This essay could be a long-winded way of saying “good things come to those who wait.” But the saying isn’t fool proof – waiting can easily lead to decay.
The difference is between active patience and passive patience, and we believe it’s active patience that pays off. Pulling back an arrow and holding that tension may not look like much in the moment, but you’re creating the circumstances for a powerful event to take place. Similarly, active patience is about moving (and not moving) with intention, consistently weighing resources and opportunity costs, and recognizing the compounding rewards of high trust and persistence so that you’re best positioned to act on an opportunity when it presents itself.
Most people, including us, are not naturally inclined to wait, to be content building energy and potential. In fact, “progress anxiety” is a term regularly used around the office. We balk at the idea of passive, unproductive, non-strategic waiting and also believe that “good things take time.” The quality of restraint is downstream from purpose.
The long game requires a plan. It demands clear vision, helpful structure, and healthy incentives that promote active patience and curb tendencies towards frenetic action, short feedback loops, and quick wins (over sustainable ones) in the name of showing progress.
Patience is a choice, and it’s one that must be made continuously and rigorously, through long-term commitment and persistent discipline. Put another way, it’s hard and we’re still learning.
What It Takes
“Patience is waiting. Not passively waiting. That is laziness. But to keep going when the going is hard and slow – that is patience. The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”
— Leo Tolstoy
Patience requires determination. Exercising patience without losing confidence, humility, or sense of self is hard enough, but you will also need perseverance and diligence. Mary Oliver calls it the “patience of vegetables and saints.” Others call it “grit” – that determination and commitment that drive us to long-term goals without the guarantee of short-term payoffs. Small business owners know grit. They’re the definition of durability, establishing deep roots in their communities, building companies with strong foundations, bringing consistent excellence to what they do best, and grinding toward a vision that may not materialize for decades or generations. This is patience at work, through work.
Patience requires the ability to be patient. If you don’t have the financial, mental, or emotional discipline to withstand a decline or a period of extreme underperformance, you don’t have the ability to be patient. The flip side of that coin is that you can’t lose your mind during periods of success. Also, most people lose their minds during periods of success. Patience can be interrupted by failure and uncertainty, of course, but short-term success can be even more threatening to patience, especially since luck is always involved. Success breeds confidence, which creeps into overconfidence, which leads to arrogance, which divorces you from reality, which cometh before the fall – failing in obvious, foreseeable, and avoidable ways.
Patience requires a team. But no founder is an island. Patience requires not only personal fortitude, but a team that will ride out the storm and continue to row with you. Conviction isn’t enough, and individual grit quickly devolves into stubbornness. If your significant other, investors, colleagues, employees, kids, and friends won’t go for the ride, you’re not going either. Or, you choose a life of isolation. So patience in some ways requires persuasion.
Patience is infectious. Patience begets patience, which gives everyone time to align collective postures.
Patience requires openness. However, extreme commitment to patience can come back to bite you. Smart owners, operators, and investors know the perils of doggedly following the original strategy over figuring out what it takes to survive. Patience can be confused with stubbornness or pride. No one wants to look wishy-washy or fickle. But surviving (and, eventually, thriving) requires an open posture. There’s always a gap between the stories we tell ourselves and reality. The smaller the gap, the better our judgment, and the more likely we can be appropriately patient.
Patience requires trust – trust the science, trust the system, trust your gut, or, if you’re the Philadelphia 76ers, trust the process. Patience is waiting in light of a desire and pressure to act. When faced with a problem, in order to not act you must trust that something better is coming. But that trust isn’t naive, nor is it idle. We might tweak the old “trust, but verify” in this case to “trust, but work.”
Finally, patience requires gratitude, compassion, and humility. These qualities combat selfish desires to profit at the expense of others. It’s hard to act out when you’re self-aware and at peace. And that, in turn, promotes patience, reinvestment, perseverance, and an overall preference for future rewards of compounding value. In this case, humility means knowing what you bring to the table and the value of investing in the future. If you’ve assessed yourself with candor and fearlessness, you have already begun to cultivate resilience and patience.
Patience is demanding. It requires these qualities and commitments because it only works if you work it again and again.
Why It’s Hard
“Well, we must wait for the future to show.”
— Virginia Woolf
Not to be flippant, but patience is hard because it’s hard. Even when you
know the reward is going to be bigger in the end, delayed gratification feels like a loss. And, we all hate to lose.
Patience requires endurance against obstacles, both known and unanticipated. The longer your time horizon, the more disasters you’ll experience. Most people don't bear hardship well and quit. Depending on luck, periods of extreme hardship and under-performance may come before any success, leading to an expectation of failure. And even if you’ve experienced a bit of success, or even a lot of success, the naysayers will always come out against you. See the many, many hit pieces on Warren Buffett at various stages of his career. The man has been “washed up” more times than a three-year-old’s t-shirt.
We think that a bias towards action (not action in itself – we all must act eventually – but prioritizing action above all else) is inherently prideful; it assumes superior knowledge, perspective, position, and predictability. However, patience is hard, and most people won’t do hard, so it's therefore differentiated and potentially extremely profitable.
Or, as Navy SEALs will tell you, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
Why It’s Worth It
“The first rule of compounding is to never interrupt it unnecessarily.”
— Charles Munger
Our aim in employing patience is to adhere, as much as we can, to the missionary mindset over the mercenary mindset. John Doerr explains the difference like this:
“Mercenaries are driven by paranoia; missionaries are driven by passion. Mercenaries think opportunistically; missionaries think strategically. Mercenaries go for the sprint; missionaries go for the marathon. Mercenaries focus on their competitors and financial statements; missionaries focus on their customers and value statements. Mercenaries are bosses of wolf packs; missionaries are mentors or coaches of teams. Mercenaries worry about entitlements; missionaries are obsessed with making a contribution. Mercenaries are motivated by the lust for making money; missionaries, while recognizing the importance of money, are fundamentally driven by the desire to make meaning.”
If you work very hard toward a goal you believe in, conclude that there is nothing worthwhile to do in the moment, and have the discipline to be patient while trusting that the time to act will come, you’re building energy and potential – the ingredients necessary to compound. Our experience and our mindset tell us that being good consistently for a long time is more valuable than being great for a short period of time, even if sprints of greatness get more attention.
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