Small Things Matter
One Foot in Front of the Other may be the Secret of Success
I’m writing this in early January, the time of year when many of us resolve to do big things in the year ahead. According to one survey, over 74 percent of adult Americans—nearly 189 million people—will commit to learn something new, change a behavior, get healthier, or make myriad other positive changes. For 2021, this number is up about 15 percent—perhaps because the pandemic has given us pause to consider all of our shortcomings and how we should improve.
I applaud everyone who wants to make positive changes. Unfortunately, research warns that 80 percent of people will fail. As any loyal gym member can attest, most will lose their resolve by the end of February as access to equipment returns to normal. If this isn’t bad enough, over 12 percent of the people who make resolutions to change, don’t think it’s even possible. All things considered, the prospects for transformation are dim.
Psychologists offer a number of explanations for why resolutions fail. All are valid to varying degrees, but simply working through the list can feel a bit overwhelming. And maybe that’s the problem. Big changes can feel…too big. While there’s no doubt that some of us need to get out of some really deep ruts, is there a way to make the climb more manageable?
For guidance, I looked to the life of Booker T. Washington, a man who made some huge changes in his own life and in return, had an enormously positive impact on the world. Washington, born an enslaved person on a Virginia plantation in 1856, moved with his mother to Malden, West Virginia after the Civil War. There, he was required to work from 4:00 a.m. until 9:00 a.m. before he could attend school. He also had an after-school job at a coal mine. Washington’s schedule puts our daily grind into perspective, doesn’t it?
In fact, changing his circumstances might have seemed incomprehensible to young Washington. It would have been easy for him to feel stuck with change simply beyond his reach; however, that wasn’t the case. One day, Washington overheard some men talking about Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), a school founded by Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong and dedicated to providing educational opportunity to African Americans. The only problem was the school was 500 miles away.
At this point, Washington, like many of us, could have said that the change was too great and impossible to accomplish. Instead, he started walking. Step-by-step, one foot in front of the other, he made his way to Hampton. After Washington arrived and for the rest of his days, he kept doing the little things, on a daily basis, that allowed him to become a leading educator and first principal of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), one of the foremost intellectuals of his time, and an adviser to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Of course, Washington’s life was not without controversy, but that’s true for any great man.
What’s the point? All big changes start with something small. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the change we want to make, what if we did something small each day that moved us little closer to our goal? Author Emily Freeman advises us to do the next right thing. I think that’s good advice—especially for those who feel overwhelmed by all that needs to be done or the difficult decisions that must be made.
Our guide, Booker T. Washington, may have said it best: Success in life is founded upon attention to the small things rather than the large things: to the very day things nearest to us rather than to the things that are remote and uncommon. His life is evidence that of this truth. What are some of the small things you can do in the next week that will move you toward your goals? With enough small steps, you’ll eventually arrive at your destination.
Dr. Mike Patterson is an author, speaker, and master facilitator who helps leaders and teams communicate, collaborate, and manage conflict more effectively. He is the co-author of the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places, and he teaches in the doctoral programs at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology and California Baptist University.
© 2021 Michael L. Patterson, Ed.D.