I like all kinds of myths and legends and fantasies, but sometimes I just want a simple fable. Of the lot, fables are the shortest and simplest, and unlike other more complex story forms, fables don’t dance around their own meaning. Fables are blunt. Fables are like a friend who can explain why right is right and wrong is wrong. Fables straight-up tell you how to live. (Here’s a bunch by the legendary Aesop.)
I especially like the one about the tortoise and the hare, the origin of the widely-used expression “slow and steady wins the race.” Although there’s no official version of the story, the moral is held together by a few key details that seem to appear in almost every retelling.
It always starts with a boast.
Hare says something like, “Ha! You’re slow!” to Tortoise. That leads to a bet and a long-distance race overseen by Fox, who sets out a course for them and agrees to play referee, which he does with surprising candor given his otherwise slippery reputation in the other fables.
And you know what happens next.
Hare, naturally much faster than Tortoise, gets so far ahead that he allows himself a snooze on the side of the road. (In drafting this blog post, I wondered whether or not this is where we get the expression “resting on your laurels,” because, indeed, that’s precisely what Hare was doing when he decided to pull over. But alas, it is not. The laurels, however, do date back to ancient Greece; they’re the laurels that were placed on the heads of victorious Olympic athletes. “Resting on your laurels” appeared in the 1800s as a way to say, “Don’t be lazy with your skills.”) But the Tortoise never stops and ultimately wins. His steadiness is the moral engine of the story, and the locus of “slow and steady wins the race.”
It’s important to note that the Hare didn’t need to pull over for that breather. His failure is due to pure foolishness and poor decision-making skills. It’s a brain mistake, not a body mistake. Nobody doubts that Hare has greater overall potential and speed than Tortoise, but the story wouldn’t make sense if Fox decided to settle the bet with a speedometer because the story isn’t about potential or capability. It’s about execution. It’s about the importance of mind-body alignment in pursuit of your goals. And, above all else, it seems to be about that one, super-important word: steady. Slow doesn’t necessarily win the race, but slow and steady does.
The story calls to mind the Latin expression ‘Festina Lente’ which translates to “more haste, less speed,” or, inverted, “in slowness, speed.” The point is that when we try to do things quickly, we get distracted and make mistakes that we wouldn’t have otherwise made. So, slower ends up faster.
In the fable, winning matters. Competition is everything. But what if that wasn’t the case?
Imagine, for example, this alternative: Tortoise approaches the finish line, stops, turns around Forrest Gump-style and heads back towards Hare to boldly proclaim, “Hare, my friend, I thought I cared about this whole race thing, but I don’t. You go get that trophy because we all know that you’re faster than me.” At that point, Tortoise rises to Brahmin status in a permanent, levitating half-lotus position, achieves nirvana, and drops the mic. There’s nothing gratifying about a story like that.
There is, however, something very gratifying about competition. In many (but not all) ways, humans are wired to compete - with ourselves and each other. Competition is fuel for growth. And growth is fuel for evolution.
To understand competition, let’s talk about skiing. If you’re competitive about it, you probably have a very specific approach to a day on the slopes. You focus on improving your performance and you seek out challenges in an effort to keep breaking your own personal bests.
Alternatively, a non-competitive skier would have a very different approach, seeing the day as an opportunity to relax and unwind, opting for meandering routes and longer breaks. The competitive skier and the non-competitive skier have such different objectives and experiences that we might as well consider them to be engaged in fundamentally different activities. And at the end of a long day, the competitive skier might have more to talk about with the competitive snowboarder than the non-competitive skier.
Interestingly, reading and skiing have a lot in common. To get better, you have to practice. The more you practice, the better you get. If you’re lucky, you get to a point where the act itself transcends the benefits to self, the reason that perhaps you initially got involved in the act in the first place.
But unlike skiing, reading for competitive purposes doesn’t make much sense. When you read you earn wisdom, alternative perspectives, clarity — all kinds of things that can’t be measured or purchased outright. These are non-superficial benefits, meaning they are internal and eternal.
Competition (with self and others) is always present, but let’s imagine it gone altogether. (Fables don’t lend themselves to such expansive interpretation, but whtaever, I’m feeling wild.) Let’s imagine that the race isn’t just a race. Instead, it’s a metaphor for life itself. Tortoise moves steadily, with intention. Hare doesn’t. At the end of the road, Tortoise is satisfied, at peace, but Hare hits his deathbed with regret.
Thankfully, life isn’t so cut and dry. Humans aren’t Tortoises or Hares. The binary is a helpful illustration, but also an illusion. Rather than either/or, we’re all both, Tortoise and Hare. But, interestingly, we might not be equally both.
I think, overall, we all have way too much Hare in us and not nearly enough Tortoise. All day every day, the world tries to make you feel like you haven’t gotten far enough fast enough. You’re behind.
But actually, you’re not.
And, I think that that’s why this one particular story has survived in our collective consciousness in such a powerful way. We need to keep telling it to ourselves and each other as part of our ongoing effort to counteract the impact of technology and culture on our brains and bodies. I like to imagine that the first Tortoise and Hare storytellers recognized that the world had enough Hare-like tendencies. In 2021, that’s obviously the screaming reality. Every human I know knows exactly what it’s like to snooze, lose and miss the boat, to wake up in a panic because you bit off more than you can chew, lost track of your larger priorities. On a cosmic level, our schedules and timelines mean nothing.
Thankfully, reading puts life in Tortoise-mode. Steady-mode. The flow state in which we are reminded, circuitously, that life isn’t a race.
There are countless things to read and countless ways to read, which is another way of saying that reading is infinite. For that reason, I try to avoid telling people how or what to read, but I’m beginning to develop the personal opinion that slow reading is just plain better.
In my own experience, slow reading facilitates deeper emotional experiences, empathy, and overall reading comprehension. I’m better, for example, at remembering names and places in the text when I take it slow. And I really don’t like reading under time pressure. I can’t, really. Rushed reading, for me, is a serious waste of time.
So what does any of this have to do with Readup? Well, pretty much everything. Readup is built to counter the ethos of social media (move fast and break things, scale, scale, scale) with an alternative that we think has the power to promote human flourishing (intention, slow and steady.)
On Readup, the choice is yours to read fast or read slow, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself enjoying Tortoise-mode. Slow is in the Readup DNA. And, similarly, steadiness is built in.
In fact, it occurs to me right now that “steady reading” is actually an extraordinarily concise way to explain the product that Readup sells.
Yoga and meditation classes help you breathe steadily.
Readup helps you read steadily.
At the very least, Readup puts you in the best position where you can put your own self-discipline to work. And, functionally speaking, Fox is keeping tabs, ready to give you a high five at the finish line, win, lose or draw.