Slow and Steady

tortoise and hareA Greek storyteller named Aesop receives credit for a collection of fables that transmit moral lessons. Among my favorites is the tale of a race between wildly unmatched participants: a tortoise and a hare. The hare expected an easy victory and did not take the tortoise’s challenge seriously. After amassing a clear lead, the hare elected to rest by the sidelines while awaiting the tortoise’s arrival. He planned to dash to the finish line just ahead of his opponent. Unfortunately, the hare’s slumber proved so deep that he failed to awaken in time and forfeited the opportunity to claim victory. The tortoise’ slow and steady progress won the race.

When it comes to personal transformation, most of us would prefer the endowments of the hare. We want to be swift and nimble in effecting change, and we want the river of change to move swiftly. Forward progress encourages us to stay the course and gives us hope that we can achieve our desired end state within a reasonable amount of time.

Transformation change generally doesn’t accommodate our need for speed. It favors the tenacity of the tortoise over the impertinence of the hare. Most of us find that bias exasperating. It may even derail our best intentions and efforts.

At tea with friends last week, I talked about some chronic issues that I’ve been having with my singing voice. After working with a coach for a year and a half, I’d engaged a vocal habilitation specialist to help me in the attempt to recover my lost form. The process involves painstaking attention to the fundamentals of vocal production – posture, breath control, suitably relaxed musculature in the throat, mouth, and tongue, and appropriate formation of vowel sounds. It’s quite effortful, and improvements seem to arrive at the pace of oozing tree sap on a winter’s day. Both friends resonated with that experience and the frustration that comes with it.

I’ve faced a similar life-long challenge with respect to attaining a desired level of fitness. During bouts of monitoring my diet and going to the gym, I’d waited expectantly for the bathroom scale and post-shower reflection to provide a resounding “You go, Girl!” When the hoped-for magazine cover image was not forthcoming, I’d lose heart and get back to business as usual. It was only when a health imperative lit the fire of motivation so strongly that I stuck to a rigorous diet and exercise program and achieved the desired result. It took two years (and counting!) of daily workouts. And I’m still on that path.

I still believe in having “stretch goals” that take time and effort to attain. With a nod to Dr. Teresa Amabile, PhD and Dr. Steven Kramer, PhD and their work on the progress principle, I try to find ways to chunk the larger goals into smaller pieces so that I can celebrate victories along the way. Their research suggests that orchestrating small “wins” on a consistent basis stokes motivation. But there’s something to be said for doing the work simply as a matter of habit. It changes the activity from a transaction (“I’m doing X in order to gain Y”) to a statement of identity (“I do vocal exercises because I am a trained singer… and that’s what singers do.”)

I still yearn for progress and am still impatient when it doesn’t arrive on my timetable. But the simple act of incorporating various vocal and physical workouts in my day as a matter of course silences the inner critic who would otherwise question the efficacy of the work. In the immortal words of Nike, I “just do it.” And, guess what? I’m making forward progress… slowly and steadily.