In 2000, Kwame Brown was a high school student at Glynn Academy in Georgia. A year later he was handpicked in the first round by Michael Jordan to join the Washington Wizards.
Have you ever heard of him? Probably not.
After a disappointing first season (I’m not much of a sports person but even I know that averaging 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game is not NBA top pick material) Kwame bounced around the league before being waived by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013.
So what happened? Kwame was the first number one draft pick to be plucked straight from high school and dropped into the midst of the NBA. And while it may have worked for LeBron James a few years later, clearly Kwame wasn’t ready. He’s not the only one; the world of sports has hundreds of similar examples every year.
“So what? I don’t watch sports!” you say. Okay, well analogies aside, the point I’m trying to show is how there can often be a detrimental side to our obsession with growing quickly.
Growth (especially quick growth) is a way of life for startups. Actually, it’s not a way of life, it is life. The grow fast/fail fast mentality is so engrained in our minds that we often forget to take in the process, relegating it to the sidelines while the end result takes centerstage.
But in our personal lives should we be going after that same level of growth?
When a company fails you move on and start something new, but when it comes to personal growth there’s something much bigger at stake.
The right type of growth
Here’s the thing to remember: growth isn’t the enemy here, it’s the modern idea of ‘growth hacking’, of always reaching your goals as quickly as possible—of leapfrogging and skipping the usual ‘dues’ we’ve all been told we need to pay (to whom, I really don’t know).
This mindset fixates you in a mentality of constantly seeking approval. Your accomplishments are more about a validation of your ability rather than the results of your hard work.
Standford psychologist Carol Dweck has spent the past two decades researching the power of our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, and has broken our basic personality traits down into two mindsets: fixed and growth.
A fixed mindset believes that our character, intelligence, and creativity are static—something we can’t change (the ‘we’re born with it’ attitude). So in every situation where we need to use these skills we’re constantly looking for approval. We want people to say what we have is good enough.
Alternatively, those with a growth mindset thrive off of challenges and don’t see failures as proof of their inability, but rather as a springboard to growth. Life becomes a constant, ever-evolving lesson with no final exam.
In Dweck’s work she polled 143 creativity researchers who all unsurprisingly agreed that the #1 trait underpinning creative success is the resilience and perseverance that those with a growth mindset have.
It’s ironic then that trying to grow too quickly is often the byproduct of seeking approval: from coaches, parents, investors, hell, even friends. Those of us looking to quickly prove our worth are actually stuck in a fixed mindset, rather than embracing lasting growth.
What it all comes down to is the choice between two ways of living: either with a passion for learning or a constant hunger for approval.
Why presence is more important than praise
It makes sense then that we should slow down. Instead of focusing on the end goal and how quickly we can reach it, we should take the time to embrace the present and put habits and systems in place that will create the processes that we want to do for the rest of our lives.
Psychoanalyst and University College London professor Stephen Grosz has spent a quarter century examining the effects of praise, and how it can actually decrease confidence and cause us to give up rather than continue to grow. Grosz’s research focuses heavily on children noting how “over the past decade, a number of studies on self-esteem have come to the conclusion that praising a child as ‘clever’ may not help her at school. In fact, it might cause her to under-perform. Often a child will react to praise by quitting—why make a new drawing if you have already made ‘the best’?”
The same can be said for us in our adult life. Other than for a select few, constant praise is not a driver for further effort. Instead, we’re bombarded with mantras telling us all that matters is the final goal, after which we can do whatever we want’—sayings such as “entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week”, or how “if you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”
All this does is put all of the emphasis on the final goal instead of on building a life that offers constant room for self-reflection and progression.
The case for slowing down
When you slow down and take time to focus on the process and not just the end result you learn to love what you’re doing along with why you’re doing it. So much growth is results-based, with little concern given to the why. In my own past, I bullshitted (i.e. ‘hacked’) my way from staff writer to editor of a magazine in just a few months without even knowing what my job as editor would entail (turns out you write a lot less, except when it comes to emails) just because I thought it mattered more to have a title rather than the experience.
I wanted to move up quickly. I wanted to hack my career. I didn’t want things to happen slowly. I wanted them now—a common mindset for any young creative.
But there is a case for slowing down and taking your time.
“The story I told myself was that slowness and emptiness were the same thing. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve found recently that when the time is used well, slowness can actually be one of the most profound sources of abundance.” – Matt Steel (Partner & Creative Director at Grain)
There is space in the slowness to really hone your skills and to craft your ideas before you jump into the deep end.
Designer Peleg Top writes about creating ‘personal whitespace’ by taking time off and slowing down his schedule. He began simply by taking each Friday off, eventually going on to take months-long sabbaticals.
“[the time off] helped me see things from afar and created space for me to CREATE more. I would spend these Fridays growing ME and in turn, my business grew right along side.”
There is a cult of busy we so easily get caught up in—the false thought that being busy means being productive. When you’re working for work’s sake you’re doing things the hard way, not the smart way.
Instead of pushing yourself to work harder and longer hours, take the time to slow down and understand the process. This is what gives you insight into the core of what you should be doing—the questions you should be answering.
“Do less than your competitors to beat them. Solve the simple problems and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to the competition. Instead of one-upping, try one-downing. Instead of outdoing, try underdoing.”
Slowness, under-doing, taking time off—none of these align with the cultural myth of growth hacking, but they are precisely the measures that some of the most successful people have put in place to get to where they are now.
Being first doesn’t mean being best
But if slowing down for your own personal growth isn’t a good enough incentive, what about slowing down for the sake of your company?
Apple’s rarely known for doing things first, but rather, doing them best. They take their time to perfect a product before they put it out.
The iPod wasn’t the first portable MP3 player out there, but it is the most successful. Just the same as the iPad wasn’t the first tablet (even from Apple), but it still cornered the market because they took the time to ensure that they had done due diligence during the design phase.
As programming and interaction design pioneer Alan Cooper puts it:
Pinterest is another great example of a company taking the time to slow down and understand their process without focusing on hacking their way to the top.
Andy Johns, who has worked on growth at Facebook, Twitter, and Quora recently put his thoughts on Pinterest’s growth in a post praising the company’s slow growth:
“When you focus on aggressive growth too early you generally fail more quickly, in particular when the product isn’t right. You’re basically acquiring many users at a high churn rate and low retention rates. When you do the opposite and build a great product first, then push to grow it aggressively after organic adoption, you expedite the path to success.”
Think about your own life and career: do you want to be first or do you want to be the best?
Most of us aren’t ready for the NBA when all we’ve done is played some back-alley ball, but the lure of the big lights (and big salary) is usually enough to persuade us from trusting our better judgment.
And while it’s true that for some people quick fame can have longevity it’s by no means the rule. Being first rarely means being best, while taking the time to slow down and enjoy the process ensures you’ll have a lifetime of continual growth.
“When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.” James Clear