There are numerous proverbs that teach children important life lessons, many of which I didn’t understand when I was growing up. For example: “A stitch in time saves nine.” It took me years to figure out what that even means and, to be honest, I’m still not sure. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Why would I want two birds in a bush? Is that worth anything?
And then there’s the famous proverb from The Tortoise and the Hare: “Slow and steady wins the race.” But this lesson breaks down by pointing out just two contradictory words: “slow” and “race.”
I’ve run races before and always felt confident in my slowness. I owned the slow strategy. I was also impressively steady in my slowness, never once wavering from it. At no point would anyone point at me and say, “That dude is fast!” So according to the lumbering tortoise, I should have won those races.
And yet I didn’t. I never came close, probably because the other runners never stopped to take a nap like the fable’s narcoleptic hare. Maybe the saying should be: “Slow and steady wins the race, if others fall asleep,” or even: “You’ll win the race if other runners develop a stitch in their time.” Not exactly motivational.
But I now know it depends on what type of race you’re in. If the goal is to lose weight or exercise more, there’s a lot to be said for slow and steady. The problem is we usually treat these goals like a race. We want to finish as quickly as possible.
A few years ago I decided I needed more parts of me to run than just my nose. I wanted to go from not running at all to being able to run five miles in just a couple of weeks, but that wasn’t realistic (unless one literally means taking two weeks to run five miles, and even that was iffy).
I also wanted to lose weight, but I expected to see results quickly. If my goal was to lose 25 pounds, I’d start a crash fad diet that only allowed me to eat pictures of food. It never worked.
But imagine changing just one or two small things and losing a half-pound a week. A half-pound isn’t much; I should be able to lose that simply by flossing longer. But lose a half-pound every week, and in a year you’ll have lost 25 pounds. Often it’s hard to think that far out and in such small increments.
But when it comes to our health, we need to think that far out—changing one or two small things at a time and keeping an eye on the long game. When we try to achieve our goals in just a couple of months, we probably aren’t going to achieve them, unless our goal is to become discouraged and quit. Or to eat more cookies (nailed it!).
And the slow and steady approach really works. A few years ago I went from not being able to run a half-block to running a half-marathon. I accomplished it by just adding a tiny bit more distance each week until eventually I hit 13.1 miles. It took me a long time to get there, but I did it.
And did I win that half-marathon? No, I didn’t.
And yet, yes I did. And it was worth a lot more than two birds in a bush. Whatever that means.