One of the things that happens to empty nesters, at least in my case, is that occasionally you find yourself getting sentimental when coming across objects from the early days of parenting. I had this experience recently when I found a book of fables and short stories I used to read to our kids when they were little.
I thumbed through the book and saw Aesop’s timeless classic about the tortoise and the hare. You know the story: The hare mocks the turtle for being slow. The turtle responds by challenging the hare to a race. The hare sprints off the starting line and builds up a huge lead. He’s so confident that he will win that he decides to lie down and take a short nap. By the time he wakes up the tortoise has passed him and gone on to win the race. The moral of the story is “slow and steady wins the race.”
Thanks to Aesop the hare is the timeless model for the consequences of unchecked arrogance and laziness while the turtle’s commitment and tenacity is held up as the ideal. Living the code of the tortoise means celebrating the grind, keeping your head down, maintaining a steady pace and not getting distracted by braggarts.
To be sure, this is great advice for kids and adults alike. But as I read it again, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the hare gets a bit of a bum rap. It’s high time we give him his due.
(Let me pause here and note that I’m keenly aware that sometimes bloggers overreach in their search for new material. Perhaps a piece breaking down a children’s fairy tale falls into this category. I’m not sure. Regardless I’ll do my best to keep it short.)
In the fast-paced world of media and marketing that we operate in today, is the boring plodder, the “slow and steady” grinder, really the metaphor we want to celebrate?
Make no mistake, I’m all about the grind. A colleague keeps a formula hanging next to his desk that is impossible to miss on Zoom calls: “Grind + Persistence + Execution = Success.” It’s a great mantra and likely how Aesop would have articulated the moral of the story if he was delivering the keynote at an industry conference today.
But in Aesop’s embrace of the turtle’s virtues, he gives short shrift to the importance of speed. Jimmy Johnson had a great expression from his days coaching football – “You can’t coach speed. Speed kills.” This is so true, both in sports and in our careers.
The project teams operating today in corporate America are almost always barely able to keep up with the workload. How many of us are in situations where we are asked to accomplish more in less time with insufficient resources? Can I get a show of hands?
In such an environment speed is essential. Leaders must make quick decisions. There’s no excuse for sitting on a decision or waiting for perfect information before acting. Teams that don’t move quickly end up learning slowly. And as I’ve said before good outcomes are the result of effective processes that allow everyone on the team to learn quickly. Turtles don’t win this environment.
Beyond speed, the hare demonstrates an unabashed willingness to put himself out there and take a risk. He’s not afraid to take a chance. Turtles live in a shell, only coming out when they know it’s safe. Their tolerance for risk is incredibly low. Is that how we want to go through our careers? Or our lives? Prioritizing the avoidance of risk at all costs – whether it be in business, relationships, or life in general – robs us of the opportunity to experience the best the world has to offer. Wayne Gretzky said it best, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” No one should live inside a shell.
If the hare is guilty of anything it’s foolishly underestimating the competition. To me, this is the most valuable lesson of the fable, not slow and steady wins. Taking things for granted, blindly believing our assumptions about ourselves and the world are reality, is the mistake we never want to make.
I’m holding on to my collection of Aesop’s fables. Maybe someday, if I’m lucky, I can read it to my grandkids. I’ll make a promise here and now to my adult children that I won’t launch into a diatribe about how the hare got jobbed. But I’ll make sure my grandkids have a link to my blog.