Scott H Young

The Smallest Step


It is easy to become overwhelmed with personal development. With so many areas we need to work on, where do we start? Being hit with so many ideas on how we can improve our lives can make your head spin. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard a personal development author or speaker claim that it was this one specific idea that was critical to success. Some say that persistence makes the difference. For others, it is the ability to dream big, discipline yourself or stretch yourself. Still I have heard others claim that skills and tools like NLP, goal-setting or GTD is the critical idea which opens the gateway to supreme enlightenment and power. With all this surrounding us, where are we even supposed to start?

The first key is to understand that there is no universal “big idea” that will transform everyone’s life. Some of these ideas will create a transformation for a few people and do little for others. This doesn’t mean the ideas are faulty, just that with such varied backgrounds, what ideas or messages personally speak to us will differ. Some ideas will really resonate with you and give you a new perspective while others will not do anything at all.

The truth is, most of us will never have an epiphany moment where our lives completely change in an instant. While such moments are definitely possible, they are the minority. I never had an epiphany that caused me to develop such a passion for personal development and I doubt most people have. There was no solitary idea that changed my life. It was the continuous work and integration of thousands of small ideas that made the difference. Sorry, but I can’t give you the single “big idea”. The big idea doesn’t exist for most of us, so don’t expect it to hit you in the face.

I hesitate to say personal development is not about innovation. Innovation is an important part of personal development because it is often necessary to break through to a higher level. However, I want to stress that the majority of personal development is based on optimization not innovation. Incremental and continuous improvements, not massive and rapid changes, will ultimately determine the quality of our lives.

This idea doesn’t get a lot of press. Most authors focus on the innovation aspect because it is the most glamorous. We love hearing about the breakthroughs and overnight successes, even when they don’t even exist. Many people talk about Wal-Mart as being an overnight success, despite the fact that they had decades of slow optimization to get to that point. From the outside it looks like a revolution, from the inside it looks like steady, incremental improvement.

The big idea is a myth. Starting personal development doesn’t have to start with a lightbulb going off in your head, a cry of, “Eureka!” or a chorus of angels singing as we have reached the coveted epiphany that changes our whole life. Without this epiphany, how can we start on the path to improving our lives?

Focus on the Now

It is easy to lose hope and faith when we see how far we are from where we want to be. The chasm between those two places may seem too vast for us to cross. We also wonder whether reaching that new plateau will really give us the happiness and satisfaction we desire. Maybe that new status will just come with more problems, leaving us worse off than when we started.

Focusing on position in life is dangerous. Putting all your emphasis on tomorrow is a really suboptimal way to live. You can’t enjoy what you have, and when you do reach your goals there is very little sense of lasting fulfillment. Like a dying man in the desert you chase your goals only to realize they were a mirage, then continue to chase the next illusion before you, never tasting the water you seek. The solution isn’t to give up and stop trying to improve. When we do that we have already died inside. The solution is to completely change our perspective of life entirely.

I wrote about this problem in detail in my in-depth essay about balancing today with tomorrow. If you are having trouble balancing the notion of enjoying life to the fullest and improving for the future I suggest you give it a read.

Develop a Taste For Self-Improvement

Associating incredible fun, enjoyment and satisfaction from personal development is the key to continuing with it. We will ultimately do things we enjoy and have a passion for and avoid things we associate with pain and suffering. This is human nature. I draw immense enjoyment from self-improvement. I am excited and enthusiastic about improving and making changes.

Don’t start personal development with the promise that you are going to be disciplined and trudge through your problems. While discipline and a bit of temporary struggle is going to be a factor of personal development, you don’t want your impression of self-improvement to be associated with that. It will leave a bad taste in your mouth and swear you off taking action further.

Creative solutions can often remove a lot of the drudgery and sacrifice people normally associate with personal development. While I believe that a bit of pain is unavoidable, that pain can often be reduced by finding a better solution. I listen to music when I write, work or exercise. Having some music in the background improves my productivity and makes the whole act more enjoyable. Going on a diet doesn’t have to be painful. Find some new foods that fit within your diet to make it more fun. When I first started my vegetarian diet I thought I was going to be forced to eat bland foods, but now I am eating many delicious foods that I had never even considered beforehand.

I treat life like a game. Sure there are challenges and periods of frustration, but they only add to the experience. Like an sculptor chiseling out a fantastic work of art or a programmer creating the perfect algorithm, I enjoy the act of improvement. I don’t bemoan my weaknesses but see them as exciting opportunities for growth. Some people will read this blog and get the impression that I am a very stern and serious person, when the opposite is more accurate. I am definitely not a type-A personality. Maximal enjoyment and maximal improvement are not mutually exclusive.

Start Small

Start with the smallest step possible and reward yourself heavily for it. As soon as you start taking even a little action towards your own improvement, give yourself an obscenely significant reward for it. As long as the reward isn’t counteracting your growth, rewarding your little improvements will encourage you to make more of them. Plan to give yourself a big reward not just when you’ve been on your diet for a month or a year, but a day or even a single meal!

Don’t worry about the one big idea that will change everything, and instead work on continually trying out and adopting new small ideas. These ideas compound on each other until you have an incredible amount of improvement. Improvement doesn’t go up incrementally, it goes up exponentially! Each improvement you make will expand the improvement potential for the future. Exercising gives you energy that can be invested into improving your business which can give you more money to buy better exercise equipment.

Read through archives of this blog. If an idea jumps out at you as being useful, try applying it in your own life. Remember to enjoy the process. Learn to enjoy your own improvement and it will be harder for you not to grow. Don’t wait for an epiphany to get started. Start today.


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4 Responses to “The Smallest Step”

  1. Mike says:

    Scott,

    Great blog!

    I find that the “thing” that makes a difference in a person’s life is a synchronicity of the idea, method, etc. that coincides and improves an given need at a given time. Success with personal development begins with something that *works* and reinforces a belief that you are in control and change CAN happen.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. I think there are many ‘epiphany’ moments if you can recognise them and I think that you can always keep going forward, even if it’s just one small step at a time and even if you’re not really sure how that small step fits into everything else that’s happening. Many times even, the significance of what you’re doing doesn’t become obvious until sometime after the fact when you can give a little context and distance to it.

  3. Scott Young says:

    Mike,

    Yes, uncovering something that ‘works’ and being successful with it really build your momentum.

    Matthew,

    It is often easy to look back and reframe the past from a perspective where a single moment was responsible for our future, even if that wasn’t evident at the time. Little epiphanies that build on each other are the foundation.

  4. […] Thanks to Lifehacker, I found Scott H. Young’s blog, where he talks about all my favorite subjects … goalsetting, eliminating bad habits (who me? procrastinate?), developing self-discipline, and more. I especially liked his post called “The Smallest Step.” Even more impressive: Scott is still in high school. Enjoy! […]

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