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In his essay The Crack Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously writes that, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It’s a wonderful quote, if beat to death, but the fact that we are still referencing it 100 years after first publication suggests that there’s an implicit lesson embedded in those oft-cited words about the quantum nature of reality.
For George Orwell on the other hand, Doublethink describes, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” Far from casting this feat as intelligence, Orwell brings his intellectual hammer down on quantum reality:“For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.” An echo of Einstein’s famous remark about wave/particle duality and that, “God does not play dice with the Universe.”
One of the most famous books written in the last century on decision making was Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 epic meditation on heuristics and cognitive biases, Thinking Fast and Slow. In it, Kahneman outlines two primary information processing and decision-making systems in the human brain. System 1 (Fast), which provides automatic responses, and is an evolutionary legacy, and System 2 (Slow), a newer system and the locus of conscious reasoning. Life is a battle between our higher consciousness, slower self, and our lower consciousness, faster, automatic self. For his comprehensive study of this everyday phenomenon, Kahneman won himself a Nobel Prize.
From what I’ve personally experienced, the secret to great execution is to embrace the advice one of history’s O.G. strategists, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, who offered the following: “Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things.”
While acting quickly and taking bold, ambitious decisive action can be a major competitive advantage, I have often found my personal competitive advantage to appear to stem from how slowly I make decisions. Most, but not all, mistakes stem from a decision made too quickly, a System 1 path. I try (but occasionally fail) to take time to process potential second and third and fourth order effects before making a judgment call. Optionality, in life, as in finance, ought to be maintained until the last possible second.
My first boss in investment banking had served in the USMC as an officer. A common refrain in the marine corps (or so I’m told as a civilian) is that, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. I was told this on my first day as a fresh faced Excel monkey, with the added color that it was as applicable to building a financial model or drafting a compelling and error free presentation as it was to assembling one’s weapon in combat.
There is a children’s story about slowness and fastness that we all are told as kids. It concerns a mythological race between a tortoise and a hare. The hare runs fast but takes breaks and gets distracted. The tortoise, in a stunning upset, wins the race. The moral of the story is, quite famously, “slow and steady wins the race.”
Life comes at you fast. Some years though, life comes at you slow. Sometimes nothing interesting happens for weeks at a time. It’s all early morning cocoa puffs and nothing to talk about and fighting to gain inches and millimeters on the turf of another day. I think this slowness is responsible for the modern maxim that, “People tend to overestimate what can be done in one year and to underestimate what can be done in five or ten years.”
Contributing to the murky viscosity of slowness and torpor, we have the inevitable setbacks. The proverbial punch in the face from God. Stumbling backward into the oblivion of our recent past. That sacred moment when the rock rolls back down the hill for the nth time. It’s the thing Rocky Balboa is talking about when he says, “Ain’t you me or nobody gonna hit as hard as life.” Before pointing out, in a moment of cinematic history that, “it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Wherever you go, there you are. Last night, I wrote the word aspire on a piece of paper to remind myself of something. Then this morning I woke up a day older than I was yesterday. Aspire to what? I asked myself. Then: measure my progress towards the unknowable in millimeters. Slow and steady winning the race or making mistakes of sloth? Crawling the yellow brick road, I wonder about the Eternal Now, the infinite divine conscripted to the present moment. Maybe I’m already there. Then: doublethink, á la Gertrude Stein, “There is no there there.” If the sun rises again tomorrow, I’ll be a day older than I am today. “Do you think I count the days?” asked Sartre. “There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”
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