To win is defined as having overcome an obstacle, whether it’s competing against others to be the first to reach the same goal, as in winning a race, or personally rising up against something that is holding you back from your goal, as in prevailing over your fear of flying to take a plane trip. For there to be a “win,” there must be a challenge you overcome by effort and perseverance.
Yet, winning has become as fuzzy a concept as the cotton tail of Aesop’s bunny in his classic fable, The Tortoise and the Hare. In this story, the Hare is obviously blessed with natural superior speed and agility over the slow methodical Tortoise, yet the Hare taunts and teases the Tortoise for his slowness. The Tortoise one day challenges the Hare to a race, and, against all odds, the Tortoise wins–not because of superior speed, but because the Hare is so over confident that he’ll win, he takes a nap in the middle of the race. While the Hare snores away, the Tortoise slowly passes him and gets to the finish line first. The moral of the story is found in the Tortoise’s final comment to the Hare, that slow and steady progress wins the race! But, is crossing the finish line first a genuine “win” when there is no challenge? And do you actually have to come in first to win?
The path to an easy win is no win at all. What if the Hare wasn’t so arrogant and didn’t take a nap during the race? What if he just took off and left the Tortoise in the dust, crossing the finish line in only a few minutes, which he easily could have done? Sure, he would have crossed the finish line first, but would that have been a win? What would the Hare have accomplished? Would anyone have cheered or applauded such a simple, obvious win? The two were completely mis-matched in physical abilities, yet the Hare was a loser before the race even started. He cruelly picked on the Tortoise for not having the Hare’s physical advantages in speed and then accepted the challenge to race merely for the chance to humiliate the Tortoise. There was no race for the Hare; it was about bolstering his ego with a false accomplishment.
The real moral of the story isn’t about arrogance, though, but can be found in something Henry Ford once said, “It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste.”
The Tortoise won, but not because he crossed the finish line first. He grew tired along the race, but he didn’t give up. His perseverance paid off, but only because the Hare essentially dropped out of the race. The Tortoise won, not because he was a superior runner, but because he made use of the time the Hare wasted thanks to foolish pride. The Hare basically gave the race away to the Tortoise, but the Tortoise wouldn’t have won anything at all if he hadn’t had the gumption to challenge the Hare to a race in the first place.
This brings us to another useful, but lesser known, lesson from this fable, that a little creativity can get around even the most intimidating obstacles. There are some versions of this story that have the Tortoise win, because he tricked the Hare into taking a nap. The Tortoise played on the Hare’s arrogance and manipulated him into showing off by thinking he could nap and still wake up in time to smoke the Tortoise. In this alternate version, the Tortoise didn’t win by superior physical speed or luck, but by being emotionally and intellectually smarter than the Hare. This would explain why the Tortoise would even have the nerve to challenge the Hare to a competition the Hare was so completely better qualified to win–at least physically. The message here is to never blindly accept the status quo, but consider all the strengths and weaknesses at play to build a winning strategy.
If you set yourself up for easy races all the time so that you can pat yourself on the back and call yourself a winner, are you really a winner? Like the Hare, can you ever expect the best from yourself when you are not challenged? Competition is about setting a standard for excellence, about pushing the envelope, maximizing your potential, being the best you can be. The Tortoise didn’t allow his abilities to be defined by how they compared to the Hare. The Tortoise capitalized on his own strengths, took the race and the challenge seriously, and made use of what the Hare wasted. Even if the Hare had not napped and flew past the Tortoise to win, the crowds would have been cheering on the Tortoise, hanging in there with him, celebrating his pushing himself to complete the race, because the true victory is in the race, not the win.
Are you on a path to victory in your life, or taking detours to gather up meaningless “wins” that ultimately leave you feeling empty inside? Do you see yourself defined by what others can do that you can’t, or do you map your own road to the finish line that capitalizes on your own unique strengths?