This was the question Professor Campbell, one of Lantana’s resident fellows asked myself and a couple students during a serendipitous encounter at brunch this weekend on Stanford’s campus. Professor Campbell serves on a committee that surveys seniors on their experiences at the university. One of the questions he wanted to ask that did not make it into the recent survey was to ask graduating students how many times during their Stanford careers they had sat down and read a book uninterrupted for two hours or more.
He bets the median in their four years here would be zero.
Delving into my own experience so far at school, I frighteningly might have to agree with him. College is a fast paced place where we are always rushing to learn and do as much as we can. Our current generation takes a constant bombardment of information. Despite the many experts and studies that admonish it, multitasking is a way of life. Even after having locked myself out of Facebook for the last eight months, it is still all too easy to be distracted by “productive” tasks. There are assignments to be done, emails to be attended to, friends who want to catch up, extra curricular meetings to attend, and errands that I remember, not to mention the buzz of Silicon Valley! How would I have two hours to read without a specific goal of cramming material, if I usually don’t have enough time to sleep?
Professor Campbell continued saying that students surfing the web in a lecture are about as cognizant of the material as they would be if they were stoned. Many educators of his generation, he explained, believe that a collegiate education is going to the library, sitting down with Tolstoy or Marx, and losing oneself in the material. ”We need to accept that your generation learns differently,” he told us.
Our residential fellow has a very forward thinking mindset wised by the retrospective depth of a history scholar. He concluded that the multitasking we do at Stanford might actually prepare us better for the kind of high achieving, ADD lifestyles that many of us will pursue in our later careers. Teachers need to learn to adapt to the new way that students learn. However, we both agreed that we lose something inherently valuable in our education when we cannot recall the last time we have so wholly lost ourselves in a some material.
I started this week with an experiment. I finished all the commitments on my mind, cleared my schedule, put my phone on airplane mode, zipped my computer into my backpack, found a quiet dorm lounge, took out Alexander Osterwalder‘s Business Model Generation, and read. I was in my own world. When my alarm rang me out of my trance two hours and five minutes later, I didn’t want to stop.
I had an appointment with a friend scheduled right after, and I couldn’t wait to tell him how rewarding it had been to take the time to immerse myself in Osterwalder’s material. I look up to him as one of the most poignantly divergent thinkers I know in the Valley. I knew he had taken Professor Steve Blank‘s Lean LaunchPad class where the book in required reading.
But while I was bubbling with connections to various material, he stopped me: “I’ve never had the chance to actually read it,” he told me. He had only skimmed it! My mind was abuzz with all of the information he was missing that I wanted to share. I took a certain glee in the little depth I had gained in my short reading session. During the school year I sometimes forget how much I love the kind of unrestricted reading I only have the time to do during the summers – and sometimes not even then. I had just rediscovered it.
Two hours isn’t that long.
In the Valley, I am constantly coding, problem solving, and executing, but I think I owe it to myself to rekindle my relationship with paper and print. At heart, I am a technocrat with a conflicting nostalgia for the pre-information age.
When was the last time you sat down and lost yourself in a book for two hours?