Discover more from Nutopia – by Sami Viitamäki
Slow is Fast, and Fast is Slow.
The Navy SEAL Maxim in Tech, Business and Life
Having read many books on The Navy SEALs over the years, one of their sayings has stuck in my mind over others: "Slow is fast, and fast is slow."
It’s battle-hardened wisdom, carved into the SEALs' operating principles through the discipline of conducting high-stakes operations under severe pressure. But this military mantra is interesting to me because it rings true also beyond the battlefield, offering invaluable insights into tech, business, and personal development.
Fundamentally the saying means that the more hurriedly you act, the more errors you make. Those errors then demand correction, eating up more time than if you had worked deliberately in the first place. Hence, fast becomes slow. But when you move methodically, anticipating problems, you progress without significant setbacks. Therefore, slow becomes fast.
Slow Tech Sometimes Wins
In its insatiable thirst for disruption, Silicon Valley is known for sprinting every marathon at a 100-meter dash pace, often mistaking movement for progress. Among the region’s most famous sayings is "Move fast and break things,"; an oft-lionized proverb in the Bay Area.
Yet, how many have broken more than they intended moving at breakneck speed? In its haste, Facebook didn't foresee the political and societal quagmires it would entrench itself in. And Uber, racing to ubiquity, overlooked corporate culture, and the challenges of China, for example, taking severe reputation and economic hits.
In design and development, digital speed also often sacrifices user experience. Apps are launched with fanfare, only to be riddled with glitches and followed by several updates. While user-centric in theory, rapid prototyping often prioritizes getting out the door and leaves the user second, leading to clunky launches with a backlog of unsolved problems. In its ambition, fast becomes slow in getting the thing to work.
Yet some tech outliers consistently grasp the SEALs' wisdom. Apple’s methodology might seem tortoise-like in the tech world. They aren’t the first in any category, launching the smartphone, smartwatch, earbuds or, more recently, ‘spatial computing’ years later than the competition. But when they dive in, it is always with precision and polish that leave competitors in the dust and command premiums the rest of the category can only dream of. Apple’s 'slow' entry becomes a fast track to market success.
This isn’t a call to stagnate or a rejection of innovation. But it is an appeal for intentionality. It's about understanding that the obsession with speed, without purpose, can lead to chaos at best and irreversible harm at worst. Deliberate, well-thought-out actions, though seemingly slower, can lead to better and more sustainable results, even in fast-moving fields like technology.
Business Blunders and Bold Breakthroughs
Tech startups championing the "move fast" motto have also got giant corporations onboard. Yet, companies often stumble into costly pitfalls in a race to innovate or evaporate at a clock speed higher than the company’s or the market’s pace.
Quibi, with nearly $2 billion in funding from major Hollywood film studios, TV and telecommunication companies, banks and other investors, aimed to be the mobile-first streaming platform destined to revolutionize digital entertainment.
Yet, in their haste to produce content and capture market share, they overlooked some fundamental questions - like the desirability of professionally produced, snack-sized mobile content in the first place, or the need for TV compatibility during a pandemic lockdown a couple of years into their journey. The result? A rapid demise in a short time. Fast became fatally slow as regards user adoption or revenue generation.
Contrast this with a company like Dyson, whose rifle-like vacuum I bought after recently agonizing over a Roomba that would get stuck everywhere. James Dyson and his team spent years making 5,127 prototypes before finalizing their first product, the DC01, and have continued their mindful method in subsequent category conquests and product launches ever since.
The outcome has been a fast ascent to market success in almost every category they take on. In vacuum cleaners, they achieved a swift domination over Hoover, Miele and Electrolux, who have been around for 100 years.
Or take LEGO, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy in the early 2000s. Rather than frantic pivoting, they took a 'slow' route of truly understanding their customer base, refocusing deliberately on core products, and aligning the offering with their brand fundamentals. Today, they're again an unparalleled success story in the toy industry.
The aviation sector provides yet another example. When Airbus conceived the A380, they envisioned dominating the skies with their massive double-decker. But critical industry developments went unnoticed in their rush to outdo their main competitor, Boeing. One of the most fatal was the ongoing evolution away from the traditional hub-and-spoke model, and the rising preference for point-to-point travel, for which smaller two-engine jets were preferable.
Although criticized for its 'slower' approach, Boeing launched the Dreamliner 787 four years later, focusing on fuel efficiency and direct routes. It secured a robust order book and practically obliterated the case for having A380s in the fleet.
Business, especially in today's volatile environment, isn't a 100-meter dash; it's a marathon, where sprinting without strategy leads to burnout and mistakes. Moving with purpose, even if seemingly slower, ensures you finish the race atop the podium.
Life's Marathon, Not a Sprint
Could you remind me of all the New Year's resolutions that have fizzled by February? Was it the sprint towards a 20-pound weight loss goal without building sustainable habits that doomed you? Maybe you set a goal to write a novel in the first quarter, only to quit when your first two weeks’ progress remained less than 10% of your plan? You wanted 'fast,' but got a 'slow' drag of nonexistent results and a feeling of defeat.
In relationships, consider the whirlwind romance where you swore eternal love to each other within a month but were separated two months later. Those who take it slow, and take time to genuinely understand their partners, moving with intention and an open mind, often find deeper connections and longer-lasting relationships.
The same often applies to career progress. Those who race up the corporate ladder without taking time to learn, adapt, and form connections, or the ones who jump around different companies every year for a 10% pay rise, often find themselves ill-prepared, isolated, and overwhelmed when they reach responsible senior positions. Those who build slowly, step by purposeful step, not only reach their career goals but, more importantly, thrive when they get there.
Sure, modern society is selling hard the idea of 'fast:' learn a language in three months; achieve zen-like mindfulness in five minutes a day; or become ripped with just seven-minute workouts. But they lead to quick fixes with a false sense of achievement instead of true mastery; this results only from slow, deliberate practice.
You can still have it all, though, but only with patience. As Josh Waitzkin, a chess AND kungfu grandmaster, puts it, when you genuinely master one thing, applying your learnings to other, seemingly separate fields can be surprisingly easy. But if you jump around before getting one thing right, you will never master any.
The Clock for Success Runs Slow
This isn't a call to lethargy but a plea for mindfulness. It's about recognizing that real change, genuine development, and profound achievements don't emerge from a blur of frantic activity. They bloom from the soil of reflection, steady effort, and patience.
So, the next time you're tempted by the allure of quick fixes or feel disheartened by your progress's seemingly slow pace, remember the Navy SEAL's wisdom. Embrace the journey, savor the process, and understand that in the vast tapestry of personal development, sometimes moving deliberately is the quickest path to the version of yourself you aspire to be.