This post originally appeared on ToddHenry.com
How many times have you heard the phrase “slow and steady wins the race” trumpeted as a recipe for success?
As you probably know, it comes from the fable about a race between a tortoise and a hare. The race is an obvious mismatch, as anyone can see. Because of his blazing speed, the hare makes occasional pit stops along the course, believing that he can always make up his lost time later in the race and still win. The tortoise, on the other hand, believes that persistence is his most valuable tool, and he keeps up a steady pace throughout. The hubris of the hare is is downfall, and the tortoise eventually crosses the finish line victorious because of his consistency of effort.
Over time, this fable (and its corresponding moral) has been parroted by managers, writers, and consultants exhorting listeners that “slow and steady” is more important than raw ability. (I could even be accused of trumpeting this advice.)
The problem? While is essence it’s a solid principle, the way it’s applied is often more harmful than helpful. Slow and steady definitely do not win the race alone. Slow, steady, and deliberate wins the race, when punctuated by occasional sprints.
It’s not enough to make daily, measured progress on your work if it’s not deliberate progress. If you’re not moving in a meaningful direction, then failure is a likely outcome. While most professionals know this, it often doesn’t affect how we approach our work. Instead of defining our work effectively, we are instead carried along by the flow of it from day to day. Instead of determining the problems we are trying to solve, we tackle big, conceptual challenges and thus set ourselves up for failure from the start.
Define what meaningful progress means today
What problem are you working on? (Not what project, or what tasks, but what problem? This is a fundamentally different question because if focuses on outcomes, not activities.) Make sure that your work is flowing up into an outcome, not just keeping you busy.
Be clear and vocal about expectations and objectives
Ensure that you and your collaborators understand one another’s expectations for the work, your individual roles, and the deliverables. One way that “slow and steady” gets off the rails quickly is when everyone is moving in slightly different directions. At first this may not be noticeable, but over time these slight differences of understanding become large and visible gaps in progress.
Yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s true and important. If you are going to take purposeful risks and thus potentially fail, make certain that you are failing in a meaningful way. Fall in the direction of your objective, not to the side. Always strive to understand the potential obstacles and pitfalls of your actions, and consider ahead of time what you hope to learn if your attempts fail. You will often miss what you’re not looking for.
Practice deliberately to increase your capacity
One of the most misunderstood and misapplied examples of the “slow and steady” principle is the touted “10,000 hour rule” that emerged from the work of K. Anders Ericsson but was largely popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Many people believe the principle means that one can “become world-class at anything by doing it for 10,000 hours.” This is simply untrue, and not an accurate reflection of the original research. More accurately, someone with a natural aptitude, who dedicates 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to a specific kind of activity or field, can become very accomplished. However, no matter how many hours I jam with my garage band, we are unlikely to become The Beatles. What you have to do is dedicate yourself to deliberate practice, meaning that you break down your bigger objectives and tasks into smaller skills and then work purposefully to develop them over time. (In Die Empty I illustrated this process by prescribing step, sprint, and stretch goals.)
Be ready to sprint at a moment’s notice
On occasion, every project requires a sprint. While your slow, steady, deliberate progress will be enough to get you moving in the right direction, you also have to be prepared for those moments when the work will demand everything you have for a season. This is not (necessarily) unhealthy if it’s a part of a natural rhythm, or ebb and flow of your work. However, if it’s something that happens every week, it means that you are likely headed toward burnout. Sprint when necessary, but if you are being intentional and deliberate, your work should require occasional sprints, not an all-out footrace.
Don’t be lulled into the idea that being busy and making progress is necessarily going to net you a win. You have to be intentional and deliberate about your activity, and you have to be willing to sprint when the occasion calls for it. Slow, steady, and deliberate wins the race.