When Does Efficiency Become Stupid?

Going as fast as possible sure feels great. As long as you’re going in the right direction.

When Does Efficiency Become Stupid?

Okay, so you say you want to be the world’s fastest mountain climber, nine-time entrepreneur Daniel Epstein asks us to imagine. You bend your whole life around it–sleep schedule, relationships, and credit score included.


Then, one day, the climb comes. Epstein continues:

Eventually, as fate would have it, you reach the summit. You look down at your watch, and you realize that you have set a new world record. You have climbed that peak faster than any person before you! You just made history.

This is clearly awesome.

But the more important question, Epstein argues, is whether you climbed the right mountain:

One of the most common causes of failure in the startup world is simple: You climbed the wrong mountain and you felt great the entire way up because you were moving at an incredibly fast pace.

Why did you feel great? Because, as Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow has told us, workaholics aren’t addicted to success; they’re addicted to the validation that comes with success. So if your ultra-light, super-lean startup team is high-fiving each other into oblivion, you might not be aware since you were getting so much good feeling out of the experience.

Before we get the personal validation, we need to do some goal validation.

Y-Combinator cofounder Paul Graham made some real sense a few weeks back: Businesses fail because they don’t make something that people want. If you’re not making something people want, you’re climbing the wrong mountain. Time to summit doesn’t matter.

The overoptimized, misaligned climb is also a part of our career hustle: when we talk about moving as fast as possible through our day, we’re really talking about being as busy as possible, and when we’re talking about being as busy as possible, we’re really talking about distracting ourselves from bigger, more distressing questions of what we want.


Janet Choi, the iDoneThis chief creative office and

contributor, helped us see how a hyper-focus on optimization can breed blindness:

It’s easy, even enticing, to neglect the importance of filling our time with meaning, thinking instead that we’ll be content with merely filling our time. We self-impose these measures of self-worth by looking at quantity instead of quality of activity.

The right mountain, rightly scaled

When we do optimization the right way, then, it is the quality with the quantity, the expressed vision with the expeditious activity. Unless we don’t think about it.

“I’ve raced for the summit before I considered fully the context, our resources, the competition, or market timing,” Epstein, the aforementioned entrepreneur, admitted. “Climbing the right mountain is a new core value of our team. We live by it. And in my limited experience as an entrepreneur, I’m willing to bet that living by this value is going to allow us to live much longer.”

Hat tip:

[Image: Flickr user David Pacey]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.