Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Naughty, Naughty Speed"

"Naughty, Naughty Speed"

Consider what we learn when we're taught the basics of right and wrong, prudent and imprudent. Even though speed is vital for success and can help us achieve great things, fast is rarely portrayed as noble, responsible, or smart. Often, it is characterized as reckless, naughty, and impatient. Wanting things fast means wanting immediate gratification, and immediate gratification is often judged as immature and irresponsible, even morally wrong. It's equated with impatience, short attention spans, and childish gimme-gimme attitudes.

Even the seemingly innocent Aesop's fable "The Tortoise and The Hare" whispers of speed's destructive potential. The moral of the story is most commonly given as "Slow and steady wins the race," with the emphasis on the dependability of slow. But like many of our societal judgements of speed, the key message of "The Tortoise and The Hare" is misguided. "Slow and steady wins the race" is a false claim based on a very limited interpretation of the story's plot.

Think about it: A tortoise and a hare agree to a race, and the hare scoots away as fast as he can go, leaving the tortoise in his dust. (Why does that tortoise think it's a good idea to race a hare, anyway?) But the hare is so sure the tortoise can't catch up that he stops to snack on grass and have a nap before bothering to actually complete the race. When he wakes, he sprints for the finish line. But as he dashes across, smug and sure of his victory, he finds the tortoise on the other side, patiently awaiting his arrival.

The hare doesn't lose because he's fast - speed does not work against him in any way. And the tortoise doesn't win because he is slow. The hare loses because he makes a ridiculous choice about how to spend his time, because he is irresponsible and arrogant enough to declare victory before he has finished. And the tortoise wins because he is brave enough to enter a race when the odds are stacked against him and persistent enough to make it all the way to the finish line without giving up or losing focus.

Speed's role in the fable is to exaggerate the lesson, to illustrate that even with a dramatic natural advantage - in the hare's case, speed - one must stay focused and resist underestimating the competition to win. On the flip side, one can race against unlikely odds if she is humble, courageous, determined, and focused. Speed isn't at fault in the hare's loss, and slowness is certainly not what won the race for the tortoise. Yet generations of readers and listeners have come away with the idea that slow is smart and fast is irresponsible.

It's true that the ability to delay gratification is one of the signs of maturity as children develop. But having mastered the skill of delaying gratification when we need to, why should we delay it on principle, for no extra benefit? And although there are some situations in which we will benefit from delaying gratification (more on that later), there's no need to dismiss it automatically as irresponsible or immature. Why do we believe that waiting for our reward is so noble? The "childish" impulse to have what you want when you want it is really no different from the reluctance to use snail mail when you can send email, to take the slow train when there's a fast one, and to beat around the bush when you want to get to the point.

But the lessons we're taught are confusing. For every story like "The Tortoise and The Hare," for every pithy quote that villifies speed ("Haste makes waste," "Rome wasn't built in a day"), there seems to be another aphorism, another lesson, that glorifies or encourages it ("A stitch in time saves nine," "He who hesitates is lost"). And while some aspects of speed make us instinctively recoil, we're quite attracted to others.

From "The Age of Speed" by Vince Poscente (pp. 33-37)

I've mentioned it before, but on Chris Doyle's (Head Strength Coach of University of Iowa Football) weightroom door is a sign that reads "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard". It bears repeating, regardless if you're a tortoise or a hare.

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