In Praise of Going Slow

/10 Thinking

There's a burgeoning scene emerging on Farcaster: slow.

It's been pointed out by a few curators now, such as @adrienne, who identified it as a new trend. In episode 105 (May 15, 2024) of GM Farcaster, Adrienne describes the trend as "intentional, thoughtful, building to last, building for the long-term." It's an idea that goes against the Zuckerberg ethos to "move fast and break things." Slowcore could thus be summarized as "move slow and preserve things."

It's an interesting idea made more interesting by its emergence on a social media platform, since social media has traditionally aided in the rapid spread of information across virality vectors, collapsing context into a single, endless, dopaminergically-charged information feed. As Jenny Odell writes in How to Do Nothing - Resisting the Attention Economy, social media is a constantly exploding powder keg, jettisoning information quickly and efficiently through its various streams. "Our aimless and desperate expressions on these platforms don't do much for us," Odell points out, "but they are hugely lucrative for advertisers and social media companies, since what drives the machine is not the content of information but the rate of engagement."

In this climate, how quickly information spreads is more important than the content of the information. It's not too much to state that social media platforms are not for their users—or even the companies that own them—but are explicitly designed for the efficient spread of memes. Speed is everything.

It would be delightfully ironic, then, to see a social media platform incubate and then spread a "slowcore" movement across the broader web, as @cameron suggests in this cast:

There are a few channels that identify "slow" as a key defining feature, such as SlowCoLab, hosted by @slowcrypto, and Slowcore HQ, hosted by @danicaswanson and @trishd.

And there's a manifesto: "What is Slowcore," written by Danica Swanson and available as an NFT on Zora. As Swanson writes, "Slowcore is an affirmation of a commitment to cultivating patience, holding space for emergence, protecting our time and attention from extractive forces, and respecting the indwelling intelligence of the creative process."

Again, I am reminded of Jenny Odell and How to Do Nothing, where she writes that part of "doing nothing" is "about disengaging from the attention economy" in order to "reengage with something else." Both Odell and Swanson have pointed their sights directly at the extractive forces behind the commercial web of the '10s and '20s, asking the question: can we build internet platforms and social media networks with different incentives built in? To do so, we might first have to incubate a slower frame of mind.

To go slow, then, is to actively resist the push and pull of social networks, to carve out a space to think in other directions, to re-engage with older, deeper ideas, and to move at a measured deliberate pace—if you choose to even "move" at all.

In my last article, I examined different writing paces and came to the conclusion that there are many different ways to write, and therefore, many different writing paces. Like genre, voice, or style, most writers have a natural pace, one that they feel is comfortable and aligned to their temperament.

Today, I want to examine the idea of going slow—and how it relates to writing, specifically. Why do some writers go slow? What sort of work can it unlock? Why might you benefit from a slower pace? Because going slow isn't just accomplishing less in the same timespan. It's a completely different way of viewing work—a phase change that unlocks a new way of seeing the world.

Consider this my opening contribution to the Slowcore movement.

10x Thinking

Over the last 10 years or so, a powerful idea has seized the productivity world: 10x thinking. The idea is that you should push yourself to set goals that are 10 times greater than you initially believed possible. For instance, if your goal is to get 1,000 email subscribers, you should go for 10,000 instead. If you want to sell a million copies of your book, set your goal at 10 million. And so forth.

Setting wildly ambitious goals challenges you to think differently about your problem. Normally, when we set goals, we tend to look at progress in incremental, step-wise fashion. You get your first email subscriber, then your second, then your third, and so on. How you go from one to two is the same as how you go from 9,999 to 10,000.

But this isn't how it works. Getting your 10,000th subscriber is fundamentally different from getting your first. Or your one-hundredth. The process of getting more subscribers changes as your subscriber list grows.

By aiming for the 10x improvement out of the gate, you force yourself to look at the problem in a radically different way—a way that is fundamentally required to hit big goals, such as 10,000 email subscribers.

The 10x idea likely originated from research on programmer productivity. A study from the 1960s by Sackman, Erikson, and Grant revealed the existence of a "10x programmer"—someone who is 10 times more productive than other developers with the same level of experience. Specifically, these developers were found to be able to solve problems in 1/10 the time or with 1/10 the amount of code.

Not surprisingly, the idea became popular in Silicon Valley in the '00s and '10s. Larry Page, co-founder of Google, is said to "live by the gospel of 10x." For Page, it is not enough to "focus on incremental improvements." Big leaps are required—moonshots that pay off in dramatic ways.

For some, like entrepreneurial coach Dan Sullivan, "10x is easier than 2x." Because 10x thinking changes your relationship to your goals—and also your process—it's actually easier to make a single big change than a series of incremental ones.

What's interesting about 10x thinking, however, is how often these stretch goals—these moonshots—stretch the time component of the goal. Tim Ferriss has a provocative question along these lines: "What might you do to accomplish your 10-year goals in the next 6 months, if you had a gun against your head?" As Ferriss explains, the question is designed to "productively break your mind." You're forced to eliminate all the pre-existing frameworks and assumptions around your life. You would have to radically change how you do virtually everything to achieve a 10-year goal in only six months.

You may think I'm about to take apart the idea of 10x thinking to show how it's faulty, or even dangerous. But I'm not going to do that. Because I actually think there's something here.

Not only is 10x thinking true, it's built into the fabric of reality. In his book The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch makes a strong argument for the universal reach of explanations. For Deutsch, a good explanation not only explains a particular problem, but explains things that cannot even be known until the explanation exists. A good explanation becomes "universal." As Deutsch says, "all knowledge growth is by incremental improvement, but in many fields there comes a point when one of the incremental improvements in a system of knowledge or technology causes a sudden increase in reach, making it a universal system in the relevant domain." It is what numerals did for math, what evolution did for biology, and what Einstein's theory of relativity did for our contemporary understanding of the universe.

It is this universality that 10x thinking invites you to consider—how to break out of the incremental and into the infinite.

But I agree with everything about 10x thinking except one thing: its implied direction. Because infinity goes both ways. There are infinitely many large numbers, and infinitely many small ones, too. Time goes infinitely forward, and infinitely backward.

10x thinking is powerful because it induces a phase change to your thinking. When you go from a liquid to a gas, the molecular structure shifts. Vapor behaves in profoundly different ways than water.

What I propose is that you consider a phase change in the other direction. When you go from a liquid to a solid, the molecular structure also changes. Slowing down also dispenses with incremental progress. It, too, can unlock infinity. It, too, requires a completely different way to think about your work.

/10 Thinking

Instead of a 10x goal, what if you set a /10 goal? What if, instead of trying to go 10 times bigger or 10 times faster, you went 10 times smaller? Or 10 times slower?

What would you make?

What if instead of going from 1,000 email subscribers up to 10,000, you went from 1,000 down to 100? What type of work would you have to create, to make it that small? That intimate? Just like going up from 1,000 subscribers to 10,000 necessitates a change in the type of content you create and the strategies you deploy for list-building, going down to 100 subscribers does the same. What kind of content do you create now? What does your list-building (really, list-destroying) strategy look like?

There's something exciting about this. Just like building a 10,000 strong email list from 1,000 is exciting, slimming it down to just 100 people has a special thrill. With only 100 subscribers, you could do something profoundly different with email. You could actually have a 1:1 relationship (or close to it) with every person on your list. If you only had 100 subscribers, who would you want those people to be?

What would you create for a hundred people that you could not create for 10,000?

Or, to take Tim Ferriss's advice and turn it on its head, what if you took your six-month goals and stretched them out to 10 years?

Let's say you have a blog, and you plan to write an article every week for the second half of this year. That's about 26 blog posts. Now, imagine you have 10 years to write 26 blog posts. That's one about every six months. What would a blog post look like if you spent six months on it?

If you gave yourself a 10-year horizon, would you even write blog posts? Would you write something else instead?

What kind of project would you commit yourself to if you could dedicate 10 years to it? What would it mean to work on something for that long without any expectation of a result? Without even having to finish? What if you gave yourself twenty years? Thirty?

I'm 36, which means if I "retire" from writing at the average retirement age, I'll have about thirty more years at it. What does thirty years of writing mean to me? What can I create in that timescale? It's actually hard to imagine.

But writing doesn't have to stop in your 60s. What if I'm writing for another forty years? Another fifty? It's extremely likely that I'm selling myself short—underestimating what I can accomplish, given the actual timeline ahead of me. What if I stopped chasing incremental progress and went for something big—something that would require me to go slow. What if you did the same?

What could you create if you intentionally went slow? What would happen if you took your time?

We'll do the same thing tomorrow

In the 2020 Pixar film Soul, Joe Gardner has a dream. He works in a middle school, but when he's not teaching music, he's trying to make it as a jazz musician. One day, he gets the chance of a lifetime to perform with a renowned jazz quartet. For Joe, everything has been leading to this big moment.

After he plays, Joe, filled with buzzing excitement, asks the band leader what happens next. The response is simple and powerful: "well, same thing tomorrow."

It's a beautiful moment because, from inside the point-of-view of creation, what separates the artist from before they "make it" big and after is ... nothing. The process doesn't change at all. You can write a viral blog post that gets a million views, and the next day, you'll write another blog post. You can sell a novel for six figures, and the next day, what will you do? Start on your next novel.

What changes before and after you "make it" is other people's perceptions, but one thing remains the same: you still have to keep making things.

The enduring appeal of 10x thinking lies in its potential to unlock economic opportunities. More reach = more opportunities to get paid. But what would it mean if there were platforms that reversed this relationship? What if sacrificing reach did not mean sacrificing economic opportunity? What if you could make something for a small subset of the population—and they would pay for it? Can web3 get us there? I'm not sure, but I'm interested in finding out.

Going slow means rethinking our ideas about "making it." Economics is focused on results, but art is about process. It's about finding a way to keep making things, day after day, year after year, decade after decade.

And 10x thinking is all about results. It makes sense to pursue this kind of thinking if you're in business—results, and money, matter—but if you're creating art, going slow may matter even more. Because the whole point of making art is to make more art. There's no escape from incremental progress. There's no "moonshot" that "finishes" your writing once and for all. To be a writer is to write. Day after day after day after day...

So give yourself time to do your best work. Embrace a long horizon. Because tomorrow, you'll do the same thing, anyway.

You can collect this essay right here on Paragraph, but if you'd prefer, you can collect a screenshot of /10 Thinking on Zora:

Special thanks to Danica Swanson who read an early draft of this essay and provided valuable feedback and editing.

Some news:

  • I recently published a strange story-essay hybrid on Thomas Ligotti for my Substack The Unnerving. I wrote about puppets and manikins, and how they might help us understand artificial intelligence algorithms like ChatGPT. Also, I examined the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. Check it out here.

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