Next Time You’re Stuck, Think Like a Tortoise

Indecisiveness is the unlikely key to creativity


Max Phillips

a year ago | 4 min read

“The Tortoise meanwhile kept going slowly but steadily, and, after a time, passed the place where the Hare was sleeping. But the Hare slept on very peacefully; and when at last he did wake up, the Tortoise was near the goal. The Hare now ran his swiftest, but he could not overtake the Tortoise in time.

The race is not always to the swift.”

By now, you’re probably somewhat familiar with Aesop’s famous fable. As the saying goes: slow and steady wins the race.

Here I am, at the grand old age of 23, re-learning that lesson. I first learned the “Tortoise Mind” concept in John Cleese’s book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide.

Cleese made me realise the lessons I learned as a child still hold true throughout life; sometimes, it pays to slow it down.

The “Tortoise Mind” vs the “Hare Brain”

After first seeing it himself in Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, Cleese wrote about the concept. Claxton outlines some real-life ‘Hare Brain’ scenarios:

  • “A mechanic working out why an engine will not fire.”
  • “A family arguing over the brochures about where to go for next summer’s holiday.”
  • “A scientist trying to interpret an intriguing experimental question.”

You might notice a pattern: reason and logic. At school, you, like me, were likely taught this is the only practical way of thinking — if you powered through a problem logistically, you’d eventually get to an answer. This is the “Hare Brain.”

But more often than not, it doesn’t work like that. For example, when I was a student studying English literature and film studies at university, thinking more logically about an essay would often hamper the quality of my work.

Instead, I should’ve developed a “Tortoise Mind.”

Cleese describes Claxton’s concept, saying it “proceeds more slowly […] it is often less purposeful and clear-cut, more playful, leisurely, or dreamy.” Or, to summarise: “We may be pondering a problem, rather than earnestly trying to solve it.”

A “Tortoise Mind” is less deliberate

Let me give you an example.

Whenever I’m struggling with an article, the worst thing I can do is work through the block. More often than not, I’ll end up frustrated at the poor quality of my writing, which in turn makes the writing worse. Then, like a dying star, I collapse in on myself and question why I even started.

By contrast, if I leave it for the night, the problem will often feel trivial, and I’ll question what I was having difficulty with in the first place. Through operating at a tortoise’s pace, I reached the finish line far quicker than I ever would as a hare.

Think about the hare in Aesop’s fable. His objective was to win, so he immediately sped off. In the hare’s mind, he needed to reach point B as fast as (haringly?) possible.

Now think about the tortoise. He also needed to reach point B but would not be rushed. Instead, he became more immersed in the journey itself. For the tortoise, the race was fun. For the hare, it was a mission.

Cleese mentions a psychologist named Donald MacKinnon, who talks about creative “play.” Cleese describes how the most creative people utilise this power:

“The ability to get enjoyably absorbed in a puzzle: not just try to solve it so that you can get on to the next problem, but to become really curious about it for its own sake.”

When you’re genuinely curious about something, you’re more likely to see things from a different angle.

For example, when I was doing my dissertation at university, I began with a genuine interest in the books I was analysing. I researched for hours and days on end because the concept genuinely grabbed me. By the second half, however, I just wanted it to end. So I raced through, just like the hare.

And guess what? My tutor said the first half was of much higher quality than the first.

So, yes, sometimes slowing down and fully absorbing what you’re doing is the most efficient and competent way of finishing a task. Like a tortoise, by moving slowly, you can observe things from multiple angles.

Letting go can be your most potent creative weapon

Creativity is often associated with the arts: poetry, films, novels, architecture, etc. But it surrounds everything we do: the food you make, weaving in and out of crowds, or even creatively solving an accountancy issue.

Naturally, we all are required to make decisions. This usually comes to a deadline, and in fear of leaving a decision open-ended, we often act like hares and make snap decisions. Cleese asks a vital question:


Why not use the time allotted to let the decision ruminate? A lot of your creativity resides in the unconscious. Think about when you’re walking through a large crowd. You’re constantly solving problems in creative ways without thinking — your unconscious is doing the work for you.

A ‘Tortoise Mind’ is uncomfortable with the mild anxiety of leaving a decision open-ended. I’m not suggesting to ignore any pressure you feel — that would be ridiculous — but rather to accept one simple thing:

When you’re stuck and can't make your mind up about something, leaving it will allow your unconscious brain to creatively develop a solution. Or, at least it’ll give you a fighting chance.


Created by

Max Phillips







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