Occasionally, there is a saying that hits you in just the right way and just the right moment and you keep coming back to it over and over. One of those for me is: Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast.
I’m not sure of the original source, but the saying is widely attributed to the Navy SEALs.
The origin of the idea is probably much older though likely still military in origin.
Doc Holiday, a famous gunfighter in the early American West, gave the advice: “Take your time in a hurry” to describe how to win a gunfight.
The Roman historian Suetonius wrote that Augustus Caesar hated rushing. Accordingly, some of his favorite sayings of his were:
- Festina Lente (Hasten slowly)
- Sat celeriter fieri quidquid fiat satis bene (that which has been done well has been done quickly enough)
It makes sense that it would have a military origin. When you are dealing with lethal weapons, there is a very skewed distribution in outcomes: You are either dead or not dead.
Being dead is infinitely worse than being not dead so you really, really want to do everything you can do to stay not dead.
If it takes 1 second to get off a shot at someone and you miss, you are in trouble. It is infinitely better to move slower and take 1.5 seconds to make sure you hit them. The half-second you saved being faster but missing is worth nothing.
I think there are two main things that phrases like festina lente or “Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast.” are getting at:
One part of the meaning is about practicing slowly so that the correct motor patterns are ingrained.
If you’ve never played golf before and you go out there and try to swing as hard as possible to try and hit bombs, you’re going to have a bad time.
If you start slowly and smoothly and ingrain a good swing pattern, then you can accelerate it more easily later on to add distance. Starting slower gets you there faster.
Tacit knowledge—as opposed to explicit knowledge—is knowledge that is difficult to express or verbalize. It’s something like intuition that one develops over a lot of experience in a specific domain.
When you slow down, you can start to internalize that knowledge in a way that makes it more effective when you need it.
However, I think the more important lesson is that even when you become a top performer, it’s still optimal to festina lente (hasten slowly).
A LessWrong poster put it this way:
On the rare occasions that I’ve worked closely with high performers, be they artists or athletes or academics, I’ve noticed that they are all slow.
The skilled artists never rush through their warm up exercises. The athletes are patient with their bodies.
The academics will spend ten minutes on a task that might take me two minutes, because they’re doing things like checking for consistency, giving themselves time to think things through and notice irregularities, and perhaps even formatting a table or graph to look nicer even if it’s not necessarily ever going to be seen by anyone but themselves.
The end result of all this “slowness” at the micro level is acceleration and efficiency at the macro level, and improved overall performance.
This is (somewhat infuriatingly) true of the most successful people I have ever spent time with.
Much to my surprise, the day-to-day pace of many of the most successful people I know looks incredibly slow.
Why is it this?
I think it comes back to my hobbyhorse topics of ergodicity and fat tails.
For systems that are characterized by fat tails (AKA black swans), over-optimizing for efficiency in the short run has two major problems.
First, it actually leads to less efficiency in the long run because of the build-up of hidden risk.
The way that hidden risk normally shows up is by making a tradeoff to get more efficiency in the short term at the cost of robustness and efficiency in the long run, what I’ve called the Robustness-Efficiency Trade-Off (RETO).
You can improve the gas mileage of your car by getting rid of all the protective equipment like airbags and seat belts. Those all add cost and weight which makes the fuel efficiency worse. You may drive your “more efficient” car for years, increasingly certain of what a good decision you made until one day, things go bad.
Or take a more personal example: You pack your work calendar to 95% full.
A work emergency comes up. You deal with it in a sort of half-ass way that won’t prevent it from happening again.
Even that takes so much time that you have to reschedule the rest of the week, now you’ve added another task (rescheduling) to your already overflowing calendar.
Now you are stressed and annoyed. You snap at a co-worker.
Someone in the organization now needs to fix the conflict which creates more work and impacts productivity.
Contrast this with when you are operating at 70% capacity. An unexpected issue comes up.
You have plenty of time to deal with it and so you fully address the root cause so it doesn’t happen again.
You go on as normal, no extra work created.
Counterintuitively, operating a company at ~70-80% often means outcompeting another company operating at 90-99% capacity.
The company running at max capacity has no ability to absorb shocks and so while they may outperform in the short run, they will often implode at some point along the way.
However, the other fat tail is equally important: the company running at max capacity also has no ability to seize new opportunities.
We tend to think about keeping slack in systems as a way to “robustify” them against bad things happening. But it also puts them in a position to capitalize on good things happening.
A large part of the reason Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California was that he always kept a lot of flexibility in his schedule and commitments. He was elected as part of a recall election which meant it wasn’t very well planned for or anticipated.
The other candidates took a long time to wind down existing commitments and get their campaigns up and running whereas he was able to start full steam ahead the first day it was announced.
A lot of good opportunities have a very short half-life and very high upside (a la the Law of Shitty Click Throughs).
I’ve found that my most productive (and least stressful) weeks are ones where I am maybe ~30-50% scheduled or planned out. There is enough structure there that I am not just wandering around and am moving some important things forward but there is still a lot of excess capacity to deal with problems or seize new opportunities.
When I am running near max capacity and an issue pops up, then it’s all I can do to just put the fire out. I get in firefighting mode.
When I am moving slow and have some excess capacity, I get into fire prevention mode. When an issue comes up, I can not just solve the problems, I have the time to examine why it happened in the first place and try to create processes to solve the root cause to prevent any similar problems from happening.
This micro-inefficiency of spending more time dealing with a problem creates a macro-efficiency: fewer problems in the long run. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Having more time to do things and being under-scheduled means I don’t just do them, I improve the system so they are easier next time.
Saturday is often the most productive day for many people. Why? Because they aren’t in a hurry!
Amos Tversky, the late collaborator of Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, once said “the secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”
How many people have spent weeks, months, or years going down a path that they didn’t want to be on that lead somewhere they didn’t want to be either where it could have been prevented by taking a few hours off to think about things?
“Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast.” is a rule of thumb for how to better deal with fat-tailed environments likes business and investing.
It makes you both more robust to the left tail of bad things happening and more exposed to the optionality of good things happening in the right tail.
I think this is hard to do because it can look kind of “lazy.” Running at lower capacity necessarily means a lot of time looks “wasted”. However, it’s “wasted” only in the same sense that a Venture Capital portfolio which included Amazon and 19 startups that failed “wasted” most of its capital.
When you know you are dealing with fat tails, you are going to have a lot of what looks like “waste”. One of the most valuable things I do is setting aside time to orient like doing a weekly review where I think through things.
I always feel somewhat guilty doing this because it usually is a waste. But 1 out of 10 times, I have a really important idea or insight that makes it all worth it.
Festina Lente: Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast.
Last Updated on July 6, 2022 by Taylor