Stop Moving Fast & Breaking Things, Start Mastering Patience & Persistence

Many of today’s entrepreneurs and startups live by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s now-famous motto: “Move fast and break things.” Zuckerberg intended for this to inform internal design and management processes, but it aptly captures how entrepreneurs regard disruption: fast is always better.

“Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.”

Mark Zuckerberg

If you aren’t breaking things you’re delivering value too slowly. Don’t spend all that time designing, functional testing, load testing, stress testing, soak testing, etc. – build your “Minimum viable products” (MVP) with the most basic features and get it out there asap and see if it works. With so many teams, startups as well as big companies adopting this approach, if it works for them surely it’ll work for me too.

But does it really work for them? Obvious not!

On October 4, 2021, Facebook and its subsidiaries, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, Mapillary, and Oculus, became globally blackout for a period of six to seven hours, the worst outage in the company’s history, causing 3.5 billion users unable to see one another’s lunches (Instagram), or group dunk mutual foes (WhatsApp). Our booming elders were also denied access to their weapon of mass disinformation (Facebook). Not to mention just 6 months ago, on April 3, over 533 million Facebook users’ personal data from 106 countries, including phone numbers, full names, locations, email addresses, and biographical, had been leaked online in a low-level hacking forum.

If all these debacles are still not bad enough, how about the biggest social media news story of the year ‘The Facebook Files‘ reported by The Wall Street Journal. Which is a series of stories based around enormous internal Facebook documents provided by a whistleblower – a former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen. The documents show its platforms are riddled with flaws, misinformation, and harmful content. Time and again, despite these problems being known inside the company, up to the chief executive himself, the company didn’t fix them.

Zuckerberg now realizes, that moving fast and breaking things not just slows everyone down but also causes harm and pisses a whole lot of people off users, business owners, investors, employees, and policy-makers. Which in turn caused a huge black eye to the company’s image and reputation. Not to mention the negative impact on user experience, customer trust and satisfaction.

Why are we so obsessed with this move fast, fail fast, learn fast, succeed fast mentality? Why are we so impatient? After all, it took about 2.6 million years for our species to evolve from the Stone Age to the modern age. Science and history have shown us that the advancement of human civilization is an evolution, not a revolution. Take a look at any scientific discovery, and you’ll find there is no single aha moment. Science weaves from failure to failure, testing to testing, with each version better than the one that came before. Rome, as the saying goes, was not built in a day, it takes time, lots of time!

Why are we so impatient?

One of the most frustrating aspects of being human is our knack for undermining our own goals. We pay for gym memberships, then rarely use them. We start diets, then break them. We take an online course, then quit after two weeks. We procrastinate on writing a paper until it’s the night before the deadline and we’re cursing our past selves for putting us in this predicament.

The source of this self-sabotage is Present Bias, a feature of our intuitive decision-making in which we care too much about short-term consequences and too little about long-term consequences. This cognitive bias explains why many people have a tendency to opt for a smaller but immediate reward rather than waiting for a bigger reward in the future. In other words, we’re impatient, and we get more impatient as the potential rewards grow closer.

When you contemplate a gym membership, the trade-off seems well worth it, in theory. Spend a few hours per week exercising, in exchange for looking and feeling a lot better? Sign me up! But on any given morning, when you’re faced with the choice between “Turn off my alarm and sink blissfully back into sleep” or “Head to the gym and make an imperceptible amount of progress toward my fitness goals,” it’s a much tougher call. The rewards of choosing to exercise are diffuse and delayed. What difference will one exercise session make to your long-term fitness goals, anyway? And you can still go tomorrow. Which is true – but of course, you’ll think the same thing tomorrow.

As a result, we tend to choose options in which benefits are received today and costs are pushed off into the future. This tendency to procrastinate can cause problems when people must make decisions about things that have future benefits but involve current costs, such as saving for retirement, paying off credit card debt, studying for an exam, eating healthily, or exercising regularly.

How ‘survivorship bias’ blinds us from seeing the truth

Another thing that caused us impatient is our obsession with early achievements. Steve Jobs dropped out of college and founded Apple with Steve Wozniak in 1976 at the age of 21. Another college dropout Bill Gates founded Microsoft with Paul Allen in 1975 at the age of 20. Almost three decades later, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Travis Kalanick— dropped out of college to pursue their dream and built their business empires in their early 20s.

We worship these youthful successes to the point that if you haven’t become famous, reinvented an industry or banked seven figures while you’re still in your 20s, you’ve somehow off track. Our desire to learn from the successful is a natural instinct, but this can blind us from seeing the whole picture if we don’t take into account ‘Survivorship Bias’. 

In simple terms, this comes about when we tend to focus on only the ‘survivors’ – those who are famous and outperformed the rest, whether people, machines, or companies – and come to conclusions based on their attributes, without looking more broadly at the whole dataset, including those with similar characteristics that failed to perform as well (those who lost and didn’t survive). 

It’s easy to understand the appeal of stories of early achievements. Hearing about successful young people defying the odds is encouraging. But these precocious achievements are the exception, not the norm. If you look at all those entrepreneurs’ performances over the years, rather than just the successful examples, a very different picture emerges.

MIT Sloan School of Management conducted a substantial study, that examined all businesses launched in the United States between 2007 and 2014, a data set that encompassed 2.7 million founders. They compared a founder’s age to a variety of company performance measures. What they found is that successful entrepreneurs are much more likely to be middle-aged than young. For the top 0.1 percent of the fastest-growing businesses in America during their study window, the average age of the founder when his or her company first launched is forty-five. Middle-aged founders also have the most successful IPOs. A fifty-year-old founder is 1.8 times more likely than a thirty-year-old founder to create a high-growth business. Even those who start their companies when they are young may not peak until later in life. The best example is the iPhone, arguably Steve Jobs’s and Apple’s most innovative product, which hit the market when Jobs was fifty-two.

What about creativity and innovation? That realm must belong to the young, with their exuberance and fresh ideas, right? Not necessarily. For instance, the average age of scientists when they are doing work that eventually leads to a Nobel Prize is 39, according to a 2008 Northwestern University study. The average age of U.S. patent applicants is 47.

The power of patience and persistence

In order to make a meaningful difference in just about anything consequential, the work you put in needs to persist long enough to break through inevitable barriers and plateaus. What seems like a static period may not be a static period at all—perhaps you just aren’t seeing the effects of your efforts yet.

Sometimes you need to pound the stone over and over again before it breaks. That doesn’t mean your prior pounds aren’t working. The tension may very well be building, and you just can’t see it yet. A breakthrough might be right around the corner.

In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth explains grit, some call it fortitude, has two components: passion and perseverance. Passion is how intensely you’re committed to your goals. Perseverance is how long you stick to your goals with the same intensity. In interviews about what it takes to succeed, Duckworth notices that high achievers often value perseverance more than passion. Rather than intensity, what comes up again and again in their remarks is the idea of consistency over time. This is especially important in a world where passion and enthusiasm are common, while perseverance and endurance are rare.

Actor Will Smith has thought a lot about talent, effort, skill, and achievement. “I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented,” he once observed. “Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic.” Accomplishment, in Will’s eyes, is very much about going the distance.

The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me. You might be all of those things. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.

Will Smith

When it comes to how we fare in the marathon of life, persistence and effort count tremendously. How long would you have stayed on the treadmill?

Staying on the treadmill is one thing, Duckworth points out, but getting back on the treadmill the next day, eager to try again is even more reflective of grit. Because when you don’t come back the next day – when you permanently turn your back on a commitment – your effort plummets to zero and you stop improving with whatever skills you have.

The treadmill is, in fact, an appropriate metaphor. By some estimates, about 40 percent of people who buy home exercise equipment later say they ended up using it less than they’d expected. How many of us start something new, full of excitement and good intentions, and then give up – permanently – when we encounter the first real obstacle, the first long plateau in progress?

Many of us are obsessed with “fast is always better”, we quit what we start far too early and far too often. Even more than the effort a gritty person puts in on a single day what matters is that they wake up the next day, and the next, ready to get on that treadmill and keep going.

How to grow your grit?

How gritty are you? To answer this question, you may take a Grit Scale test here, developed by Duckworth. Don’t overthink the questions. Instead, just answers honestly, considering how you compare to most people. In the end, you’ll get a score that reflects how passionate and persevering you see yourself to be.

Keep in mind that your score is a reflection of how you see yourself right now. How gritty you are at this point in your life might be different from how gritty you were when you were younger. And if you take the Grit Scale again later, you might get a different score. Because anyone can grow their grit over time. Here are four psychological assets that mature paragons of grit have in common, and they tend to be developed over the years, in a particular order.

First comes interest. Passion begins with intrinsically enjoying what you do. One thing that every gritty person comes up again and again is: ‘I love what I do.’ People express it differently. They also say things like, ‘I’m so lucky, I get up every morning looking forward to work, I can’t wait to get on the next project.’ These people are doing things not because they have to or because it’s financially lucrative, but because they love what they do.

Next comes the capacity to practice. One form of perseverance is the daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday. So, after you’ve discovered and developed an interest in a particular area, you must devote yourself to the sort of focused, full-hearted, challenge-exceeding-skill practice that leads to mastery, some call it deliberated practice. You must zero in on your weaknesses, and you must do so over and over again, for hours a day, week after month after year. To be gritty is to resist complacency.

The third is purpose. What ripens passion is the conviction that your work matters. For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime. It is therefore imperative that you identify your work as both personally interesting and, at the same time, integrally connected to the well-being of others. For a few, a sense of purpose dawns early, but for many, the motivation to serve others heightens after the development of interest and years of disciplined practice. At its core, the idea of purpose is the idea that what we do matters to people other than ourselves.

And, finally, hope. Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. I have a feeling tomorrow will be better is different from what I resolve to make tomorrow better. The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again. It is a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance. At various points of our life, in big ways and small, we get knocked down. If we stay down, grit loses. If we get up, grit prevails.

The four psychological assets of interest, practice, purpose and hope are not You have it or you don’t commodities. You can learn to discover, develop, and deepen your interests. You can acquire the habit of discipline. You can cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning. And you can teach yourself to hope. You can grow your grit from the inside out. All it takes is patience and perseverance.

Published by Anthony Tsang

I’m a bookworm, a sports & fitness addict, an adventurer, and more than anything else, I’m a permanent work-in-progress, always learning and evolving till the day I die.

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