Speed versus Accuracy? It All Depends on the Game

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Quantum physics is weird. Despite studying it for four intense years under the tutelage of some of the most elite professors in the field, I didn’t really get it until I read The Cosmic Code shortly after I earned my degree. Written by Heinz Pagels, a physicist and frequent contributor to The New York Times on topics like cosmology and other fun science subjects, the book explained the complex concepts of physics to the lowly layman. Of course, my curriculum vitae might suggest I’m not a lowly layman. While this may have once been true for most areas of astrophysics, when it came to quantum physics I was – and continue to be – as lowly as lowly could get.

In Pagels’ words, I was a “determinist.” A determinist is a classical physicist who sees the world in terms of causation. In other words, things happen for a reason. A quantum physicist sees the world in acausal terms. In other words, things happen… because things happen. Mathematically, this might be expressed as follows: A classical physicist reads the expression “2 + 2” and thinks “4.” No ifs, ands, or buts, just a solid “4.” On the other hand, a quantum physicist reads the expression “2+2” and thinks “4…maybe.” To a quantum physicist, there exists some real chance the answer is not “4.”

Confused? Try this one for size. The best definition for quantum physics I’ve ever read comes from British humorist Douglas Adams. His book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, offers the following instructions on how to fly: “There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. … Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties.” Adams had no intention of defining quantum mechanics when he wrote this, but he was spot on. The best way to understand quantum physics is to not try to understand it.

Quantum physics is filled with neat little philosophical goodies. For example, there’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Werner Heisenberg, a preeminent quantum physicist, stated “One can never know with perfect accuracy both of those two important factors which determine the movement of one of the smallest particles—its position and its velocity. It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.” In very real terms, the more precisely you measure a particle’s position, the less certain your measurement of that particle’s velocity becomes. And vice versa.

In a sense, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle underscores the revelatory power of the dichotomy. When presented with the choice of two competing ideas of equal attraction, your choice reveals much about your character, your attitude, and your overall decision making process. Pretty powerful stuff. So powerful, in fact, that it represents a major element in my “Lifetime Dream Process,” a personal self-assessment methodology I developed years ago to help my clients discover the meaning of their lives.

But enough of the preamble. Let’s get to the meat of the discussion.

There is one dichotomy in particular that vexes people. Why? Because it has so many real-world applications. People live it every day – and often have the scars to prove it. What is the challenging twosome that so often presents people with a difficult choice? It is whether one should choose between “speed” or “accuracy.”

Of course, if you’re normal, your first response is “Why not both?” Well, sure, in the best of all possible worlds, you’d have both. But unless you’re the physical manifestation of Voltaire’s Professor Pangloss, having both is unlikely and probably impossible. You need to pick one or the other. You can’t have both.

Given that, which is the better option: Speed or Accuracy?

The correct answer is: “It all depends on the game.”

Permit me to provide an example. Remember those speed tests you once had to take in elementary school? For those not familiar, you would be given a piece of paper containing a series of maybe one hundred or so (ten rows of ten) single digit mathematical problems. You’re then asked to complete the page as quickly and as correctly as possible. (Apparently, these tests were designed by determinists, since all the answers were pretty solid). You would then be scored on both how many problems you answered correctly as well as how fast you answered them. This represents the classic “speed vs. accuracy” dichotomy. As you were taking the test, you needed to constantly choose between speed (completing the test as quickly as possible) and accuracy (correctly answering as many problems as you could). It was a stressful give and take, which, truth be told, was one of the strategies of the testing methodology.

In sixth grade, though, as the problems evolved in complexity, the rules of the game changed. It was no longer “how many problems can you answer correctly and how quickly can you answer them.” The teacher adjusted the objective to simply “how quickly can you answer all the problems correctly.” Consider the subtlety of this change. You no longer had one shot to get everything right. You would have to keep working on the problems until you answered everything correctly. If you handed in your paper and got something wrong, you’d have to take the paper back and correct the problems you got wrong. The cycle of solving/correcting and submitting would continue until every problem was answered correctly. In the meantime, the clock continued to run until the last problem was answered correctly.

Most students employed the same strategy as they did with the standard speed test. They’d try to get as many problems as possible right before handing their papers in. Not me. I whipped through the problems and handed the paper in. The teacher quickly graded my answers and returned my paper to me so I could fix the problems I got wrong. There was no penalty for an incorrect answer. The only reward was completing all the problems correctly in the fastest time. My decision here was to value speed more than accuracy. The teacher recognized I was “gaming” the system, but, for all I know, maybe that was part of the lesson. My fellow students couldn’t understand why I would lower myself by submitting so many incorrect answers.

But, remember, the goal was not accuracy, but speed. In the end, I scored the most points. That angered some students, not because I was the fastest (I was), not because I got more answers correct (I did), but because I got the most answers wrong (I did). The truth is they failed to understand the rules of the game. The only thing that counted was speed, not accuracy.

For some time thereafter, the lesson was not lost on me. Eventually, this experience allowed me to better understand the advantages of a focused critical path strategy to problem solving. With this strategy, you don’t have to worry about getting everything right, just the tasks and objectives that make up the critical path to success. If your system allows for quick reiteration – the ability to go back and fix an error – then accuracy becomes less important than speed.

Here’s the catch: What’s the downside risk of inaccuracy? The greater the downside risk, the more important it is to place accuracy ahead of speed.

To explain this, I’ll leave you with one last real life example. We’re all familiar with the showdowns of the Old West. At high noon two competing alpha males would stride out on the dirt road in the middle of town, count to ten, then draw their guns and shoot. Despite the many variations of this story, it all came down to “who was the fastest draw”… in Hollywood. In real-life, the one who got the shot off first usually missed. The slower cowboy usually was the more accurate. In a very practical sense, for the Old West showdowns, speed literally kills. The downside of inaccuracy was too great to risk being the fastest.

Alas, Aesop already taught us this when his Tortoise showed us “slow and steady wins the race.”

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