka anymore. All the same, there is a belief that we are fortunate to have these sudden realizations and attribute our breakthroughs to them, but are they really so sudden? Perhaps not.
The Slow Hunch
In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explores the slow hunch. To summarize, the slow hunch is the premise that ideas take awhile to formulate and do not do so in moments of aha, but rather slowly brewing and forming over time.
Einstein said as much about his idea of special relativity. It was not so much a sudden moment of insight, but rather that he was, “…led to it by steps arising from the individual laws derived from experience.” Translation: it was a progression that took a long damn time. Simply because the final manifestation happened in a single moment, does not mean that is where the real insight occurred.
“If you look historically at breakthroughs, the story is never just about the key insight. It’s also about what led up to it and what followed it,” says David Perkins, research professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The truth is, much of what is manifest in such breakthroughs is the culmination of previous hard work and subconscious thinking. The first part is clear, but the later is far more intriguing. When we are distracted by other things, our subconscious is able to incubate and explore the problem at hand.
Moreover, by giving our thinking some space, we unlock the full potential of our minds and allow them the freedom and ability to discover the connections that we are having trouble making. It is this incubation process happening subconsciously that makes such moments of insight seems like sudden breakthroughs.
It doesn’t end with ideas though. The premise of the slow hunch can be applied to all parts of our life.
The Power of Slow
The story of the aha moment is a great corollary to how things tend to operate in the world today. We want things immediate and fast. There’s no time to dawdle and get distracted, rather everything should happen the very instant we desire it. This now culture has become a running theme in all parts of life: diets, physical fitness, learning, business, and so on.
Yet, much like the aha moment, this isn’t how it really works. Despite everyone knowing the fable of the tortoise and the hare, no one has taken it to heart. Slow leads to progress, success, and breakthroughs.
Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you.
With everything, thinking long term and making steady progress, day by day, is what generates real results. This is the power of slow. With patience, discipline, and hard work, eventually you’ll stumble upon a breakthrough.
This approach is applicable to all areas of our lives: art, science, business, design, writing, and so on. If you have a problem or goal that is beyond you, you should try to slow down, rather than speed up. Here are three simple steps to fully harness the power of slow.
1. Don’t Force It
The most important thing to do is not force it. When you’re stuck and literally feel like banging your head against the wall, it’s a good idea to take a step back and walk away. Let things marinate in your subconscious.
The same applies when you’re taking any action in life. Don’t set grand goals from the beginning or expect immediate results. All good things take time and if you acknowledge this simple idea, things will go much more smoothly.
2. Respect Your Process
Everyone works differently and has their own quirks and habits that make them tick. Don’t get down on yourself when you aren’t able to write for 10 straight hours or change your diet overnight. There’s an optimal process that each of us follows. You need to respect it.
Getting distracted isn’t a bad thing, as we saw from Einstein. Do what you enjoy, take breaks, and let things happen organically because often times, it is in these unsuspecting activities that our mind truly opens up.
3. Make Progress
It doesn’t matter if you do a little or a lot on a daily basis. The only measurement is that you are getting closer to your goal everyday. If that’s searching for a breakthrough, engage with focused, conscious thinking for a couple hours, but don’t burn yourself out. Take a break and let the subconscious take over for awhile.
If it’s a new habit, set incremental goals that will get you where you want to go. The point is progress, not immediacy. Slow and steady wins the race.
“I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.” Abraham Lincoln
Ultimately, as long as you’re putting in the effort to move forward, you’ll achieve success. No matter how small or slow it feels, these little efforts add up far quicker than you’d realize. So don’t be bothered when things feel slow, because they’re supposed to.