June 24

The Deceptive Power of Starting Small

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As a culture, we underrate the value of starting small and overvalue grand ambitions. This is reflected in graduation speeches, book titles, and celebrating those with aspirations to make a dent in the universe. But in doing so we do ourselves a great disservice. Our most ambitious goals appear to be so daunting that we never take the first step.

Starting small creates inertia, builds momentum, and leads to visible progress. As computer scientist and entrepreneur Paul Graham says, "The way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things."

Ryan Holiday writes in his book Ego is the Enemy:

A few years ago, one of the founders of Google gave a talk in which he said the way he judges prospective companies and ideas is by asking them if they're going to change the world. This is fine, except that's not how Google started - Larry Page and Sergei Brin were two Stanford PhD's working on their dissertation). It's not how YouTube started - its founders weren't trying to reinvent TV; they were trying to share funny video clips. It's not how most true wealth was created, in fact.

Grand ambitions cause people to be delusional optimists. They make decisions based entirely on possibility without considering the probability of their success.

I had a prospective client who was interested in working with me who had the goal of 10,000 dollars a month in passive income within two months. He had no online presence and no credibility. The probability of this outcome even if he hired me was low.

My first online course was Yaro Starak's Blog Mastermind. My dad paid for the course. Because I was on payment plan, I didn't get the whole course at once. I only got one lesson a week. And this was brilliant on Yaro's part. The assignments were simple things like buying a domain, or installing a word press plugin. By doing one small thing every week, I ended up finishing the course, which became the foundation for my work today.

I never had plans to start a podcast. The first iteration of The Unmistakable Creative was nothing more than an mp3 file linked to a blog post with some bullet points. I was trying to complete an assignment in an online course. By starting small, I was able to make little bets, get feedback, and determine what my next steps should be.

When I planned our first conference, I started small. I had nothing more than a landing page with 3 sentences and email capture form. By starting small, I protected my downside. I kept raising the stakes and within 6 months an idea that started in a Moleskine notebook was a sold out event.

If you're struggling to transform ideas into results, start small. By starting small, you can accomplish amazing things.

Break Big Goals into Small Manageable Parts

Break an ambitious goal into small manageable parts and it becomes less daunting. When Bill Walsh landed his job as the coach of the San Francisco 49-ers, they were the worst team in the NFL.

Walsh didn't set a goal to win the Super Bowl. He broke the turnaround into small manageable parts.

I directed our focus less to the prize of victory than to the process of improving - obsessing, perhaps, about the quality of our execution and the content of our thinking; that is, our actions and attitude 

- Bill Walsh, The Score Takes Care of ITself

He instituted what became known as "standards of performance". Players had to wear suits and ties. Everybody had to be at practice on time. He applied these standards of performance to every aspect of the organization, from how people answered the phones to football practice. Within two years, they won the Super Bowl and went on to win two more in his ten years as Head Coach. The little things you do repeatedly lead to big changes.

Come up with your own standards of performance. Decide when and how you're going to tackle the small manageable parts of every goal.

Developing a Habit

What James Clear defines as identity based-habit formation, is developing a habit of breaking the goal down into small parts or Atomic Habits. Instead of the goal of losing 30lbs, write down a list of all the actions you'd have to take.

  • Buy gym clothes.
  • Set them out the night before.
  • Drive to the gym.
  • Walk in.
  • Stay for 10 minutes.
  • Subscribe to a healthy meal service.

Take one of those each day and you will eventually build the identity of the person you want to become.

Writing a Book

You simply keep putting down one damn word after the other, as you hear them, as they come to you. You can either set a brick as a laborer or as an artist. 

- Anne Lamott

You're not going to sit down and write a best-selling book in one sitting.

If you want to write a sentence, start with a word. If you want to write paragraph start with a sentence, If you want to write a page start with a paragraph. If you want to write a chapter start with a page. This simple idea has been a central part of how I've written 100's of articles and multiple books.

While I've applied this framework to writing a book and an exercise habit, you can apply it to anything. When you break any goal or habit into small manageable parts, you create inertia. With inertia you gain momentum, which is the lifeblood of every business or creative endeavor.

One Small Thing Every Day

Imagine you have a creative project like our upcoming conference. If you look at the countdown timer you'll see I have 291 days to make this happen. If I do one small thing every day, by the time the event rolls around I will have done 291 small things for one massively ambitious thing.

For those of you who are married or have kids, you already know how to do this. You've planned a wedding and given birth to a child. I'm guessing you didn't show up on your wedding day or drive to the hospital to give birth without some sort of plan.

Just apply that same framework to a creative project. If you can bring a human to life, I think you're completely capable of bringing an idea to life. Small actions accumulate.

Think in Bets

I learned from professional poker player Annie Duke that we can make better decisions by thinking in bets.

  1. Write down the possible outcomes for your decision.
  2. Assign a probability to each outcome.
  3. Consider the long term consequences of the outcome.

Thinking in bets enables you to see potential futures. It's also a way to take small risks and keep raising the stakes until you can take big ones.

In the Summer of 2014, my life was in a tailspin. I was suffering from a great deal of depression, and my financial situation was precarious. But I moved out of my parent's house thinking that I could make it all work. The probability of my success was low. And I didn't think about the long term consequences.

Take Consistent Actions

There's a profound power to consistency. When you take any consistent action, it's inevitable that it will produce a result. It may not be a positive result, but a false start is better than standing still.

Whether your result is positive or negative, you'll learn something. With every step forward, the view changes. You'll see what you couldn't before. And if you do something consistently, it will go from an item on a to-do list to a habit you don't have to think about.

Honor Your Commitments

Honoring your commitments gives your words power. When your words and your actions are aligned, you tap into the power to speak things into existence.

If you want to manifest big things, take action on small things. Start by honoring the commitments you've made to yourself. If you're struggling to get through the items on your to-do list, make a smaller one. Then, honor the commitments you've made to others. It could be something as simple as replying to an email when you said you would.

Track Your Progress

As you successfully reach milestones in your projects, you should celebrate and surround yourself with these achievements. As a human being, you are motivated by progress. When you see concrete evidence of progress, you are more inclined to take further action."

- Scott Belsky, Making Ideas Happen

If you don't track your progress it might feel like you're not making any. It's hard to stay motivated when you feel like you're going nowhere with your efforts. By tracking your progress, you celebrate small wins and you don't have to delay gratification.

The little things we do repeatedly lead to big changes in our lives. It is millions of minutes, hundreds of hours, and thousands of days that lead to a 10-year "overnight success". Don't underestimate the power of starting small and sticking with it.


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