I find myself having to squeeze a deceleration retreat into 24 hours. The irony is not lost on me.
Delayed by a severe rainstorm in west Scotland, the morning I eventually leave the busyness of London is unseasonably warm. It’s hard to imagine there has been such extreme weather when the city is out in its droves to enjoy the last few drops of summer.
But the conspiracy to hamper my journey seems far from over; my bus and train to the airport are delayed. By the time I get to the terminal, I’m in real danger of missing my flight. The final straw is my bag being pulled aside by airport security. Fidgeting near the sorting table, I wring my hands and try to slow my breathing. Hurry up, I silently will the security staff. Faster, faster, faster.
As I finally, mercifully, collapse onto my plane seat, crammed in between two other travellers, over caffeinated, overtired and overwhelmed, I feel quite the opposite of decelerated. In fact, I feel actively stressed.
It isn’t just the arduous journey either – I’ve been stressed for some time, buried beneath writing deadlines, a flurry of work travel, the pressure to keep up with social plans and the mundane necessities of cleaning, shopping and cooking. But that was exactly why I was swapping my small, east London flat for an island off the coast of Scotland: to learn from an expert just how I could slow down.
Gib Bulloch spent 25 years in the corporate world at some of the largest companies including BP, Mars and Accenture, and is author of The Intrapreneur: Confessions of a Corporate Insurgent. More recently, he has turned his attention to our addiction to acceleration. More, faster, better, quicker – our modern lives demand a continuous increase in what we put in and get out, both as individuals and businesses. My destination today is the Craigberoch Business Decelerator on the Isle of Bute. Founded by Gib in 2018, it’s on a mission to help us get a handle on our runaway need for speed.
“More, faster, better, quicker – our modern lives demand a continuous increase in what we put in and get out, both as individuals and businesses.”
After the frenzied start to my journey that sounds like a bad film sequel – trains, planes and two different types of automobile – the last leg of my journey finally slows down. The sky is heavy with clouds that trail along the tops of hills as I approach the ferry port at Wemyss Bay.
It’s colder here. I can faintly see my breath in front of me, mingling with the wet, cool cloud that seems to cling to everything – my fleece and jeans already feel frigid. It’s refreshing.
The dimpled sea melts into the sky, a washed out and slow-moving vista of grey, blue and white hues. The ferry appears slowly from the dense cloud. Other than the gentle chugging of its engine, there is a thick silence.
“If we are constantly improving, growing, producing, doing, when do we ever have time to consider what, exactly, it is that we are accelerating towards?”
I suddenly feel very far away from the muggy warmth and constant movement of London. The rain starts as I board the boat. As we drift towards a grey mirage of silhouetted land, everything becomes fractured and blurry through windows covered with heavy beads of water.
The relief of slowing down is overwhelming. Maybe Gib was right. If we are constantly improving, growing, producing, doing, when do we ever have time to consider what, exactly, it is that we are accelerating towards?
I gingerly reach out my hands in front of me, clawing at the empty air until my finger tips catch on something. I take a small step forward and press my hands into the bark of the tree. To begin with, I felt a little ridiculous being blindfolded and led around the forest by my session partner. But now, I am completely absorbed.
The tree is unexpectedly wet and alive under my touch, less like wood and more like an animal. It almost moves and shifts, porous ridges and gaps forming the great flank of this giant, forest-dwelling beast.
Amelia and Danny, the two co-facilitators of the deceleration programme, have led us into a forest where we are encouraged to pay attention to our physical senses. I got to Bute just over an hour ago, where I joined my fellow attendees. They are all Executive MBA (EMBA) students from King’s Business School in its first collaboration with Gib’s programme. It marks an interesting turning point in the nature of EMBA programmes and the things that they value. Alongside productivity and growth, slowing down is becoming a bona fide pursuit.
Craigberoch aims to awaken dormant changemakers in business and create a more conscious and connected workforce. Gib believes in the power of making small changes to the big frameworks to do this. He uses the analogy of a ship: “If you can change the course of a supertanker by one degree, its destination is entirely different. Sometimes that’s more powerful than being in a small speedboat in the wake.”
“The tree is unexpectedly wet and alive under my touch, less like wood and more like an animal.”
I look around at the group of corporates who have chosen to reinvigorate their understanding of business with an EMBA. Collectively, they are the supertanker. And Amelia, leading our session, is trying to shift their course one degree at a time.
We pair up and take it in turns to forgo our eyesight in lieu of focusing on touch, smell and sound – taste thankfully stays out of it – as our partners guide us around in silence using gentle pressure on our shoulders. Some people like the feeling of relinquishing control and letting someone else make the decisions for a change; others find it harder to trust the relative stranger in charge of making sure you don’t fall flat on your face. I am solidly in the former camp.
“If you can change the course of a supertanker by one degree, its destination is entirely different. Sometimes that’s more powerful than being a small speedboat in the wake.”Gib Bulloch
Our partners are then encouraged to create a tactile experience of encountering a tree and it’s at this point that I feel stillness emerge. Where I usually would be thinking about that email I forgot to reply to or what to cook for dinner, I suddenly have a sense of space.
The absence of those racing thoughts welcomes in a slow procession of other considerations: that the tree must be hundreds of years old. That it has lived through two world wars. That it has been consistently and continuously growing – never in a rush, but ever-changing in its gentle expansion towards the sky.
We swap blindfolds with our guides. Watching her hands brush across the moss-covered bark, the corners of her mouth turn upwards and I feel an echo of her enjoyment. She leans forward to take a long inhale and I can imagine the damp smell of wood, dirt and aliveness.
Afterwards, others voice the same sense of vicarious enjoyment. This was part of the point, I realise. We have all extended our experience beyond ourselves and to each other and the forest.
Earlier, Gib had told me his vision of Craigberoch as a hub for connection: “There is power in the convergence of different types of people and perspectives – art, nature, theatre, music, business, community, social enterprises. At the heart of what Craigberoch is trying to do is the idea of mixing them all together in a creative, dynamic space, where conversations will take place that wouldn’t otherwise happen.”
“There is power in the convergence of different types of people and perspectives – art, nature, theatre, music, business, community, social enterprises.”Gib Bulloch
Walking away from our session in the forest, I talk to a business intelligence manager in the financial services industry. His name is Cheng-Han and he tells me that he is here because something needed to change: “At the start of my career, I was all about learning, developing and growing.
“But I realised I’ve become fixed in how I manage my team. I haven’t stopped to reflect in a long time because I was constantly just doing,” he continues. “That’s why I wanted to do this EMBA and come on this retreat – to get back to a growth mindset.”
Cheng-Han’s words stir a realisation: in his constant pursuit of growing his career, he actually found himself stagnating. In order to grow, sometimes we have to stop.
A seal pops its head out of the water and watches me curiously. I look down at a shell next to my boot, allowing my mind to consider its colour and texture, how it ended up on this beach and what creature it might have once been home to, just as Amelia and Danny have encouraged us to do.
When I look back up, the seal has dipped back beneath the waves, perhaps bored with the group of slow-moving figures wandering aimlessly along the shoreline. We have walked here from the forest to foster a mindful connection to our surroundings. Despite – or perhaps because of – the constant movement of the sea, it feels like nothing changes here. It could have looked exactly the same 200 years ago as it does now.
“In order to grow, sometimes we have to stop.”
I might only be dawdling along in the sand, occasionally nudging shells with my boot, but to my faint surprise the session is working on me. I suddenly feel detached from time. The beach feels as though it only contains an eternal present; there is no before or after.
A conversation I had with Gib about the gravitational pull of our past selves comes to my mind: “It’s a difficult but necessary process to let go of a past identity so that something new can emerge. I had to create the space to shed my skin – the old definitions of success that linger along with other people’s expectations of you.
“I think of it like a trapeze artist: ultimately, you have to take a leap of faith to make it to the other side,” he had continued. “It’s painful, dark and uncertain. You have nothing else to hold on to apart from the belief that you’re pursuing the right path.”
That evening, we have dinner at Mount Stuart. I don’t quite know what I was expecting, but I have never felt so in awe of a building. An impressive, neo-gothic mansion proudly gazing out to sea with intricate design that incorporates art, astrology and mythology, it was built in 1877 when the population of Bute was around 10,000 people.
Its forethought, innovation and planning are a testament to decelerated growth: it was the first Victorian-era house to have a heated, indoor pool – still in use today – and also featured a telephone system and electricity throughout.
The mansion was built to last, most of its features remaining the same as they were 140 years ago. The domed ceiling of the atrium, for example, is a deep blue, with faintly drawn outlines of the zodiac signs and cut crystals placed in an exact map of the northern hemisphere night’s sky. We all stand beneath the stars, mouths agape in wonder. Like the beach, it’s lost in time – preserved in an eternal present.
During a candlelit dinner, accompanied by bagpipes and an impressive performance by Gib of Robert Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’, I reflect on why we are here. As Gib had explained to me, deceleration is not about stopping. It’s not even just about slowing down. It’s about taking stock; reconsidering what it is we are accelerating towards and having the time to change course when we need to. It’s also easier said than done.
I think about standing on the edge of the beach earlier that afternoon where the land becomes the sea. I had dipped my hand into the glassy water – it wasn’t as cold as I expected – and wondered if my peers were thinking the same thing as me. About letting go. About defining ourselves by the present. About losing our past selves in time. But also, just maybe, about how many emails they were going to come back to on Monday.
When cows eat grass, it sounds like velcro. Did you know that? It’s the next morning and I am standing outside facing the sea with a cup of coffee. The luxurious converted farmhouse that I’m staying in – complete with a beautiful sea view – is bordered by a field of cows. They gently float around, tearing at the green grass, occasionally eyeing me with suspicion.
We’re about to walk around Craigberoch itself; it’s both the programme’s name and a piece of land with a collection of derelict stone buildings, surrounded by woodland and a natural spring. It’s where Gib will build his purpose-made retreat centre.
The land also happens to have a 4,000 year-old standing stone. Gib recalls that when buying the land, he was told that powerful ley lines cross the stone. Whether or not you believe in that sort of thing, the age of the stone and its unknown origins are reason enough to feel a sense of spiritual reflection. Gib leads the group on, but I lag behind so that I can place my hand on the lichen-covered surface of the stone. It’s cold, damp and difficult to imagine how it would be possible to move without machinery. Another slow thought to follow, which will lead nowhere conclusive. I think I’m learning to embrace them.
The session at Craigberoch ends with a ‘fireside council’ – a gathering around a firepit deep in the woods with the intention of sharing and connecting over personal stories. I recall Gib talking about the importance of leaving work, jobs and egos at the door: “We are all so much more than the one-dimensional identities that business cards give us.”
“I think of it like a trapeze artist: ultimately, you have to take a leap of faith to make it to the other side. It’s painful, dark and uncertain. You have nothing else to hold on to apart from the belief that you’re pursuing the right path.”Gib Bulloch
In the afternoon, Gib leads us on a walk through the hills surrounding a medieval church ruin. The clouds finally give way to the sun, a wash of colour exploding across the landscape. The dry bracken suddenly becomes a vivid, burnt red, the gorse a deep green interrupted by splashes of yellow flowers and a pale blue sky frames the hilltops. On Bute, I seem to notice the weather more than I ever do in London.
We’re all elated and slightly giddy at the sun’s appearance. The effect that the landscape has on each of us becomes so tangible and obvious. The word ‘geopsychology’ comes to mind – Gib had told me about it earlier that day.
“There’s something about the energy and impact of a landscape that assimilates within your mind,” he had said. “Even when I was growing up as a boy and went to study off the island and escaped to go to the bright lights of cities, coming back to this stillness and tranquillity has always been a shift that I have felt very deeply.”
On the way back, the sun is warm enough that we shed our coats. The Isle of Arran is to our left and Gib points out the sleeping warrior – a shape many see in the rise and fall of its hills. A long brushstroke of pale cloud splits the island horizontally, the pale sun streaming behind it and dancing on the water. It looks like a painting. We share glances that say, Can you believe this? as we stand in awed stillness.
“There’s something about the energy and impact of a landscape that assimilates within your mind.”Gib Bulloch
“I want to go from trying to be the tallest poppy to being the gardener,” Gib tells me a few hours before I am due to leave Bute. “We need more gardeners to create the soil for people and their ideas to flourish.”
Before I leave, I’m trying to draw a tree. I look around – everyone is deep in concentration drawing their own tree. I feel distracted; there is something else on my mind. The time. I have a ferry to catch.
I end up disappointed with my tree – the shapes I have traced onto paper do nothing to capture the image I held within my mind. I give Danny, Amelia and Gib warm hugs, thanking them for their hospitality and expertise. Danny asks to see my tree and I feel a hint of embarrassment. I want to say to him, If I wasn’t in a rush, I would have done it better.
The irony dawns on me once I’ve boarded the return ferry. My laptop is poised to leap out of my bag so that I can get a head start on catching up with emails. But then I see the sunset. I zip my bag up and walk to the outside deck.
The water is supple and liquid light dances across it. The only other vessel is a fishing boat in the distance, seagulls trailing behind it to forage on the spoils being caught in the net. Pale golden light comes from the south west, sweeping into an ominous, dark sky over the hills of Arran. The gradient makes me think about the tension between fast and slow. In this vista, both are necessary; the contrast is what makes the sunset striking.
And then – what I first assume is a seal. A small, dark and sleek shape breaching the soft surface of the water. And then I see a fin. The dolphin reappears, this time four breaches in a row, even closer than before. Seeing me on my way. Bidding me farewell from the sea. Reminding me to slow down and notice what is in front of me.
“I want to say to him, If I wasn’t in a rush, I would have done it better.”
I immediately feel elated and I realise that that was what I was waiting for – a sign that the act of slowing down can provide us with rewarding and awefilled experiences. I know my emails are waiting for me when I get back to London, but for now – I decelerate.
My laptop stays at the bottom of my bag until I am back in London. And even now, when I think about the dolphin, I am reminded of the importance of deceleration and the mission that Gib and his team are on. It’s a reminder – a wake up call – to stop blindly doing and, at least once in a while, start being.