Our go to restaurant as a family for culinary celebrations was a spot called Nick’s located in Calgary just to the East of McMahon Stadium. I was always struck by a line listed at the bottom of the back of the menu. It read “Good Food Takes Time to Prepare.” Even as a self-interested teenager, I appreciated those words. The food was absolutely worth the wait. Waiting to get served somehow seemed easier when the outcome was going to be good. It seemed a smart move to insert that line on the menu to help patrons appreciate a wait. In Italy in the late 80s, others felt similarly. A MacDonalds restaurant had been proposed to be built in a historical part of Rome. Protests erupted against the development proclaiming “We don’t want fast food, we want slow food…” A journalist, against desecrating a historical place with a MacDonalds, showed up with plates of homemade pasta suggesting an interest in the craft of culinary arts over the mega-corporation, Kraft. People didn’t want to celebrate the cult of commerce worshipping at the altar of immediacy. What began in Italy morphed into a movement across countries and disciplines in favor of slowing things down.
The Latin phrase Festina Lente became the motto of many. It translates to make haste slowly. In our immediate gratification world the rush from one thing to the next best thing becomes frantic and never ending. It creates a relentless sense of urgency without satisfaction. On some level, surely we recognize that good things come to those who wait. Patience is peddled as a virtue. Yet, the messages with which we’re bombarded suggested that we should have it all, now. Technology and creature comforts are great. However, many have bred an unrealistic expectation for achieving things easily and immediately that the real world can’t sustain. We’re consumed with speed. Even the highest of high speed internets aren’t fast enough for our liking. Waiting for our computer screens to respond when we open up the laptop can feel like an eternity. Even in the drive thrus, we impatiently wait for our breakfast sandwich to be made watching the service counter clock tick down to their goal service time. We wonder why it can’t be produced as quickly as our coffee.
Patience was imposed as much as it was learned in earlier generations. Growing up in the 80s we didn’t have wifi. You were lucky if your family had a hifi. A high fidelity stereo that could have included a turntable, cassette deck, radio, and connection to speakers. You didn’t have a pocket full of a personally curated library of music that moved where you went. If you wanted to create your own playlist, it was work. Your only option was to purchase a blank cassette tape and record music song by song. To record a song took the time of the length of the song. To source songs to tape you either had to own the album or borrow it from a library or friend. This took time and effort to get to the store or library to access albums. You then either played the album and waited for your song or tried to place the needle from the turntable onto the record where the desired song began. This latter approach required a bit of skill as making a mess of this could put a scratch on the record. If you didn’t have access to a record, your only other option for recording a song was to listen to the radio and wait for a station to play it. Even those stations that played popular songs four or five times a day had a lot of time between plays. If you were committed to this approach you would likely be listening to a whole lot of other stuff before you got to listen to the song you were waiting for. Worse yet, even if you were on your toes at the ready to hit record, your personal mix cassette tape would be populated with a few words from the local DJ. Regardless of the approach, your personal mix cassette took time to create. At best, it could be done over the course of an afternoon. In most cases, it would take days of effort to put together.
Once you had your tape made, it was cherished based on the time taken to create. If you wanted to make changes to it because you had fallen out of love with one or more songs, you were better off starting a new one than taping over the existing one. Recording over the past effort brought back to mind the effort involved in making the last version. You wouldn’t want to throw that effort away. Digital music has reshaped this scene fully. The abundant access to music and the ease of transfer has made instant gratification possible. The ability to mix different songs, change the order of these songs, and play the same song over and over can be done easily and instantly by the youngest of children. What used to require patience and a little perseverance now may be done immediately. This is considered progress.
Robert Greene writes in The 50th Law, “The fools in life want things fast and easy—money, success, attention. Boredom is their great enemy and fear.” Our devaluing of patience is a casualty of comfort. Progress has plowed patience aside as technology has led to reduced struggle across many areas of our lives. Our existence is much easier. We face little scarcity. As a result of abundant food and comfortable shelter, most of our immediate needs are readily met. A consequence is that we have more free time. From less scarcity came time which bred the emotion of boredom. Left to our own devices our mind wanders to wondering about the future. It doesn’t move to pleasant thoughts, it creates worry, tension, and anxiety. We become motivated to decrease these awkward feelings that boredom brings.
We have two options. We can either escape boredom by chasing distraction. We can seek short term pleasures like entertainment or creature comforts. This seems to be the most common approach. We crave novelty, fun, pleasure, entertainment, anything to keep our mind off ourselves. Here, we’re looking outside ourselves for a solution to our suffering. The world sets itself up to deliver these to us and we become a slave to distraction. Unfortunately, whatever happiness we achieve is short-lived. 50 Cent notes, “Most people can’t handle boredom. That means they can’t stay on one thing until they get good at it. And they wonder why they’re unhappy.” Distractions deliver fleeting fun while leaving us unfulfilled and no better than when we began.
The other approach is to become attracted to something such that it draws attention and fuels commitment. We gain fulfillment where we’re engrossed in something and seek to immerse ourselves in it perpetually. This path is the road to mastery. It’s found cultivating a craft. Dedicating ourselves to a disciplined pursuit of a process consumes our attention while building competence. We become both better and fulfilled. You derive deep pleasure in the pursuit. Brilliance flows from an acceptance that boring is beautiful. We should work to, as Greene writes, “wake up and realize that real power and success can only come through mastering a process, which in turn depends on a foundation of discipline that we are constantly keeping sharp.” The path to progress consists of a series of steps. The steps must be taken, they can’t be skipped. It is this way in all fields across all disciplines, through all time. The sooner we don’t just accept this but embrace it, the sooner we can get busy pursuing the process of progress.
There are reasons this approach is so hard to adopt and resisted. It’s the opposite of what our culture shows us. It’s also counter to what technology promises. We’re dangled desirable quick fixes. We’re promised instant results. We’re told life should feel good and be fun. We think if it isn’t easy, it’s not worth it or the program doesn’t work. The path of work works, but likely will hurt. There will be struggle on the journey. Our culture doesn’t show or value this effort. The focus is on the glamor and glitz. The prize for winning. We see the product not the process. We flit from subject to subject like a tick leaving before any learning can sink in, giving in at the first sign of struggle. We value breadth of experience over depth. Built into the bias of belief in the shortcut is dwindling perseverance. When we think things should come easily to us and we face a hiccup, we don’t just stumble, we crumble. Drop out rates of online courses and other programs are incredibly high. Moreover, the temptation to follow the easy way is lured in front of us by shifty salespeople. Charming charlatans tell us exactly what we want to hear suggesting success is guaranteed and just a credit card swipe away. They offer quick transformations and secrets to success. Suckers greedily leach on to these ideas ignoring the reality that mastery can only be found on the other end of time coupled with sacrifice. Is the impulse for immediacy helping us? Is it bringing out our best? Unfortunately, as Jeff Olson writes in The Slight Edge, “Faster can easily turn out to be slower.”
Precisely because the crowd grasps for the easy approach, we should consider doing the opposite. We can distinguish ourselves where we embrace the long road. Promoting patience as a superpower should be paramount. There are those that see a connection between speed and shallowness and, instead, delight in depth. They slowly proceed taking pleasure in being patient. In spite of our culture’s incessant calls for more, now, the sultans of slow seek the power of patience. Fields from food to architecture, to politics and gaming all have advocates against speed and towards slowing down. They may be in the minority but they represent role models to mirror. The calmer, calculated approach to slow and steady reduces the frenetic anxiety of an always on world. Quality supersedes quantity and quickness. The saying that good things come to those who wait couldn’t be more true. Legendary opera singer, Beverly Sills, tells us, “There is no shortcut to any place worth going.” Whether it’s education, our reputation, our finances, health, fitness, or anything of value, what’s worthwhile lies on the other end of lengthy journey. The long way is the shortest way. This is true in virtually any meaningful area of our lives. James Clear writes in Atomic Habits that, “Patience is a competitive advantage. In a surprising number of fields, you can find success if you are willing to do the reasonable thing longer than most people.” Greene in The 50th Law notes, “The real secret, the real formula for power in this world, lies in accepting the ugly reality that learning requires a process, and this in turn demands patience and the ability to endure drudge work….If you are really after power and mastery, then you will absorb this idea deeply and engrave it in your mind: there are no shortcuts. You will distrust anything that is fast and easy.”
Nature can serve as our role model. Whether it’s watching streams erode into canyons, acorns grow into oak trees, or learning about the growth of mountains, nature moves slowly but relentlessly. Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested we, “Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.” Emerson, too, noted, “The power of a man increases steadily by continuance in one direction. He becomes acquainted with the resistances, and with his own tools; increases his skill and strength and learns the favorable moments and favorable accidents.” Sam Kyle writes in his e-book, Playing the Long Game, “It’s not how fast we move today that matters, it’s how far we move over the coming years. The ability to go slow is an asset, one that very few people possess.” If we select sustained striving over immediate satisfaction we will learn to enjoy the delight of dedication. We can choose to consistently craft our competence and build mastery over mediocrity. Consider making your anthem the Guns and Roses song, Patience.
We can work to develop a small skill by starting a brief daily practice. Where we can see our progress even on a trivial task following five minutes of daily effort, our confidence in our new competence grows. Our confidence for the process builds as does our skill. It’s a virtuous cycle that fuels further focus building more capabilities. We begin to see that our capacity is limitless. Because we’ve been able to grow skill here, we can do so there. Recognize that you, like good food, take time to prepare. Go slow. Focus on one thing at a time. Break down the big picture into smaller, achievable goals. Commit to consistency over intensity and take comfort in the plodding pursuit of progress. Recognize the lure of the shiny object is but a distraction from the proven process. What you do daily matters much more than what you do every once in a while. Choose consistency over intensity. The tortoise beat the hare not because he was slow but because he was steady. He did something. He continued plodding along patiently. Embrace the idea of the Chinese proverb suggesting “be not afraid of going slowly; be afraid only of standing still.” There’s no mystery to mastery. There’s no secret to strategy. Less plotting. More plodding. We’re finding that sweet spot between our bias for action and doing nothing. We’ll close with guidance from cosmetics guru, Mary Kay Ash who wrote, “Give yourself something to work toward—constantly.”