In the mid-1990s, a regional communications company launched a billboard advertising campaign that implored people to “Never Stand Still!” The underlying message was that to be successful, you must be perpetually on the go. God forbid you be still! Stillness is for weaklings and has-beens; the new breed of winners are those who are furiously busy and accessible. The ad was essentially saying, If you want to avoid missing out on emerging opportunities, you’ve got to be continually refreshed with up-to-date information, you need “all the news, all the time,” you’ve got to be electronically connected! You’ll be eminently productive to the extent you are permanently interruptible.
In my first book, Right Risk, I point out that “Never Stand Still!” is asinine advice. Standing still is exactly what you should do if you’re facing a major decision or risk. Standing still teaches us composure and poise, and keeps us from getting caught up in a haze of distraction. Stillness brings focus, enabling you to regulate your emotions and discern the right course of action.
The importance of stillness was well described by Oprah Winfrey in an editorial in O Magazine. In running her production company, Harpo, Oprah is pulled in many different directions by many different people. To get centered, she walks into her closet, sits on the floor, and in her words – “goes still as a stone.” She writes, “When I walk out, I am centered on what’s most important and can make decisions based on what’s right for me–not on what everyone else wants or needs. I’ve learned that the more stressful and chaotic things are on the outside, the calmer you need to be on the inside.”
The French mathematician Blaise Pascal famously said that all of man’s problems stem from being unable to sit alone quietly in a room. Those words are more relevant today than they were in his time. We seem to have lost the ability to saunter, to carry on a lingering conversation, to kick back and relax. Instead, anxiety and worry are talked about with pride. With a good deal of self-importance, business people often refer to “what keeps them awake at night,” as if stress-induced insomnia were an essential factor in professional success. Busyness has become the defining preoccupation of our age. The only quiet moment we seem to get is in that brief interlude in the morning while we are waiting for our computer to boot up. We seem hell-bent on keeping ourselves distracted. We crank up the radio volume in our car, unwind with “comfort TV” at home, cut deals on our cell phone at the playground and spoon-feed our minds with Internet junk food everywhere we can. We work harder and harder to buy more and more laborsaving devices. And the more we acquire, the unhappier we seem to get. For as much as our cell phones, emails, social media, and tablets have put us in touch with others, they have put us way out of touch with ourselves.
The problem with the boundary-less world is just that – we have no boundaries. We allow the world in with no filter to help us decide the relative importance of each new bit of information. When everything is urgent, all things get trivialized.
Henry David Thoreau writes in his final book, Walking, that this kind of undisciplined results in more than just mental laziness. It can permanently profane how we think so that “all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” A better and healthier approach is to periodically get disconnected from all your electronic tethers so you can hear yourself think. Sometimes, as Thoreau suggests, it’s important to go on long walks just so you can have long, uninterrupted thoughts.
Think back over the past 24 hours. Did you take any time for silence? What might you be able to do to reduce the amount of time you spend looking at a computer screen? How can you incorporate more stillness into your day?