A Teaching Story About Mastery from Aesop’s Fables

Picture Credit. A scan of the book Aunt Louisa’s Oft Told Tales. Published in the 1870s; still relevant today.

This is a teaching story told by Aesop (620 To 564 BCE). It is called “The Tortoise and The Hare.”

A Hare was once boasting of his speed before the other animals. “I have never yet been beaten,” said he, “when I put forth my full speed. I challenge anyone here to race with me.”
The Tortoise said quietly, “I accept your challenge.”
“That is a good joke,” said the Hare; “I could dance round you all the way.”
“Keep your boasting till you’ve beaten,” answered the Tortoise. “Shall we race?”
So a course was fixed and a start was made. The Hare darted almost out of sight at once, but soon stopped and, to show his contempt for the Tortoise, lay down to have a nap. The Tortoise plodded on and plodded on, and when the Hare awoke from his nap, he saw the Tortoise just near the finish line and could not run up in time to save the race. Then said the Tortoise, “Plodding wins the race.” 

Aesop (1867) Aesop’s Fables by Rev. Geo. Fyler Townsend, London: George Routledge and Sons.

Four Interpretations on Learning and Mastery of Aesop’s Teaching Story

The story is rather short, but different interpretations are possible.

1. Many Never Enter the Race to Mastery: They Stand Around Watching

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”Charles Darwin

It’s a question of how one uses free time. Some say they, “Never have the time to learn something new.”


2. Many Enter But Stop—They Fall Asleep Along The Way

You see this. Many people go to the university then they graduate. After they graduate, they stop learning. They don’t read, they don’t take classes (unless the employer forces them to). In effect, they fall asleep like the rabbit.

Some achieve a certain amount of success in their career then they stop learning.

One example is the shift from being a professional/worker to being a supervisor. Many cannot make the jump because they didn’t understand they needed a new set of skills to succeed in the new role. And so they get fired.

Some get to a certain level in the organization and then get promoted to the level of of incompetency. You see this in many large bureaucracies.

3. Winners Get In the Race and Never Stop Learning

“The secret of success is constancy of purpose.” — Benjamin Disraeli

One doesn’t need a college education to succeed. Witness two billionaires who started great companies. Bill Gates (who dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft) and Steve Jobs (who dropped out of Reed College) to start Apple.

Picture Credit. A scan of the book Aunt Louisa’s Oft Told Tales. Published in the 1870s. But Still a classic

Mastery means you have to stay at it and never, never stop. You can lead to be a manager, engineer, or programmer in four years. But to be a leader? That takes a much longer time.

Both the ancient games run for 1000 years at Delphi and the modern games held at very cities represent the highest level of personal mastery in sports.

We need to act like turtles and less like hares. To master complex skills, you has to work at it day in, day out.

How Can Mastery Be Achieved Faster?

“If we don’t have a vision of the future, we are lost in the present.” — Murray Johannsen

Skill Mapping. The Future of Career Development.  Decide what skills you need to prosper in the 21st Century

Skill-Based Learning. What You Need, When You Need It. The theory you need to know but were never taught.

The Mastery Practices. The Secrets to Lifelong Learning. The five mental skills that shorten the time from novice to mastery.

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