Does anyone still believe in Aesop's tale of the Tortoise and the Hare? I guess the moral still applies to some tasks. Knitting needs deliberation, but really is just a relaxing avocation. Besides, it's covered with “a stitch in time saves nine.” Complicated surgery takes patience, but not if it's done to an ER patient, with all those urgent “stat” and “clear” commands. Most jobs move too fast these days to allow for steady, whistle-while-you-work habits. Electricians, and other tradesmen, especially, are under the gun to complete jobs on time.
In his book, The Future of Success (Knopf, January, 2001), political economist and former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich describes an economy speeding along at full throttle:
“The New Economy is not bureaucratic. It's more horizontal than vertical. It's composed of linkages of contractors, subcontractors, and talented individuals who come together on projects and then recombine in a different formation for different purposes. We are becoming an economy of free agents.”
Professional formations aside, it's getting harder to stand still for slow-and-steady bureaucracy these days. We get antsy waiting for elevators, waiting in line at ATMs (the new machines operate five times slower than 10-year-old cash dispensers — and sometimes eat your card), and waiting to buy groceries in the megamarket's checkout line behind shoppers attempting to pay with checks and coupons (“Have you written a check with us before, ma'am?”). Does anything seem slower than that?
Times have changed since Aesop's tale, which probably marked the last time a tortoise beat a hare in a race, anyway. In fact, the last time slower-moving objects won races was circa 1900 auto races, when the race went not necessarily to the swift, but to the car that could go 100 laps without breaking down. In those days, drivers built their own cars. Henry Ford once raced an early prototype on a track — and won!
In the old days, Vaudeville audiences sat patiently without fidgeting for 45 minutes while Houdini escaped from handcuffs — from behind a curtain! Nickelodeon audiences sat captivated by slow-paced silent films, which, ironically, move faster today because they were shot at slower speeds than today's standard projection equipment.
Like old-time racecar drivers, old-time electrical jobbers often had the luxury to take the time to do a knob-and-tube job right 100 years ago. That's because newfangled electricity, with its dangerous and invisible electrical current, was a freakish thing, something to be marveled at. Usually, only one man in every town knew how to wire a building. Back then (and to some degree, still) electricians were the cool, high-tech guys. They were wizards with magical skills, like the Wright brothers with their bicycle shop. Unless, an electrical jobber firm was under a deadline to light something big and special — like St. Louis' Guarantee Electrical, which started its business lighting the 1904 World's Fair — slow and steady did win the race. Incidentally, Guarantee, recently completed a massive electrical renovation of a TUMS factory (See Page 8).
Today, the race goes to the swift. Wirers, cablers and contractors who combine both disciplines need to be fast and steady to win the race against the deadline clock. In this era of fast-fast-fast construction, Long John Silvers are built, stem to stern, in 24 hours. Contractors only slow down to meet with other contractors in design/build meetings, where they plan fast-track projects.
Keith Bell, profiled in Staff Writer Amy Fischbach's July 2001 cover story, is the paragon of the electrical contractor on the fast track. Bell's Forney, Texas, firm typifies the best blend of speed and quality. “We've got a reputation that if it's too big or too fast, then call Intex,” Bell said.
More and more, contractors rely on Intel to help speed their business. In 10 years, computer-processor power has increased nearly 500-fold. Then why do computer programs, like Windows, clank along so much slower than they than did 10 years ago? Why does digital cable television move about 500 times slower, changing from channel to channel, than the old-fashioned analog cable TV? And, why did supermarket checkout lines get slower with the advent of fast, easy barcode-scanning technology?
In some cases, it just may be workers getting lazy because of the technology. Take today's synthesized recorded pop music. Songs are layered with hundreds of tracks of electronic noise until they sound like a synthesized mush. And it can take months to produce a single cut. In comparison, great old blues and folk musicians, like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Woody Guthrie, recorded songs in a single take. The Beatles wrote, arranged, recorded and overdubbed the song a “Hard Day's Night” in one night to give their movie a song for the title credits.
Pre-fab cookie-cutter quality is one price we pay for speed. But not everything built slowly is of high quality. Financial analysts say that investors who take a slow and steady approach might now win the race. But economists always say that when markets plummet. Remember the old economist's adage: “If you can't forecast accurately, forecast often.”
Americans, meanwhile, have become a fast-paced fickle people looking for quick-fix solutions. Maybe there was always something to the slow-and-steady business. Maybe we should all just keep our money in the bank. Maybe the tortoise is catching up to the hare. Maybe the wheel's finally starting to spin backward, taking back all that it saved.