“Nature does not hurry, but everything is accomplished.” – Lao TzuWritten by Nat Eliason
You don’t want a house out in the country. You want to slow down.
Patience is no longer a virtue. We once idolized the slow and steady grind towards a greater future. Now we enshrine speed, looking to those who beat the clock as our models of success.
I’ve been working on managing my addiction to Twitter. It’s among the most pernicious of addictions since it’s extremely easy to convince myself it’s good for me. Twitter has brought me much of my professional success. So who knows what opportunities I’m missing out on by not checking it right now.
We used to call this “FOMO,” but the new popular lens for these addictions is that our dopamine system is overtaxed. We get a little hit of dopamine whenever we open Twitter or Instagram because we don’t know what exciting new things we’ll discover, and as the rat at the cocaine pellet dispenser, we keep going back for more.
Unfortunately, it does feel like there are now two kinds of psychology studies: those that have failed to replicate, and those that haven’t failed to replicate yet. I’ve come to loathe the pop-psych blogger technique of slapping a study explanation onto everything. Dopamine may be the answer, but I think there’s a better one. Speed.
Humans are creatures of habit. It can be tough to get ourselves moving in one direction or another, but once we’re on a path, it’s often easier to keep that momentum going than deviate. Once you start running for a few weeks, your momentum will make continuing to exercise easier and easier. But once you stop, it gets harder and harder to start again.
I think momentum is a core piece of how we evaluate our lives and progress. We want to feel like we have high momentum towards some greater future. Seeing our current trajectory plotted into the coming years and being able to imagine what it can lead to keeps us pushing through the challenges. Without that sense of momentum, it’s hard to be excited about tomorrow.
In physics, momentum is based on two factors: mass and velocity. An object’s momentum increases as you speed it up or as you add more mass to it. When we’re considering the momentum of our work or life, we’re really considering the mass of what we’re working on and the speed at which we’re doing it. And if we’re deficient in one, we can make up for it with the other.
But we’re not a mass culture. We’re a speed culture. Our idols and self-evaluations often incorporate some element of speed. It’s not enough to have built a great business or written a great book. You also have to have done it fast.
Many norms of modern culture encourage a low-mass life disguised as a virtue through the lens of optionality. Maximize the options available to you so you have the freedom to jump at the best opportunities. Be a digital nomad. Don’t own too many things. Switch companies every 2 years. Pick a job that will give you more opportunities later. Don’t be too quick to pick a romantic partner, you can always freeze your eggs & sperm and grow your progeny in an artificial womb in 50 years when you’ve sufficiently optimized your Facebook ROAS.
We can think of optionality as opposed to inertia. If you have high optionality, you have low inertia. It’s easy to shift your momentum in a new direction. But keeping your inertia low also means keeping your mass low. Optionality and Mass are opposites. The more you retain your optionality the less you can invest in any area, whether it’s a career, a person, or a place.
If you write for 10 years, you’ll have built up such a mass of work and experience that your momentum carries you forward without much need for speed at all. And as your mass of work continues to increase, your momentum and sense of progress in that domain continues to increase, without you feeling the need to push the accelerator at all. You could even let it coast and slow down. The momentum will continue, the snowball is already rolling down the hill.
There’s a common myth that most successful startup founders are in their 20s. The reality is your odds of success starting a business seem to increase with age, with the most successful founders being in their 40s and 50s. But we don’t care about them, because we don’t want to imagine we have to wait that long. We want to succeed now, which is why we celebrate the Forbes 30 Under 30 and love stories of the college dropout.
It’s hard to say which way the arrow of causality goes. Do we celebrate these stories because we want to believe we can succeed quickly? Or do we believe we can succeed quickly because of these stories? Regardless of how it started, it feeds on itself and creates a self-reinforcing belief that to succeed we need to go fast. Look at all these people who worked really hard for a few years on the right thing and made life-changing money. You can too. Why would you work hard and buy index funds to make 7% per year when you could make 90,000% in two years buying Gamestop call options? We don’t want to be big, we want to go fast.
When you log in to social media, it’s immediately obvious how much you missed while you were gone. So much happened on Twitter or whichever cocaine pellet you prefer since you last checked it that you get a hit of speed. We can guess how fast a car is moving by how fast it whips past us on the highway. And we get a sense of how fast the world is moving by how much data whips past us online.
Attempting to digest everything is futile, so we resign ourselves to sampling some small piece of it while standing in the raging river of information. But that water feels good. The more we’re immersed in this high-speed world, the faster we must be moving as well. And speed means momentum means progress.
The problem is the real world beyond the screen doesn’t move that fast. Even bamboo can only grow a couple centimeters a day, a glacial pace compared to anything online. As soon as we take a break from being online, we have to grapple with the slowness of the world around us. Waiting in line for a coffee is too slow. It needs to be interrupted with scrolling. Even playing with your dog or baby you eventually start to feel the tug back towards The Feed.
But when we step back and let the traffic pass, a curious thing happens. We realize that while you can move at different speeds within time, time still moves at the same pace for everyone. Whether or not you’re immersed in the frenetic day-to-day pace of changes or news, you’re still along for the ride of time. You’ll still be there in a month, year, decade, whenever what you’re trying to stay on top of happens. Most things in the world don’t care about us, and the outcome rarely requires us to stay up to date on its progress.
Once we accept that, we can think about the other part of the momentum equation: mass. Instead of trying to move at an insanely high speed, we can think about building something massive.
One great aspect to mass vs. speed is mass compounds on itself. The more massive something becomes, the more it attracts other bodies into its orbit. Growth becomes effortless. Compounding interest and gravity are the same phenomenon. Speed doesn’t work that way. The faster something gets, the more energy it takes to speed it up.
So what does it mean to make something massive? Certain types of work are more linear because they don’t contribute to building a body of work. Uber driving would be a good example. Whereas other focuses like writing, gardening, or company building can compound on themselves over time.
The challenge is that a focus on speed and a focus on mass are often diametrically opposed. Speed encourages us to think short-term. Mass is a long-term project. And the more we immerse ourselves in the high-speed world, the more we think everything has to happen now. But it rarely does, and if we try, we can steadily reorient our focus from Speed to Mass.
We need to recognize what of our daily habits are accelerating or decelerating us.
The drugs we choose play a role. Caffeine, alcohol, and Adderall are accelerants. Weed and mushrooms decelerate us.
The information we consume plays a role. Social media, the news, pop business and psych books, all accelerate us. Old books, poetry, and art, decelerate us.
The stories we focus on play a role. Young tech founders, people who made a lucky call and got rich early, these stories convince us that speed is the key to success. Stories of a lifetime of persistence, like the woman who recently discovered the source of SIDS after 29 years of research make us think about work very differently.
How we eat plays a role. There’s no place for “fast food” in a culture that values slow and steady. Is food a source of joy and community? Or an inconvenience to be reduced to a bottle of Soylent chugged between 50-minute Zoom calls?
And what we work on plays a role. Having a true multi-year, or decade-long project forces you to zoom out. It turns out kids are great for this. My perception of time and speed has radically shifted since having our daughter. I’m much less concerned with where I’ll be in a year, much more concerned with where and who I’ll be in twenty.
It’s a choice we make every day. We’re always choosing to put our foot on the gas or to enjoy the scenery. And as tempting as it is to think speed is an important element of success, zigging and zagging back and forth along an otherwise straight line does nothing besides waste gas. You can’t move through time faster. You can only move faster within time.
I used the bamboo analogy earlier, and it’s worth comparing this speed mentality to the growth of bamboo. It grows quickly and spreads widely, but it doesn’t last. There are no 100-year-old bamboo culms. Meanwhile, the Oak trees outside my window grow at a painfully slow pace and might be as much as 400 years old.
Bamboo is exciting and gives the feeling of progress. But you constantly need new poles to pop up and keep the feeling going. The oak lasts. It’s a constant reminder of decades or centuries of progress on one simple goal.
Those are the stories and choices we need if we want to break the speed addiction.