Straws, Steps, and the Importance of Thinking Small
There is a famous Arabic proverb where a camel loaded beyond capacity collapses after a single straw too many, hence, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ The idea is a basic one: a small, seemingly inconsequential, event ends up having profound effects.
Exactly one hundred Fridays ago, I began posting on this blog. In my writing and research, I have been struck by one reoccurring theme: the simplicity and elegance of the single increment, the power of potentiality unleashed through a minute action.
“A journey of a 1000 miles must begin with the first step.” This quote is sometimes attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, but the concept also resonates in Daniel Coyle’s talent code, Anders Ericsson’s 10,000 hours rule, and BJ Fogg's tiny habit.
It’s the compounding effect of building on a single decision, and that crucial first step overcomes inertia for creating a new habit.
The process is understood: practice builds repetition, which in turn builds habit. Habit is really nothing more than mylenated neural code put into action. But, of course, knowing is not the same as doing.
Our lives are a complex dance of experience, interpreted through the lens of emotion, and it’s difficult in the moment to comprehend the swirl around us. Even when our goals and aspirations are clearly defined, actually getting there proves difficult.
It’s not the knowing; for the most part, we know what we should do or want to do. In some way, it is the very simplicity of that initial step that lures us away from it, as though somehow there has to be more to it than that.
And yet, maybe there isn’t. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. At 211 degrees, all you have is really hot water. Raise the temperature one degree and steam is generated, and steam has the power to run a city’s electrical grid.
Someone had to lay that first stone at the pyramid of Giza, Itzak Perlman had to run his bow across a violin string for the first time, Michael Jordan had to shoot his first layup, and Mark Twain had to write the first word in Huckleberry Finn.
As the process plays out, tiny steps build into something much greater than merely the sum of incremental parts. Nothing illustrates this better than a bird’s nest. Bits of debris, twigs and straw, when woven together, create an amazingly resilient and viable structure that has served our feathered friends for millions of years.
The straw that broke the camel’s back is a parable of warning (I suspect that’s how the camel understands it), but it can also be reframed as the awesome power contained in a single straw.
The last hundred weeks have been an interesting and rewarding journey. Thank you for taking a step down that road with me.
My sincere appreciation to my editor extraordinaire, Jessica. (Editor’s note: aw, thanks!)
See you next week.