In the fifth grade my mathematics teacher was a portly British gentleman who went by Mr Cole.
Think Sean Connery with the glasses and beard circa-Indiana Jones, only rounder.
As we studiously worked through algebra problems in our notebooks, he would walk through the aisles between our tables and say:
Speed and accuracy gentlemen, speed and accuracy. That is the secret to mathematics and life.
What Mr Cole was referring to was the ability to do things both fast and well. It was an important lesson — and one that is worth revisiting in an increasingly-complex world.1He was not being politically incorrect. Much to the chagrin of the students present, it was an all-boys school with no young ladies present.
Speed is the ability to do things quickly.
In real life, we can think of this as our speed of implementation.
I was having dinner with a friend recently and as we sat there slurping down bowls of tonkotsu ramen, I explained how when I learn something or have something pointed out to me, I can usually implement it into my life or business almost immediately.
For example, I recently saw a physiotherapist who pointed out some muscular imbalances between my left and right sides. The very next day, I incorporated the relevant stretches and one-sided exercises into my gym routine.
Beyond just speed of implementation though, speed is important as it as a component of iterative and agile processes.
In our personal lives this means that we’re inevitably going to make mistakes in whatever we do, so we are better off making them fast and early and then learning from them and moving on.
In business, this means that companies have to iterate their products, marketing and processes quickly in order to keep pace with the market and consumers.
I’m all for taking breaks and working at a manageable pace, but it seems that in the modern day there is a distinct lack of urgency in the way people go about things.
Keeping the idea of speed in mind when we do things can help to address this.
Accuracy is the ability to do something well. It is saying that doing great and quality work is important and does matter.2For more on this, see the first part of Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday.
In some fields doing something with accuracy means being perfect. The algebra problems that Mr Cole had us work through, or scientific endeavours would be examples of this.
In other fields, doing something with accuracy means doing something “good enough”. Jeff Bezos’ 70% Rule comes to mind here.
The sad truth about the modern day, is that most people and companies don’t even reach 70%.
Companies produce a product or piece of work that is 20-30% done, call it a “beta” and launch it, then use aggressive marketing to sell it.
People put in 20-30% of the effort required to do something well, and when they don’t see any results, they say “it doesn’t work” and they give up.
To do great work and to do something well, you need to hit at least that 70%. You need to be accurate.
For companies, this means building your product to 70% and shipping it — and then proceeding to iterate with speed.
For our personal lives, this means doing a concentrated push or project to get what we want to 70%, and then proceeding to improve it over time. Whether we are trying to instil a new habit, start exercising, clean up our diet or date the right person, we need to push to get to 70% and then go from there.
You Need Both Speed and Accuracy
Acting with speed is good.
Being accurate is important.
But to make things work, you need both.
And putting the two together makes things smooth and effortless.3In Italian there is a great word for this: sprezzatura.
In business, this means having a quality product, and going hard with your marketing because you know the product delivers. To others, it looks like you are executing flawlessly — because you are.
In your personal life, it means getting more things right the first time and in less time, and worrying about the rest later.
Developing the ability to move with speed and accuracy is simply a matter of practice. Much like algebra, the more of it that you do, the better you get at it.
What To Do Next
Speed and accuracy ladies and gentlemen, speed and accuracy.
- He was not being politically incorrect. Much to the chagrin of the students present, it was an all-boys school with no young ladies present.
- For more on this, see the first part of Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday.
- In Italian there is a great word for this: sprezzatura.
Photos by Cara Fuller, Vince Fleming, Jorge Láscar, Cris Ovalle.