Hard Work vs Smart Work: A Modern Interpretation of the Tortoise and the Hare

In its traditional form, the story of the tortoise and the hare is used to teach a lesson such as ‘slow and steady wins the race’ (even though I don’t believe that this statement is always true). However, I stumbled upon the picture below while I was scrolling through Instagram, and I found the twist on the traditional tortoise and hare depiction quite interesting.

I posted the picture on my WhatsApp status a while ago asking people for their thoughts, and I got some really interesting and thought-provoking responses.* The lessons from this picture can be broken down into six main points:

1. Smart work, not hard work, wins the race.

This point was made by Jannie, and it essentially covers the theme of this post. The illustration clearly shows the hares running vehemently to reach the finish line, while the tortoise on the other hand is cruising easily on his skateboard. Undoubtedly, the hares are working much harder than the tortoise. Yet, it is clear that the tortoise is set to win the race. This is because the tortoise is working smartly, realising that using a skateboard will enable him to move much more quickly with much less effort.

This principle also applies to life in general. Hard work will take you far, no doubt, but the most wealthy and successful people are certainly not the ones who work the hardest. If that was the case, the bricklayers and labourers who do hard labour under the hot sun for long hours would be the richest people today. Favour pointed out that in life, everything is about strategy. So in addition to working hard, you must also work smart by developing and implementing the right strategy for your line of work.

Now, not everyone will have the same strategy. In the words of Maro, every mallam has his own kettle. In the tortoise’s case, the right strategy was to use a skateboard. If you’re a lawyer, the right strategy might be to integrate technology into your work to streamline it (legaltech). Indeed, globally the leading law firms are the ones who have recognised this power of technology. This shows that when you combine hard work with smart work, you are bound to be more successful than those who only work hard.

2. Carving out a niche makes it easier for you to stand out.

Another lesson from this illustration is that when you carve out a niche for yourself, it is easier for you to stand out and become successful. Again, this is related to the power of innovation. While the numerous hares are in a rat race competing for conventional corporate jobs, the tortoise is doing something innovative and unconventional. This is also signified by the differences in their dressing: the hares are dressed corporately in suits, while the tortoise is dressed casually in a tank top and shorts. Thus, once you look at the picture, the hares are difficult to distinguish from one another but the tortoise immediately stands out.

Applying this illustration to real life, we can see that many years ago, conventional corporate jobs in fields such as law, medicine, engineering, and banking were considered the key to success. However, today you can be successful in so-called unconventional fields such as music, art, and photography. Even within the corporate sphere, there are niche fields such as sports law or media and entertainment law, which make it easier for you to stand out and be successful.

3. Happiness trumps wealth.**

An alternative intepretation of this illustration is that the tortoise is moving ahead of the others not necessarily because he is wealthier than them, but because he is happier. With the wide smile on the tortoise’s face and his hands in his pockets, he appears to be quite happy and relaxed. This stands in contrast to the hares, who look quite exhausted. This could mean that because the tortoise has chosen a path that does not require him to spend long excruciating hours in an office, he has more freedom. As Markovits suggests, happiness can be increased when a person has more freedom and leisure. This is because people will have more time for things that bring happiness, such as spending time with friends and family. They will also have more time to engage in other activities that increase their overall health and wellbeing, such as exercise, meditation, and playing an instrument.

This goes back to the Easterlin paradox which suggests that while an increase in income can lead to a rise in happiness, this only occurs up to a certain point; after that point, the impact of increased income on happiness tends to reduce. So assuming that the tortoise and the hares are living relatively comfortable lives, the tortoise is likely to be happier than the hares because he has more freedom, even if overall he is less wealthy.

In today’s corporate world with people working 12- to 16-hour shifts just to get fat pay cheques, this point is even more potent. In fact, studies have been conducted to show that there are rising levels of depression among professionals like lawyers and doctors. All of these point to the fact that the wealthiest people are not necessarily the happiest, and in certain circumstances happiness trumps wealth.

4. Always believe in yourself.

Another important lesson which was pointed out by Peace is that you should always believe in yourself because you’re the only one who can change how people see you. The tortoise is known for being a very slow animal, and it would initially seem impossible for a tortoise to win a race. But because the tortoise believed in himself, he entered the race and developed a strategy that would enable him to win. Seeing this, the hares turned to look at him in awe and disbelief. Essentially, the tortoise changed the way people saw him. I bet that after winning that race, no one would ever use the tortoise’s slowness to underestimate him again.

Similarly, when people underestimate you in life, do not be discouraged. Rather, believe in yourself and think about how to work smart and develop the right strategy. When you do this, you are likely to become successful even in spite of your weaknesses.

5. Always be prepared.

A further point to note is that when an opportunity is provided, always be prepared to utilise it. Roi pointed out that sometimes the apparatus for you to win are provided, but if you don’t know how to make it work for you, you’ll still fail. Imagine if the tortoise had access to the skateboard but did not know how to use it. He would have lost the race. My mum always gives this example of someone who had the opportunity to travel out of the country, but missed it because he did not have an international passport. The opportunity was then given to somene else who had a valid passport. So in life, it is important to always be prepared to grab any opportunity that arises.

6. Money is important!

This point is a little controversial, but I think it is also important. Peace pointed out that the tortoise would not have had an advantage in the race if he did not have the money to buy a skateboard. You might consider it cheating in the sense that the tortoise seems to have an unfair advantage over the hares because he had the money to purchase a skateboard. But this is the harsh reality of our capitalist system today. You simply need money to progress in life, and if you have money it is much easier for you to become successful.

In fact, this point is not limited to money alone. It can also relate to having connections, and this is where your social capital comes in. The tortoise might not have had the money to buy a skateboard, but he might have had a connection who gave him access to the skateboard. As Olu said, wahala for who no get skateboard plug! Similarly, your connections might enable you to get opportunities that will spur you into success.

So we really do not have a level playing field, because your money and/or connections can make you more successful than others. Personally, I think this is morally objectionable, but this is a point to be explored in a future blog post.

Did you get any other message from the picture? Let me know in the comment section!


*Huge thanks to Jannie, Favour, Maro, Peace, Roi, and Olu, whose responses contributed to this post.

**Some of these arguments were taken from my undergraduate research essay titled “Inclusive Meritocracy: Possible or Desirable?” This essay is available in the ‘Education’ section of my LinkedIn profile.

More in this series on class inequality:


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