“Slow down and do a smaller number of things more deeply.” — Harry R. Lewis (1)
Many thanks to Carl Honoré’s book, In Praise of Slowness, for bringing this wonderful Harvard letter to my attention.
In 2001, the Dean of Harvard College, Harry R. Lewis, sent a letter to the students titled Slow Down: Getting More out of Harvard by Doing Less (full letter text here).
Lewis, Professor of Computer Science and former Dean of Harvard College (1995-2003), is well-known for his teaching contributions and even taught Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.(2)
I’m blown away by his letter. Whether we are Harvard students or not (I wasn’t), we can all benefit by thinking about how his lessons apply to life in general.
13 Life Lessons from the “Slow Down” Letter the Harvard College Dean sent to all New Students
Note: All quotes are from the author, and I’ve added emphasis in bold.
“Slow Down” Harvard Letter Overview
- “This letter offers some suggestions about how to get the most out of Harvard. Each suggestion requires making choices, which may be hard choices, between doing more things and leaving some possibilities aside. In a larger sense, these suggestions are meant to start you towards a fulfilling life after college, perhaps many years after you leave here.“
1. Slow down to focus on less but better.
- “You may succeed more fully at the things that will be most important to you if you enter Harvard with an open mind about the possibilities available to you, but gradually spend more of your time on fewer things you discover you truly love.”
- “In advising you to think about slowing down and limiting your structured activities, I do not mean to discourage you from high achievement, indeed from the pursuit of extraordinary excellence, in your chosen path. But you are more likely to sustain the intense effort needed to accomplish first-rate work in one area if you allow yourself some leisure time, some recreation, some time for solitude, rather than packing your schedule with so many activities that you have no time to think about why you are doing what you are doing.”
- “Before you take on too many simultaneous major extracurricular commitments, you should at least pause to ask yourself if you are trying to prove to someone, either yourself or another, that you are superman or superwoman, and maybe even setting yourself up for failure in that endeavor.“
2. Balance your life better with unstructured time.
- “You may balance your life better if you participate in some activities purely for fun, rather than to achieve a leadership role that you hope might be a distinctive credential for postgraduate employment. The human relationships you form in unstructured time with your roommates and friends may have a stronger influence on your later life than the content of some of the courses you are taking.”
3. The most important things leave imprints on your mind and soul.
- “Yet in later life most of what we do outside our jobs we do because we want to do it, not because we are in any tangible way rewarded for doing it. College is a transition period; we will certainly give you grades and transcripts attesting to some of the things you have done here, but much of what you do, including many of the most important and rewarding and formative things you do, will be recorded on no piece of paper you take with you, but only as imprints on your mind and soul.“
4. Master the capacity to make your own choices.
- “But the most important thing you need to master is the capacity to make choices that are appropriate to you, recognizing that flexibility in your schedule, unstructured time in your day, and evenings spent with your friends rather than your books are all, in a larger sense, essential for your education.”
- “Remember that you — not those giving you advice — will be most affected by your decisions.”
- “Make choices that leave you more choice, more flexibility … it may be the most important advice of all. Think of your freedom of choice — of what courses to take, of how to spend your Sunday afternoons, whatever — as a commodity that is precious in and of itself. Don’t construct a schedule for yourself that wastes that freedom.”
5. Empty time is not a vacuum to be filled.
- “Learn to do constructive things with your time not because you have to (under the schedule and the ground rules you have constructed for yourself) but because you want to. For most of the rest of your life you will be reading a book or playing an instrument or going to a lecture in the evening simply because it is interesting and fun. Get yourself in that frame of mind sooner, and you will be a happier and more interesting person later. Empty time is not a vacuum to be filled: it is the thing that enables the other things on your mind to be creatively rearranged, like the empty square in the 4 × 4 puzzle which makes it possible to move the other 15 pieces around.“
6. You will change, and you want to be able to respond to shifting interests.
- “Courses change, and you will change as well; it is wise to recognize from the beginning that you will want to be able to respond to your own shifting interests as well as changes made to the course catalog.”
7. Intellectual synthesis takes time to mature in your mind.
- “If you want to integrate two fields of knowledge, such as psychology and computer science, you need time to take courses in both fields and time also for their intellectual synthesis to mature in your mind.”
- “A joint concentration is meant to be a program that integrates two fields and aims towards a research thesis bridging the areas. In other words, a joint concentration in X and Y is meant for people who have an interest in the intersection of X and Y, not just in both X and Y independently.”
8. Invest time in other pursuits to broaden your perspective and horizons.
- “If you do choose to graduate in three years, you should consider the possibility of taking a year off before going on to graduate or professional school. At that point you will have been on a pretty fast academic track for most of your life; a year invested in work or travel before you resume your studies may pay dividends forever.“
- “We urge you to look to a term or a year of foreign study as an option that may benefit you intellectually and broaden your horizons in nonacademic ways. Study or work abroad can provide a new perspective that brings into sharper focus what you are studying at Harvard.”
9. Take time off to refresh yourself.
- “If your motivation is flagging, or your grades are not what you think they should be, or you’re just not interested in what you’re studying, take some time off to refresh yourself and get your focus back. Harvard has a very liberal attitude about voluntary time off … Students who are struggling almost always do better after some time off.“
10. You gain more by being intellectually engaged in what you love.
- “It’s a mistake to think that there is an optimal course of study leading to a particular postgraduate career. Many students have concentrated in Economics thinking it would prepare them for life in the business world, or in Biology thinking it is the route to medical school. These perceptions are inaccurate and can keep you from getting the full benefit of a liberal arts education. You gain more from being intellectually engaged with a subject you love than you could acquire in professional training.“
- “Find subjects you are happy studying, and things you are happy doing, even if you are not going to be the best in the world at them. Do the things that matter most to you as well as you can possibly do them, but don’t be hard on yourself if your best at many things is not as good as someone else’s best.”
11. Look inside yourself for the deep questions.
- “Look inside yourself for the question you are really asking. Students often present deep questions in a superficial or instrumental form about how they can do several things simultaneously. A student who asks, ‘How can I do a joint concentration in Music and English?’ probably wants to know something more profound, such as ‘How can I keep my interests in literature and in music alive simultaneously?’ If you are asking how to do something complicated, ask yourself why you want to do it, and try to achieve your major objectives without necessarily constructing a nexus which, in theory, would allow you to achieve everything and to give up nothing. You may wind up dissatisfied with everything instead, your freedom lost rather than enhanced.”
- “Don’t be afraid to raise with your adviser a question of substance, for example about the importance or wisdom of some intellectual inclination you may have, rather than questions that address only rules and how to satisfy them. Questions don’t need to have clear and crisp answers to be worth asking.“
12. Don’t ignore your health, physical and emotional.
- “Don’t ignore your health, physical and emotional. It is characteristic of students to confuse enormous energy and the capacity for extraordinary efforts with something more like immortality. Your mind and body will break down if you don’t relax, exercise, eat well, and most of all, sleep. Give yourself a break — take a few hours just to go to an athletic event, a movie, a theatrical production on campus, a rock concert downtown. Sit outside and read a novel, go to a place of worship, find a pleasant place off-campus where you can be alone with your thoughts. Hang out with your friends, play frisbee, keep up the dining hall conversation till everyone else has left. It won’t hurt, and will probably only help, your academic performance. By the same token, get away from Cambridge over vacations, and don’t come back early. Your academic work will be better and more productive if you are not burned out from having done it continuously for too many months.“
13. Finally, don’t treat my advice — or anyone else’s — as rules you must follow!
- “Finally, don’t treat my advice — or anyone else’s — as rules you must follow! What matters is that you come to understand what you want; the challenge is to give yourself enough breathing room to discover your own loves and how to pursue them, your own ambitions and how to achieve them.“
Lewis wasn’t the only one at Harvard who advocated for slowing down. Drew Faust, the first female President of Harvard (2007-2018), was ranked by Forbes as the 33rd most powerful woman in the world in 2014.(3)
We see anew when we slow down to look, to observe, and to reflect.— Drew Faust
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