What we can learn from snails
Speed isn't everything
One of the first books devoted entirely to snails was written in 1607 by Francesco Angelita who lived in the beautiful Apennine town of L’Aquila in central Italy. In his book he identifies and lists many species and explores what he knows of their histories and mythologies. He became a fan of snails.
He was particularly interested in what human beings can learn from the seemingly dull and silent life of snails. From his observations he noted two key behaviours:
- The Snail does everything slowly. From which, he humbly suggests, we should learn that our desire for speed makes us simply inconsiderate and foolish; and
- Since a snail carries its house around with it, then wherever the Snail is, it is at home.
As someone who has not managed to keep snails off his artichokes for several years, I’m not quite so enamoured with them. But Angelita’s research makes a useful starting point for this blog. We have after all become very critical of ‘snail-like’ behaviour. We have been seduced by speed.
Currently I have a not very impressive 15mbs download speed on my internet connection, so I want 100mbs instead.
I am able to have shopping delivered the next
day but I am excited by the prospect of a service that offers it within the hour.
I live in a country where we have committed to spending more than £100 billion – over £300m per mile of track – on a high speed rail connection that will shave 20 minutes off a journey which already only takes 90 minutes.
And I am currently looking at a pop-up ad that offers me chiselled abs in only 14 days. Those who know me will understand just how unlikely that proposition is.
Stop. Think. A lot.
So, let me re-examine Angelita’s insight into snail wisdom.
Einstein (no particular advocate of snails, as far as I know) was once asked what he would do if he were given one hour to save the world. He responded, “I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes finding the solution”.
In other words, he would stop and think a great deal before acting. He would stare out of the window, doodle perhaps or phone a friend. He would give his brain the chance to do what it does well. To imagine…to explore…to gain insight. Simply put, to work effectively rather than instinctively or rapidly.
Now, of course, there are times when thinking (and acting) rapidly are useful. The crunched snail shells in my tyre treads suggest that lightning-fast reactions could have been a real asset on occasions. But it seems that we are in danger of losing everything except our rapid response. Our fast brain.
In our turbulent and unprecedented world, knee-jerk reactions are probably not going to serve humankind well. Our reflex reactions, born out of practice and familiarity, may have served us well when case examples of good practice lasted generations. They are unlikely to be of much help in a future that looks unlike anything we have seen before.
When did we last have a pandemic like Covid 19? Or a hurricane in August like the last one? Or a financial collapse so unexpected? Or a cyber-attack so disabling?
Some solutions need a different approach
One of the reasons that experience (expertise) can be such a double-edged sword is that, on the one hand, it gives us confidence to know what needs to be done, which is great, but it also makes us more likely to miss, be blind to, or fail to explore alternatives (which might be very bad indeed). It is the alternatives – the innovations – that are going to be increasingly necessary.
So, reluctantly, I am becoming a fan of a more snail-like approach to things. A fan of taking time when I might otherwise have rushed to tick something off my list of things to do.
I have been discovering that few things are improved – few relationships are enhanced by rushing them.
A walk before I write an e-mail makes it a better e-mail – i.e. one that I am less likely to have to revisit, re-send or apologise for. A day of wondering (wandering) makes a decision more robust, more strategic and more likely to gain approval. A few leisurely and unplanned conversations are likely to translate into behaviours that are more inclusive, kinder and more sincere.
I am becoming very aware that while I may need to be nimble (to dodge the traffic or catch the train), I need to be better at switching off. At standing still. At, as Lao Tze said, doing less and being more.
Finding the slack in our increasingly taut lives is essential. We need to appreciate that for the important things in our lives, slowing down will allow you to be more effective. I think it was Gandhi who said that because he had a busy day ahead, he would have to meditate for twice as long.
Find your SLACK
So, in true, efficient management blog fashion, here is an acronym and a set of behaviours designed to remind you of the things that you are missing, as all the slack in your life gets infilled with busyness.
Stand back. Use the time to regain your sense of perspective – to put your concerns in context. Find a hill top. Ask how future generations might view the problem. Talk to someone with a different perspective.
Learn. Take time to reflect on what you are experiencing. What conclusion are you drawing? What other conclusions could you draw? What conclusions might others be drawing? What might you do as a result?
Attend. When we are too rushed we forget to pay attention to the range of non-verbal and environmental ‘cues’ that might save us. Take time to get back in touch with the world. Find a moment and live it. What do you feel? How do you feel? How is your health…your skin…your head…your back? What is going on around you, now? Look closely. Listen thoroughly. What are you not hearing? What should be there that isn’t? This is the ‘be present’ element in Angelita’s second observation about snails. Stop moving…you are here. This is home. Savour it.
Be Curious. Innovation and creativity require time. Time to imagine possibilities and incubate ideas. Time to wonder ‘What if…?’ Time to brainstorm. Time to explore scenarios. Time to experiment and make mistakes. Time to dream. Time to explore how other people approach similar dilemmas. Time to wonder how a bonzai gardener (or a pediatric nurse or a 16 year old with Autism and Selective Mutism) would tackle the problem.
And lastly, my favourite. Try random acts of Kindness. There is nothing that demonstrates appreciation more effectively than a spontaneous act of kindness, generosity or support. Use your time to think of small ways of delighting different people around you. A thank you note. A call. A small box of chocolates. I’d go for the ones that look like snails.
It was the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who once said, it is the duty of poets to waste time while others toil. And while, taken to excess, this may be career-limiting, it is important to accept that there is some truth in the notion that standing back (away from the intensity and focus of the day-to-day) and staring quietly into space, may actually be one of the most important things we can do.
is a senior Programme Director for CLS. He leads the UNICEF Global Management Masterclass, is a highly experienced trainer of trainers, visiting lecturer and prolific writer on organisational development, leadership and training. Tim has a deeply thoughtful approach to his work, toether with a robust sense of humour. His approach is both experiential and practical. “There is no one right way to do management. The point of developing people is to help them have a positive impact on their organisation. Give managers the tools and they can change the world.” Tim works globally, helping leaders, managers and teams, find their flow.
"Don't just do something.....Stand there."
The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland