You might be familiar with the tale of the tortoise and the hare, but if you are not, let me give you a quick refresher. A tortoise and a hare join each other for a race, in which the hare – quite clearly the faster of the two – easily overtakes the tortoise and is running far and away in the lead. Seeing how far he’s come – compared to the poor tortoise still plugging away in the back – the hare decides to reward himself with a quick nap (adding insult to injury surely; our Mr. Hare comes from quite the arrogant stock). But alas, when he wakes up it is to see the tortoise already gone way past him, in fact, he’s just about to cross the finish line! Try as he might to sprint for his life the hare can do nothing to prevent his own untimely defeat, and there we have the moral of our story folks: always set an alarm clock.
Okay, I guess if you look close enough there’s a second lesson to be learned here: Sleep in your bed, don’t sleep on your own success. In life, it may be that the hardest step is to make that first move, to find the activation energy required to birth something into existence. But once that has happened, the biggest pitfall standing in between crossing the starting line and reaching the finish is a sweet spot right in the middle, just close enough to where you can see that the end is nigh, but you haven’t actually reached there yet. If there is one lesson in life I can consistently learn from, it is that nothing is finished until it is finished.
The danger of standing in this deceptive quicksand is that you have been given a taste of success – clearly you have worked hard enough in order to be this far ahead – and often when we reach a milestone we like to congratulate ourselves. Conventional wisdom would advocate for this, telling you to set up small goals as a pathway to the big cahoona. And no one is denying that achievements don’t deserve recognition, or that anytime you hit a personal best the champagne shouldn’t be popped, or that mini vacation not planned.
But what happens next? Have you ever taken a break that was supposed to be five minutes – “just a breather,” you said, “I’m just going to stretch my legs,” you said – then in the blink of an eye an hour is gone, a week, a month? You snap back into consciousness after falling mindlessly into the void that is your Facebook newsfeed, unsure of what day it is, or what year, and suddenly your deadline has walked right by your face? Was that really a break, or a whole detour? Have you merely gotten off the wagon, or walked away from it forever?
I recently finished the first draft of my book, and here I use the word ‘recently’ a bit loosely. The first draft! I’d thought, Wow, that’s a big deal! And I do still think so, I’m not denying my sense of accomplishment or pride in having stuck it out, but I’m also not blind to the fact that a draft is only part of the work. But for a while, any departure from my established schedule was acquitted to this accomplishment – I deserve this was the new mantra running through my head. But you can only celebrate for so long – even the hare in taking a ‘well-deserved’ nap had to wake up to reality eventually. After awhile, the fact that I was not actually working anymore began overtaking the fact that I was still ‘deserving this’.
But getting back on the wagon hasn’t been as easy as just sitting back down to write. I’ve come back to discover that my schedule is shot, my discipline is dead, and re-starting it feels like I am trying to jump start a heart with a defibrillator that’s battery dead. I’m back at square one retracing steps, like following footprints in the sand already washed away by the wind and the tide, I’m staring at a blank slate again.
You are sitting precariously, straddling both worlds (finished and unfinished business), but you are not complete until you are over fully on the other side. Don’t fall through the cracks. Do conscientious work, and when it is finally all over, you will be damn proud you did. – How to Get Anything Done
Our biologies are hard-wired to respond to rewards – we can’t help it – we get pleasure from achieving that gold star next to our name. But be aware that all pleasure comes not equal, and though the earlier ones – feel good though they might- are there, they can be mere shadows covering the deeper, brighter ones down the line. Appreciate your accomplishments for what they’re worth, but don’t let the small victories distract yourself from the bigger picture. Taking your rewards too early might just mean you lose the game on the whole. Never stay off your toes until your toes are on the podium. In other words, be the tortoise, not the hare.
Always easier said than done, of course. But I’m going to take my own advice, and come back to my work once more. It feels like starting over, but I do have one thing on my side – because I’m not actually starting over though, and whenever things looking forward gets too daunting, I can always look back and peep over where I’ve come from. And this time, instead of stopping to congratulate myself by the roadside, I’m going to use that as fuel to remind myself to keep going. And then just maybe, to keep going, and going.