Why is it that, as children, we are taught that races are for animals? We were told (how many times I wonder?) about the fates of the hare and the tortoise. The hare, renowned for his unrivalled running ability and speed, ridicules the slow-moving tortoise whom he challenges to a race. The hare bounds ahead, and, brimming with self-assurance (or arrogance!) takes a nap mid-way through. As we all know, the more measured, slower, but ultimately reliable, tortoise, wins the race to the posts because his steady pace prevented him from burning out. In school assemblies, teachers want to convey the importance of consistency and steady commitment in all aspects of life.
Yet, I believe that the story can teach us a more important lesson about perfectionism. Perfectionism can manifest in subtle, surprising ways. Yes, there are pupils whose work must look beautiful and any slight error requires them to start again. Often the perfectionism can be identified through an attention to detail, and neatness, almost obsessive approach to what they have produced. However, for others, it results in a reticence to even begin. Is that person lounging on the sofa playing FiFA or making a third cup of tea actually just scared to sit down, overwhelmed by the task ahead and that the end result will be unsatisfactory? The tortoise didn’t concern himself with the speed, or distance of the race ahead of him. Instead, he took one slow step at a time, knowing that he would reach the end point eventually. Perhaps the tortoise had heard the saying that ‘by the inch it’s a cinch, yard by yard, it’s hard’.
The tortoise was not concerned with the quality of this technique. He did not have to be the best runner, nor the fastest. On the surface, he may not have had the right skills, but by working at his own pace, he could at least have a go. Along the way, he would have had more time to soak up the scenery, do some thinking and finished calm and content. It is this attitude that we should take to learning. The ‘secret’ to learning is that it is a process. One does not have to have the right answers or skills to start with, nor be equipped with all the right information. Just by beginning, you can make the crucial move away from the paralysing grip of perfectionism, towards the freedom to enjoy the process of learning. If we equate exams with the finishing line, then we should certainly take the tortoise’s attitude to get there.
The hare or the tortoise? Overcoming perfectionism; was written by a Tavistock Tutor who graduated from Cambridge University