The Paradox of Patience

To be or not be: that is the question

To be or not be: that is the question

We all know the advice given by Prudentius that “patience is a virtue”. As a boy, I heard this aphorism with alarming regularity in the form of admonition from my mother. As an adult, I learned to appreciate the value of forbearance as I invested in my future through education. And today, I work for a company trying to change its industry along with the lives of millions of people, which, of course, will not happen overnight.

How poor are they that have not patience!

-Iago, Othello

On the other hand, the early bird catches the worm, there’s much to be said for having a sense of urgency, and we all know that startups are “supposed” to move fast and break things. That these adages contradict my mother’s sage wisdom prompted me to try and resolve the apparent inconsistency between exercising temporal restraint on the one hand, and seizing the day on the other. I wanted to understand when to be patient and when to be impatient.

Patience, engraving by Hans Sebald Beham, 1540

The Stockdale Paradox

When I brought up my thoughts on the topic of patience with my colleague, Tyler Hogge, he mentioned a related Catch-22 known as the Stockdale Paradox. James Stockdale was a U.S. Navy Vice Admiral and awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, during which he was a prisoner of war for over seven years. His story is worth reading in more detail for its own sake: The man had more fortitude and resolve than probably any person I have ever read or heard about.

Commander Stockdale’s Douglas A-4 Skyhawk jet was shot down in North Vietnam in September, 1965. He parachuted into a small village, where he was severely beaten and taken prisoner and held at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for the next seven and a half years. I won’t recount the details of what he and his co-captives endured but it goes without saying that what they went through tested the limits of what human beings are capable of bearing. Fortunately, Stockdale survived his ordeal and returned home to recount his experiences and rebuild his life.

Stockdale discussed his coping strategy with James C. Collins, the author of the best selling business book Good to Great. His responses (which I lifted from Wikipedia) were as follows:

I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:

Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.

Stockdale added:

This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Collins went on to describe the dual nature of this philosophy as the Stockdale Paradox.

Long-term patient, short-term impatient

Stockdale’s biography is a story about the need for patience (and many other virtues) under the most intense circumstances. It is also a case study on the need to deal with pressing problems swiftly and decisively. That Stockdale and many of his fellow POWs survived their ordeal provides the key to reconciling the need for both patience and impatience in order to accomplish one’s goals. Making it out alive required Stockdale to be patient and recognize that he it would likely be a while before he was eventually freed. But at the same time, he needed to focus what he could influence to deal with his severe challenges in the short term.

It is the interplay of control with temporal proximity defines what we should be patient about. If you have some goal that is distant both in terms of time and your ability to exert influence over it, then be patient. But if there is something that you can do or learn right now that will help get you a little closer to that goal, then do so with a decided lack of patience (a Marine friend of mine from undergrad used to refer this as “violent execution”.)

Be impatient about things happening soon that you can influence

Simple and hard are not mutually exclusive

I think following this advice can be hard. The near-term things that we have control over are often the least exciting to do and are, by definition, hard to tie to long-term outcomes we are aiming for. In terms of data science at Wealthfront, this might be the majority of the time we spend wrangling, cleaning and munging data before modeling and sharing the results of our work. There is always an expectation that we will impact our clients and the business positively at some point but it requires patience to focus when that impact is far into the future. This is hard; instead of pursuing the less-sexy work with the same impatience as the final product, it can be easy to waste time in meetings or reading email or, as Paul Graham puts it, “bullshit”.

The bullshit that sneaks into your life by tricking you is no one’s fault but your own.

-Paul Graham

I haven’t found much advice on how to become a more patient person (although, looking at art may help.) Having the long-term goal in mind helps you to remain patient in the face of all the things that need to get done immediately. In the post I linked to Paul Graham points out that asking yourself whether you’ll care about something in the future enables you to distinguish between that which matters and bullshit. Being impatient about the things which you both care about and can influence seems to be a decent rule to follow. And while there are plenty of things that can fall into that category, there’s no doubt that good things come to those who wait.