You may be familiar with the old Aesop fable about the Hare and the Tortoise.
Simply put, it tells the story of a race between the two animals.
The hare is overconfident in its abilities and sprints off at the start, before deciding to take a nap. On waking up, the hare sprints off to the finish line, only to find that the much slower and steadier tortoise has already finished and won the race.
The fable has long been used to demonstrate moral aphorisms such as:
“slow and steady wins the race” and “more haste, less speed”
You will not be familiar with a new fable about the Hare, the Tortoise and the Giraffe, largely because it does not exist. However, if it did, it would go like this:
The hare sprints off as before and because it is sprinting so fast, is eventually forced to stop through exhaustion, because it cannot keep up the breakneck speed at which it has been running.
The tortoise plods along as before, gradually becoming weary and slowing down, but once again reaching the finish line ahead of the hare.
However, in this version, the giraffe has already finished.
The tortoise is understandably disappointed as it has been winning this race for more than 2,000 years and the hare is furious because now it is finishing 3rd, in what used to be a two animal race.
So, how does the giraffe do it?
It does it by recognising that an activity period and a rest period are of equal importance.
The hare starts out with great enthusiasm and impressive speed, attempting to run the whole race as a sprint. Burn out is inevitable because it is impossible to sustain that level of effort over a long period.
Meanwhile, the tortoise, recognising that this is a long race, opts to trundle along at a slow pace, knowing that they will be able to sustain this level of effort for the duration of the race. However, even though it does manage to keep going, it does still gradually wear down and eventually fade away.
The tortoise’s perseverance was enough to beat the burned out hare, but not the giraffe.
Because the giraffe treats the long race as a series of sprints, paying just as much attention to the need for rest and recovery, as it does to the need for speed. The giraffe sets off at a very fast pace, not even afraid to push itself beyond its initial perception of its 100% effort level. Why? Because they know a rest period is just around the corner.
After this short burst of intense effort, the giraffe pays close attention to their rest period. Instead of burning out or fading away, it creates a period of active recovery. It realises that rest and recovery is not “doing nothing” or “doing whatever you want”. Active recovery involves taking care of itself with a short nap, replenishing nutrition and maybe a neck massage.
With the active recovery work successfully completed, the giraffe is up and ready to sprint again.
The combination of periods of intense activity and periods of active recovery is what has the giraffe triumph.
I have coached a lot of hares and a lot of tortoises, but not so many giraffes.
The hares prioritise speed, action and energy. They constantly push themselves, refuel with caffeine and sugar, see rest periods as an unnecessary dalliance and view their exhaustion as a badge of honour.
They see stress as positive and see a lack of stress as a sign of laziness.
They prioritise current performance over future performance.
The tortoises appreciate that they are in a long game, and as such, they recognise that they need to play it safe, preserve their energy, and make sure never to push themselves too hard, because there is still a long way to go.
They see stress as negative and see any sign of stress as evidence that they have over-done it.
They prioritise future performance over current performance.
Both the hare and the tortoise can create good results and are certain that their approach is the right one.
The giraffe attaches equal importance to both current and future performance.
It embraces short, intense periods of stress just as much as it embraces intense periods of rest and recovery.
By dividing up the long game into shorter periods, it sends a signal to its brain that it can go full out, “110%” because the rest period has already been scheduled and prepared for. It strategises its active recovery time just as much as it strategises its activity time.
The giraffe approach is not just a nice idea. It is increasingly recognised in scientific circles:
Short term periods of stress and intense activity are known to lead to the production of the essential protein, BDNF in the brain (“miracle-grow for the brain” – for more information on the power of BDNF and the effectiveness of short, intense bursts of activity, refer to ‘Spark’, by John Ratey MD and ‘Fit To Lead’, the book that I co-authored with Sari, my wife in 2017)
The benefits of mindfulness, nutrition and sleep have been understood for longer, and are increasing all the time.
The same phenomenon is seen in High Intensity Interval Training where the intense short-term bursts of energy, followed by equally intense periods of recovery are responsible for generating high levels of HGH and low levels of cortisol, in comparison to lower intensity steady state cardio activity, that generates higher levels of cortisol and lower levels of HGH.
The moral to this fable?
“Life might be a marathon, but it’s best run as a series of sprints”
When you push yourself to the limit, you will respond and get stronger, in the same way that your muscles grow with resistance training in the gym.
However, if you continue to do this, without regard for active recovery periods, then you will inevitably break down and burn out. Your muscles grow while you rest, not while you are in the gym.
So, are you a hare, tortoise or a giraffe?
How come? What beliefs do you have such that you participate in life the way that you do?
For hares: What do you say will happen if you were to increase your focus on “Active Recovery” breaks? What stops you doing this?
For tortoises: What do you will say will happen if you start “sprinting” and having “Active Recovery” breaks? What stops you doing this?
If you are a leader or a coach (or a parent!) then it is also valuable to notice which one you (unconsciously) value and reward more in the people around you.
Examining your tendencies in areas such as the way you participate is extremely valuable, not because your existing way is bad or wrong, but because it has become invisible over time. It may now be the most familiar or comfortable, but is it also still the most productive? That is a question that only you can answer.
Taking a look at some of your fundamental beliefs is a key element in my new book that will be published later this year. If you enjoyed this article, then keep an eye out for it!
Managing Partner TWP and TCP
If you are wondering “Why a giraffe?” then I could tell you it’s because the shape of the 3rd graph resembles a series of giraffe necks, but in reality, it’s simply because they are my favourite animal and they need some good PR, if they are to avoid extinction.