While the title of this post may be reminiscent of the Party slogans in the book 1984, I’ve recently been finding it useful to remind myself of these seeming contradictions. Trying to go fast often slows things down because we make mistakes which we then have to go back and fix. Spending less sometimes costs more in the long run, as the cheap stuff breaks more quickly and you have to replace it. I’ve been seeing these themes come up in my own life and with my clients, so I wanted to write them up as a reminder to myself.
Hiring is one area where both of these slogans apply. I had one client who tried to save money by hiring contractors that were less experienced, and therefore cheaper. However, she had to spend more time to explain what she wanted, and the quality of the work was not up to her standards even after going back and forth several times – Cheap is Expensive. And I had my own experience in a previous job where I desperately needed help so I just hired somebody that was “good enough” because there was so much work to be done…and, of course, regretted that hire because it turned out that “good enough” wasn’t, and we had to spend enormous amounts of time working around that person’s lack of desire to step up and learn to do things – Fast is Slow.
Another related example is when a leader keeps doing things themselves because it is faster (they don’t have time to teach somebody else to do it) and better (that person won’t do it as well as the leader). And then they get frustrated because they are doing all these tasks, and don’t have the time or capacity to take on more strategic work. Their desire to do things Fast is actually slowing their career down as they have trapped themselves into doing more straightforward junior work. Meanwhile, if they were willing to Slow down and invest the time to teach somebody else to do the work, they would free up their time to do more important work that would accelerate their career.
But it’s not only in big areas like hiring and careers where these slogans show up. If I am running late while trying to rush out the door to meet somebody, I often make mistakes, and end up having to make a couple trips up and down the stairs, or to and from the car, because I forgot something – Fast is Slow. And Cheap is Expensive shows up in clothing, where a cheap shirt often ends up falling apart after a couple washes and has to be replaced. And while fast food like McDonald’s is both fast and cheap, it definitely is expensive in the long run in terms of my health.
Of course, the inverse of these slogans are also worth remembering. Cooks have the concept of mise en place, which means “putting in place” and refers to the idea of spending the time to set up the environment before cooking so that the cooking time is more efficient. This is a case where Slow is Fast – by taking the time to thoughtfully prepare, the actual cooking goes much faster because all of your tools and ingredients are in easy reach.
There’s a great explanation of how Expensive is Cheap in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series by a character named Vimes:
The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
In some sense, I use these slogans to remind myself to zoom out to a different timescale. If I am rushing to get a task done, saying to myself “Fast is Slow. Slow is Fast.” reminds me that slowing down now will make it more likely that I do the task at a higher level of quality which will mean I don’t have to come back and do it again later because of a mistake I make while rushing. And I’ve mostly internalized that if I’m buying something meaningful, it’s worth investing in higher quality as it’s more likely to be long-lasting in serving its purpose; if I spend the time and money to select wisely now, I won’t have to think about it again for years.
I’d love for you to share examples of Fast is Slow and Cheap is Expensive in the comments – I think we can all use reminders of how these contradictory statements show up in our lives.