This fable by Aesop drummed into all of us that the slow and steady guy wins the race. It’s taken me a while but I now think it’s nonsense. Slow and steady is what a machine does, a worker on a chaingang, a slave on a plantation. Slow and steady has to be at it ALL THE TIME to be in any way productive. That old tortoise has to work nights, bring home a briefcase stuffed full of things that are far from briefly dealt with. The tortoise suits the system because he’s like a machine you can rely on, set your clock by. Unfortunately he’s killing himself through inhuman activity. By trying to make himself into a donkey, or a machine.
I don’t mean do nothing. The hare runs very very fast when he runs. Humans can be super productive when engaged and working at full steam. They just can’t do it for ever. They need to work in bursts. When you take a hare and make him behave like a tortoise you get a bored dysfunctional worker.
Human beings, as Nicholas Taleb has recently taken to commenting, are best at bursts. You run after a woolly mammoth. You get highly stressed and excited- for a few minutes- then you settle down to a big feast. You don’t spend eight hours a day killing mammoths. Agriculture was the start of turning men into machines- well the halfway product- donkeys- toiling away- as donkeys do in those revolving water wheels of yesteryear- day in day out, hour in hour out.
I towed a boat up 1600 miles of wild Canadian river. For the last 200 we alternated 45 minutes fully ‘on’- one person towing like crazy, the other two in the boat guiding it, with an hour and a half in the boat resting effectively. It was far more productive than the slow and steady towing we had practised previously where basically we trudged along because the rest time equalled the towing time rather than exceeded it. When rest time exceeds exertion time you feel fully energised and really go hell for leather. I remember many years ago when I sold life insurance- briefly- I could never get out of the house before 4pm. But all that hanging around seemed to get me psyched up and ready to make lots of cold calls. If I’d started earlier I’d have made less calls overall.
Books are always the better for being written in a blast, or a series of blasts than a long trudge.
A burst is a relative term- relative to the rest time used to balance it. You could work for three months- then take a month off. But if you knew you'd have three months rest instead of one you'd work even harder.
Amundsen raced for the pole in a series of bursts- because this is how sledge dogs perform best. If you try and make a slog of it they get- guess what? Bored- just like Scott and pals did on their epic trudge. Amundsen’s men had rest days budgeted in- one every seven- but he moved even during a storm when it wasn’t a rest day. Scott had no rest days- except he often didn’t move during storms- so he rested, kind of, but derived less benefit from it.
Life is the better lived between waves you create- with highs and lows YOU CHOOSE rather than the highs and lows that come upon us when we attempt to live like machines or dull donkeys.
We need a lot of ‘nothing time’, downtime, recovery time. Or maybe it should just be ‘different time’. If you spend a month writing a book spend a month walking a long distance path (at varying speeds and with rest days…)
Tennis players spend more time between shots than making shots. The top players are those who handle the downtime better, who use the ‘between shot’ time as recovery time. Ever seen the Hustler? Fast Eddie having a shave and putting a clean shirt on in the toilet between shots- defeats the constantly table-watching Paul Newman.
The better soldiers are those who can sleep anytime anyplace.
If you have a very rigorous schedule with recovery time built in you can be a mechanical hare - like those ones that get chased by real greyhounds. But it beats being an unmechanical tortoise every time.
Of course it’s very easy to con yourself that you need loads of recovery time and instead you just get lazy. To guard against that get into the idea of WAR on the STEADY STATE. In other words become someone who creates WAVES in your life. If you are doing nothing balance it by doing a lot. Don’t ask yourself ‘what should I be doing now?’ Instead ask, ‘Where am I on the wave? Am I in the trough recovering or am I riding it?’
If you’re not riding a wave- RIGHT NOW- then ask why not? Maybe you need some recovery time, down time.
Tortoises don’t win races they just move slowly. Hares win races because they run fast, then rest, then run fast again. Tortoises also lug a great big shell on their backs. They have no choice in the matter. We’re luckier.
My Chinese astrological sign is Year of the Hare. I’m going to run with it.