The Tortoise and the Hare

We all know the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, but usually we are told that the moral is that “slow and steady wins the race.” This moral is simply wrong. It’s the wrong lesson to derive from the story, and is a foolish lesson at that. Rarely does going slow win any races. Going slowly is a good way to be careful, but that’s not what races are about. In fact, the real lesson is not about the tortoise at all, it’s about the hare.

The hare believes that he’s faster than the tortoise, and he’s right. In a flat out run, the hare will beat the tortoise every time. But the hare makes a huge mistake, believing in his ability but then not actually proving it. In life you may have great skill, one which everyone acknowledges, but you must still use that skill in competition to actually win competition. Overconfidence that leads to a lackadaisical attitude will often be punished by embarrassing failure.

While it is true that somebody with few skills but who works his ass off will sometimes beat out somebody lazy with lots of skills, the real lesson here is that you must use your abilities when they are called upon. When I was in elementary school, everyone acknowledged that I was a smart kid, maybe the smartest in the class, but I didn’t do much school work and I did not get good grades as a result. Like the hare, I acted as if my intelligence meant that I did not need to do the school work or to study much for tests. Maybe I could have drawn some wisdom from this story if the proper moral was given.

In major league baseball, the really good teams win about half the games they play against the other really good teams, and they crush the bad teams. Those winning teams do not slack off when they are playing against the worst team in the league, because even the worst team can beat them, and they need every single win they can get.

The suggested moral, that “slow and steady wins the race” also hides an important fact: the tortoise took up a challenge that he could not possibly win. If the hare had been intelligent and run quickly to the end, the tortoise would look quite foolish, and this type of foolishness is scorned in many of Aesop’s other fables. After the hare has crossed the finish line, hours before the tortoise has arrived, then the hare can sit down and take a nap. He will have shown his superior speed by having demonstrated it in the race, and then he can brag about it after the race, not during. If we learn anything from the tortoise, it is that when you are faced with an opponent who will certainly defeat you, the only hope you have is that he defeats himself.

The correct moral: success depends on using your talents, not just having them.