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Slow is Fast, Small is Big, Soft is Hard

The counter-intuitive relationship between aspiration, attitude, and achievement.

I used to teach philosophy classes at a community college — after working a full day at my 9–5 job. I would leave the office at 4:30, drive about an hour to the campus, and try not to bore a group of tired students to death while I droned on for almost 3 hours about (of all things) philosophy. I did this 2 days a week for 10 semesters. The pay was almost nonexistent, there were no benefits, and I loved it. It’s been a few years since I’ve done it, but I still kind of miss it.

In my Philosophy 101 course, I opened the very first class almost the same way every semester: I warned students that things are often not what they seem, and that in many cases the truth runs counter to what you might expect. That’s why it pays to not accept the received wisdom as gospel, to question the accepted best practices from time to time, and to ask a lot of questions. We end up finding that some of the most helpful pieces of advice we can receive are counter-intuitive — they fly in the face of what we assume as we make our way in the world.

There are 3 pieces of counter-intuitive truths that I have stumbled upon in my time. They are as follows:

  • slow is fast, fast is slow
  • small is big, big is small
  • soft is hard, and hard is soft

Slow is Fast, Fast is Slow

There is a saying in the community of salespeople that goes: “slow is fast, fast is slow”. The idea is simply that especially when you’re trying to fold someone into the process of doing what you’re asking, to rush it is to systematically slow down the process of getting effective buy-in. So fast becomes slow, and slow becomes fast. In general, the idea is this:

If you approach something in a rushed manner, and continue to push it through with a goal of meeting a timeline, several things can happen to make things go more slowly:

  • there will be push back from stakeholders that will slow down the progress. Being slow allows time for buy-in by way of dissent being totally (not partially) vetted, and totally (not just partially) acknowledged and addressed.
  • the quality of the outcome will suffer, which means more rework later on, and add time to the process.
  • completion (the finish line) becomes an illusion, and there will continue to be loose ends discovered that need to be tied up, because the speed didn’t allow them to be addressed

We often approach projects or work with the mindset of needing results now, and needing to do a million things at once. But what we don’t realize is that the more important the results are, the more beneficial it is to take it slow.

Small is Big, Big is Small

By now, nearly everyone who can read has heard the phrase “the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step” or perhaps “think globally, act locally”. Both of those phrases tap into something that is discoverable by anyone working on a large project: small actions can have huge knock-on effects. The converse of this is also true; some of the biggest, most grandiose actions can fall absolutely flat, and do nothing.

We humans tend to see huge advances, exponential growth, or quickly escalating trends and think that because they are so huge, they must have started off with some big idea or big, well-planned action. But in so many cases, it is a small idea — when let loose at the right time, in the right conditions — that ends up having a huge impact. And that idea often first gets implemented with some small actions — a crappy first draft, the back of a napkin blueprint. And those are just the examples that happen on a short time scale.

On a longer time-scale, this principle is true even more often. Time is an unmatched multiplier of strategically done work. That means combining a series of small actions together over time multiplies their collective impact.

Soft is Hard, Hard is Soft

I grew up in Chicago — which for a time, was home to the world’s tallest building (now known as the Willis Tower). When I was a child and visited the tower’s top floor, the day happened to be quite windy. I was amazed that the tower — such a solid and durable structure — swayed in the wind as much as several feet each way. This was no accident, skyscrapers are designed to sway in the wind.

The reason for this has to do with the concept of horizontal force on an exceedingly vertical structure. When a gust of wind is coming at a skyscraper, there is a lot of surface area (length) to hit and push against, compared to surface area holding the tower down to the ground (width). If the skyscraper weren’t built with the ability to sway and flex with the force of the wind, the building would experience quite a bit of structural damage at higher elevations.

In essence, in order to be hard, solid things that house large numbers of people and things, skyscrapers have to in some sense, be soft. Skyscrapers have to be able to flex and sway when an opposing force comes at them, so they don’t snap when met by significant force. In the same way, we as humans have to be able to flex and sway as well, if we want to be able to thrive in uncertain conditions.

We may be tempted to try to show strength and rigidity — to resist compromise and flexibility — but all that does is make it easier for us to make no progress. A little is better than nothing, and often when we refuse to be a bit soft and flexible, we end up with all or nothing (and most of the time, nothing). Some will perceive this to be a call to “back down” or be “soft”, and perhaps it is, but the only thing we have to gain by standing firm and inflexibly in the face of resistance is a boost to our ego — and not much else.

In this sense, softness is hard, and hardness is soft. The things and people that are not rigid and inflexible end up lasting through the changing and forceful winds of the years. It is only in our naive assessment of what strength means that we thing we must refuse to flex, sway, and change our minds. But as we experience the various shifts in the environments — be them personal, political, or professional — we can come to realize that being able to be flexible and a bit soft will help us last through quite a bit of turmoil, and come out stronger in the end.

We can aspire to be strong, achieve big things, and move quickly all we want. But our attitude can not always be the same as our aspirations. Big achievements often come as the result of attention to small actions. Seemingly fast progress comes at the result of a slower approach to work. Strength is a function of flexibility, rather than the result of complete rigidity. When we embrace these seemingly counterintuitive ideas, the notion of progress becomes a whole lot more realistic.