The most underrated factor in achieving enduring success
“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.” — Arnold H. Glasow
A few years back, I distinctly remember a particular business meeting where my business counterparts were very keen on compressing the schedule for developing certain features in one of our information processing systems. My team’s due diligence resulted in a certain timeline for delivery but my product team wanted it done in a much shorter timeline. They argued that they were willing to allocate more money for expedited delivery. I tried to explain why that would not help because of the length of critical path in the project but this did not help much. Ultimately, I had to resort to the saying that “it takes nine months for a human baby to be born — this can’t be done in one month by nine women”. This did it.
One of the key aspects of project management methodology is to identify something called “critical path” — this is the essential list of tasks that can only be done in serial fashion — that is, output of one task is an essential input into the next task — in other words, you cannot start the next task until the current one is completed. Short circuiting project delivery by skipping any item on the critical path is generally not possible and when attempted, it adversely impacts the project outcome.
All good things in life take time
Nature and evolution cannot be sped up. Food production cannot be sped up (or can it?). Muscle growth cannot be sped up. A tree takes its time growing from a seed.
On the face of it, some of these can be sped up and that has been done often but this speeding up comes with high and insidious cost. Things get brittle. There is no robustness. Resilience becomes a casualty. For example, muscles built on steroids can adversely impact long term cardiovascular health, liver health etc.
Human expertise can’t be scaled overnight.
Jobs involving judgement (aka, human expertise) can’t scale quickly as developing “judgement” requires not just training/knowledge but also experience. Tacit learning happens while performing a job — by constantly making small and big decisions and learning from the efficacy of those decisions. This is not a linear process. It is, in fact, haphazard and random — to the extent that learning is not a guaranteed outcome but is only highly likely. This, by its inherent design, cannot be sped up.
Ability to make better decisions, hence, cannot be scaled. But this ability is among the most important capabilities required for success.
However there are sufficient examples around us of people who have become quite adept at this capability quite early in their careers. How can we explain this? Well, some of them are probably more lucky than others but most of them may have been more conscious of learning. Each year of their experience, quite likely, is more valuable than a year of average experience. And also, they may have started on the learning path earlier than most others. Interesting side: A number of people with early successes (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, etc) have dropped out of school — this bestowed on them the head start on “real” learning. Of course, there are other factors that would have contributed too — risk-taking nature, family background (wealthy or impoverished backgrounds — both could contribute to success) and so on.
Given the compounding nature of this learning, initial rate of scale of learning may be slow but with time, rate of scale ramps up quickly. Many times, it takes years and years of learning and building various capabilities through real and somewhat diverse experiences (and also from learning from observing successful folks) before these capabilities (suddenly) seem to come together and progress goes into high gear. So, years of seemingly slow progress and patience could result in apparent sudden scaling of progress.
Factors affecting patience
- We humans have evolutionarily been prone to instant gratification. This is a big detriment to patience. Before we settled into pastoral lifestyles, instant gratification may have made sense — eat when food is available! Availability of food in the future was always uncertain and, in any case, there was no way to preserve food for future use
- In the “industrialization” era, actions usually led to results. Today, we continue to be obsessed with action as a means to achieve results. However, in modern knowledge era, “thinking” (apparent inaction) is more valuable than constant action (e.g.,, spending time on design is lot more valuable than writing code from the word go). Successful pursuits in modern world do not drone on with action but tend to culminate in action. This need for action is another significant impediment to patience
- There could be external factors contributing to impatience as well such as unrealistic deadlines
“To lose patience is to lose the battle.” — Mahatma Gandhi
I have known folks who cleverly maneuvered their careers creating extraordinary growth for themselves in very short periods of time but eventually were booted out as lack of “right” capability caught up with them. Taking advantage of opportune moments is important but recognizing that it needs to be backed up by commensurate growth in capability is even more important.
“Impatience with actions, patience with results.” — Naval Ravikant
It is not that patience alone can get you great results but patience along with learning, growth, ambition, hard and smart work, luck etc position you for great success. Right process and the right mindset will significantly increase the odds of success, given sufficient patience. Patience for results is useful only when accompanied by impatience with getting on with the right process and mindset. Results are not in your control but process and mindset are. It just makes sense to develop and improve controllables and expect uncontrollables to fall your way.
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