In praise of the tortoise

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Your speed doesn't matter. Forward is forward.
Your speed doesn't matter. Forward is forward.

Over my years of engaging in research projects, I have often drawn inspiration from the tortoise. Ungainly, lacking in grace, good looks, charm, and above all, speed, it nevertheless always ‘gets there.’

A few years ago I was at a beach cottage near the Kei River mouth on the beautiful Eastern Cape coastline, taking several days to immerse myself in the process of writing my PhD proposal. The cottage was surrounded by dense coastal bush but there was quite a large area of mown lawn around it. Each morning a tortoise (or maybe several different tortoises on different mornings) would emerge from the bush and make its way doggedly across the mown grass to the other side of the property. This was no mean feat, as it required getting up a steep grassy slope. But, head down, stubby legs moving slowly and with determination, it would gradually make its way up the hill. Once, when it had almost reached the top of the slope, it slipped and skated all the way back down again, as if it was dune boarding on its shell. This lost it several hours of hard gained progress. But, undeterred, it set its head towards its goal again, got its legs churning again, and headed laboriously back up the slope.

When I get bogged down in my research I’m often tempted to compare myself unfavourably to those with more ‘hare-like’ qualities. How I envy the ability to leap forward and cover huge amounts of ground in next to no time! And seemingly effortlessly too! But engaging in such mental pastimes is usually counter-productive for me. When I feel that I am moving at the pace of a geriatric tortoise, I also have to remember other tortoise-like qualities: determination; an ability to pick oneself up and continue the journey after set-backs; the uncanny sense of knowing which is the right direction; the skill of keeping those stubby legs moving, no matter how slowly, day after day, week after week; and longevity. I’ve sometimes wondered: given a tortoise’s longevity and a hare’s relatively brief lifespan, does the tortoise cover more ground in its lifetime than a hare? As the oldest student in our research unit, I like to think that maybe it does...

So when I’ve slipped down a grassy bank, or landed upside down on my shell, or taken an inordinately long time to write one short section of a chapter, I remind myself that speed doesn’t matter; forward is forward.