Tortoise power

May 26, 2008

A week ago, my flatmate handed in her PhD.

She has been working on this for seven years.

I am trying to give up superlatives as part of my quest to become a more boring person, but in this case I need superlatives to do her justice. She has been so dedicated, so brave, so determined. I spent much of Monday in tears, not from sadness but because it has been remarkably moving to watch.

I have always been a hare rather than a tortoise. I am great at rapid, flashy jobs. If a task is going to take less than a day, I’m your man; no-one is faster or more energised. But most tasks don’t take less than a day. And my biggest task right now is recovery from addiction, which is all about changing the way I think, and changing the way I think will take a lot longer than a day. If I’m to achieve that, I need tortoise skills, not hare skills.

Most of all, I need a tortoise mindset. I need to be able to do a little bit of work every day. I need to be able to move on slowly, day after day after day, without knowing how long it’s going to take or where it’s going to end up. I need to be willing to give up thinking about the future, because the future’s too far away to contemplate and if I think about it then I will lose heart. Instead, I need to be in the present, keeping my little head down and tortoising along, one day at a time. This is going to take me months, and maybe years. And I can’t fast-forward any of it. There are no shortcuts.

I’ve never achieved anything through sustained work. I’ve achieved a reasonable amount in my time, but it’s always been through using a gift that’s so natural to me that I hardly notice it. This has its payoffs – I’ve got a lot done without having had to go to very much trouble. But it has a cost, as well. It’s left me with the belief that I can only do hare. And now I need tortoise.

Thirty-six feels old to be learning tortoise for the first time. And changing the way I think is a big project for my first lesson in tortoise. But I’m learning that tortoise works on anything. In the last five weeks, I’ve written an essay, a lengthy case study, a research proposal and a detailed description of the research methods for my dissertation. That’s 15,000 words, or a sixth of a PhD. And I’ve done it tortoise, plodding along slowly, one day at a time.

And that’s how I’ll do recovery. Every day I’ll do a bit of prayer, a bit of meditation, a bit of step work, a bit of writing. Or I might only do the prayer. I’ll talk to my sponsor, or one of my sponsees. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll go to a meeting. Or maybe I’ll take the evening off and spend it with my flatmate playing with the cats, or lying in the bath reading Golden Age detective novels. (Recovering addicts have such interesting lives.) Because this is what tortoises do.

And, slowly, day by day, I’ll make progress. I’ll get through the steps, one day at a time. I’ll learn to change my habits. I’ll leave behind my old beliefs and behaviours, and make amends to all the people I’ve hurt. I’ll be a different person. It won’t happen overnight, but I’ll get there, in my little tortoise way.

And then, who knows? Maybe even a PhD.

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2 Responses to “Tortoise power”

  1. Calluna V. Says:

    If that’s what you want, then I believe you’ll make it.

    There are other ways to be. Both of the modes you describe are project-focused ways of working. I’m not a tortoise or a hare, really. When I’m in my milieu, what I do is interact. When I was a temp, I used to love being a receptionist – work a lot of people hate – because the work came to me. When people called or came in, I was in action. When no one was there, I wasn’t.

    Working with kids has been like that for me. I may have a task (e.g., get the group through their morning community meeting without letting any of them set the others off, and finish in time to be ready for the art therapist when she gets here) but that’s different from a project kind of task. I basically concluded that I am not adept at goal-oriented work; I am best at work which is its own cause and purpose.

    (Did I tell you I got admitted to a Masters of Social Work program and will start in the fall? I’m thrilled, but I’m also terrified. I’m always good at participating in class, because that’s immediate, responsive work. The small matter of completing assignments…. Yeah. That’s more of a project kind of work. But I’ll scrape through somehow.)

    I’m not saying that you shouldn’t set your sights on becoming a more skillful tortoise. If that’s what feels like a fulfilling goal to you, then it probably is. I’m just tossing a wrench into your dichotomy, basically, to put my hand up and say, “And then there’s people like me.”

  2. Francesca Says:

    You are, of course, quite right. I am speaking of a certain kind of work, which I think can probably broadly be described as work that one does alone. (I see where you’re going with project, but I wouldn’t describe recovery as project, because it’s about a way of being.) Work that involves interaction with others is quite a different model – what you describe is similar to what I do when I’m coaching.

    I am utterly delighted for you, although not a bit surprised. I hope you have a fabulous time. * grins widely* *applauds Calluna*

    I’ll scrape through somehow.

    Let me know if you want to talk tortoise.


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