Rabbits & Turtles (the lesson I had to learn the hard way)


This went out to my newsletter peeps today and I got such nice, heartfelt feedback I thought I would share this story here, too. So, you’re getting a little insider info here on the blog today! If you like these types of posts, please subscribe to my newsletter. And yes, I just cringed writing that. But honestly, I do feel a little more comfy in the newsletter format so there is that.

Flash back to the early 2000’s. It was my first class in post-grad design school. I was excited. I was nervous. I felt like I didn’t belong with all of these people from other cities, countries and fancy undergrad schools (mine was not). We had all heard the whispers that this class was the hardest, the one that made you cry, the class that weeded people out. I was one of the only people with an undergrad degree in graphic design – although, if I am being in honest, I still didn’t know what I was doing. Of course, I thought – surely, I can do this! I know what I am doing. I’ve used all the programs. I’ve studied design history. I know how to use an exacto blade.
The professor gave the assignment: to create intricate cut paper poster designs out of varying shades of grey construction paper – no color, no computer, no shortcuts. Even the typography needed to be hand rendered, cut and arranged. We were to be graded on how well the poster conveyed the message assigned to us (that’s a whole other email), the craft and skill with which it was put together (think 10000 exacto blades) and the overall design. “I’ve got this”, I thought.

Cut to me working into the early hours of the morning for weeks while wiping away tears, frustrated that my stupid poster looked childlike and ugly. It was so imperfect. So BASIC. I was feeling major pressure to compete with other students who seemed to be able to create something beautiful easily – and without the previous experience I had. I was humbled. No, I was ashamed. When we came to class to present our work I couldn’t believe what some of the other students had naturally, effortlessly (to me it seemed) put together. Everyone else’s look perfect. To me, that is. Another important lesson.

Then the professor critiqued our work. She explained, “There are rabbits and turtles. Each of you is one or the other. Rabbits learn quickly and race to finish line without much effort. They gracefully hop to the final product and stand there looking cute. Then there are the turtles. The turtles are slow. They aren’t fluid in their movements. They are last to arrive and are tired when they get there”. Well, you can guess which animal I was. What came next was a defining moment for me. She said, “Ann. You are a turtle”.

A TURTLE? Slow. Labored. Ungraceful. Not naturally talented.

I was really devastated and embarrassed. I started to second guess my path. After the class she pulled me aside and told me that although turtles take longer, they also have more endurance and travel father in the end. Their slow pace is better in the long run. “You’ll be just fine just don’t give up”, she said. And I was. By the end of design school I had completed two tough to-get-internships, one being with Pentagram’s New York office. I had a portfolio that I was proud of, but also a work ethic that was even better. My poster did totally suck, but it didn’t define my entire experience. I worked harder to prove myself.

The point of my real life tortoise and hare fable is this: don’t give up. Don’t get caught up in comparing yourself to others. The “race” is really with yourself, not others.

If you are looking around at how fast everyone else is moving, you’ll trip and fall.

I have. Many times.

The past few weeks have been long and stressful. I have wished to be a rabbit more times than I can count. I wrote this to remind myself, just as much as you, to keep it in perspective. It’s less about the finish line (is there one, by the way?) than it is about how you get there.
Me? I’ll be bringing up the rear with a turtle’s pace. And that’s just fine with me.

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