In praise of pondering

If you’re reading this, then you are probably subject to the forces of the “attention economy,” meaning that we have enough money to get by but not enough time to get to all the good stuff that passes our way.

(If you’re worried about money in the sense of “can’t pay the rent,” then stop reading and go cancel some subscriptions — recurring payments are the number one way that people “waste money. If you’re worried about time and are here, then thanks for “spending time” on this blog!)

In most cases, people with a lack of time tend to be flustered at the slightest delay. A traffic jam, lost pencil or new email can throw their whole day off. 

If that sounds familiar, then this post (and maybe this blog) is for you.

When I was getting going here, I told readers of my newsletter that I was thinking of putting more emphasis on “slow thinking,” but I was worried about that phrase. I wrote:

Slow seems to indicate lazy or waiting around. Thoughts?

To this, CC replied: 

I like to refer to ‘slow thinking’ as pondering – which seems to be a ‘dying art’ of sorts.  As a ponderer, I find that I have to be deliberate in isolating time to allow my mind to explore an idea/concept/thought, beating back the daily ‘timing alarmed’ tasks and demands of the ‘instant results’ society so many of us exist within. Take your time, David; the results will be more fulsome and clear for you… And then for us as you take the time to share with us.

For this reply, I thank CC,* and here are a few of my thoughts on this topic and how I intend to write here.

First, it’s difficult to think at all when you’re always in a hurry. I used to say the Dutch are “precisely casual,” and I still think that is true, but it’s awful hard to have a conversation that’s not “on the agenda.” Their (national) habit of stuffing each day means that mistakes lead to panic and innovations are unwelcome.

Second, I am constantly stimulated with new ideas when I go on vacation, read a book, or spend a few hours in conversation. It’s hard to pursue these activities when my to-do list beckons, but they deserve respect. At the moment, I am on holiday in Sweden, and I’ve seen lots of new things and talked to a variety of people. All of these experiences confront my “settled” view of the world, sometimes pushing me to rethink habits, sometimes exposing me to ideas I dearly need.

Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve had a number of wondering conversations with my father. Sometimes he drives me nuts (he’s a fan of Fox News) but sometimes he keeps me going for hours with an odd comment or question. These conversations — and many others with a variety of strangers — have helped me explore new ideas and reconsider “settled” truths.

Last week, for example, I was chatting with someone on China’s recent ban on importing plastics (and other “low value”) waste for recycling. At first, I thought that this was China’s way of standing up for itself as a nation unworthy of others’ garbage, but then I realized that China’s ban created an opportunity for it to increase recycling of its own plastic garbage, as there was now a lot of spare capacity looking for inputs. This shift was an exact parallel to China’s recent shift in emphasis from exporting goods to meeting domestic demand. Where was the supply for that demand coming from? The exact same industrial base that had grown so large (and efficient) in the decades of exporting to other countries! I’m not sure if there’s any master plan at work here, but it sure makes more sense to me than other explanations. 

Third, I here’s two cheers for writing by hand, reading on paper, and talking without an agenda.** This recent article on typesetting says it well:

Technological innovation, in the conventional sense, won’t help us slow the publishing process back down. Slowing down requires better thought technology. It requires a willingness to draft for the sake of drafting. It requires throwing away most of what we think because most of our thoughts don’t deserve to be read by others. Most of our thoughts are distractions—emotional sleights of the mind that trick us into thinking we care about something that we really don’t—or that we understand something that we really don’t.

I could write a lot more on this topic, as I am endlessly fascinated by the many dimensions of my thought, the thoughts of others, and the mysteries of the world around us, but I’ll leave it there. 

My one-handed conclusion is that everyone needs time and space to expose themselves to doubt, wonder and exchange. Do you have enough time to ponder your thoughts, your actions and your world?

* CC happens to have the same initials as my friend Connie Cahlil, who died a few years ago of cancer. Connie was not only a dear friend, but a smart woman who confronted her illness with wisdom that she shared with the world as she slowly faded. If you want to read her stuff, then start here. (In fact, you’ll have to end there, as her blog is no longer online. The internet will remember you only for as long as you pay your content provider.)

** Don’t get me wrong, I think agendas can be very helpful, but not if they dominate your life, 24/365! Everyone’s mind needs free time to unwind and build new connections.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

One thought on “In praise of pondering”

  1. Thank you for the link and read, David! I hope others who read your share will accept the permission to ponder …. and see the immense value in doing so.
    My current ponderings are nurtured by a book I am finally making the time to truly read; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (2005 ed). What a mind bender of sorts. I find myself reading a passage followed by a reread …. as I endeavour to wrap my brain around the intended meaning compared with my understanding. Great fun!
    Thank you again, David, for sharing!

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