Contrary to popular opinion, most great achievements did not start out with a master plan or moment of inspiration. They began as small steps. Each step was ordinary. But they accumulated into something more. More than goal-setting, courage or positive thinking, self-improvement is the magic of small steps.
I’m frequently asked where I got the idea for starting this website from friends, or in emails from readers. The real question they are asking is how does a 17 year-old high-school student get the idea to write six hundred articles, three books and earn a stable income from a readership base now close to ten thousand. They assume I have some magical powers of foresight or creativity.
But, if I talk to most of my friends with successful blogs, what I’ve done isn’t remarkable. In fact, it is perfectly ordinary and reasonable. There is no magic, just a series of small steps inevitably winding towards a goal. I completely agree with this perspective.
Magic is Confounding
My friend, Cal Newport would explain this as the confounding effect. That people are impressed by achievements that seem to violate their laws of the world, rather than achievements that just take a lot of work. If I had become an extremely successful chess player, I doubt it would attract many comments, even if becoming an elite chess player requires ten times as much effort as I’ve put into blogging.
I say that there is magic in small steps because magic has two meanings in the English language. The first is something that violates the laws of the universe. The second is an illusion put forth by a magician, doing something that only appears to violate the laws of reality. Once you know how the magician’s trick is done, the accomplishment often seems commonplace.
Unraveling the Magician’s Secret
The truth is, I didn’t envision this website in it’s entirety. Yes, I had big goals for the website: I wanted to build an audience and earn an income. But, the product I initially envisioned looks nothing like what it is today. There was no magic foresight or inspiration.
What really developed this website into how it was today was continually making small steps of progress. After each step, I used the feedback from that step to alter my direction for the next one. As a result, I made hundreds of mistakes, but these were being corrected slowly, allowing me to adjust the final result.
I never decided to write six hundred articles. I just decided to write one, and repeated that decision in 600 separate occasions. The magic of small steps is that people confuse small, incremental decisions with large, sweeping decisions.
Goal-Setting Creates a Destination, Not a Path
People are daunted by big goals because they can’t fill in all the details. But the truth is, no one can fill in the details. The most we can accurately do is put small steps towards a more general direction. The cumulative action and adjustment only seems like magic over the span of years.
Goal-setting is a useful tool for establishing a direction. Without some goals, you’ll probably never apply any action consistently enough to build to anything remarkable. But there is a big difference between specifying a target, and mapping out the entire terrain in front of you.
Most of the decisions you need to make towards a goal are small. If I want to get in shape, the most common decision I’ll make is: “will I go to the gym today?” Similarly, in writing this blog, I’m most frequently deciding what I’m going to write for one day.
The Myth of the Master Plan
Success stories are told in reverse. We fit the events of our life into our preferred narrative. Failures are cast as bad luck or learning opportunities, not stupidity. Accomplishments are the result of our creativity and ingenuity, not fortune. Grand plans are concocted in the flash of a lightbulb, instead of slowly being adjusted over a period of years.
This reverse story-telling creates the myth of a master plan. But the truth is, even if you have a master plan, it’s probably wrong. My original plan for this website was to create software and have writing as a side-activity. Wow, was I wrong.
If you’re setting goals for the future, I agree with Tony Robbins and other self-help mantras, set big goals and get them to inspire you. Just realize, however, that you probably have no idea what shape the road to that destination will take along the way. Consistently applying small, boring steps towards a direction is worth more than hours spent overthinking the problem.
By boring steps I mean action that doesn’t appear daunting or extraordinary, not that it is lacking in creativity or interest. Writing this article is boring in the first sense, but it is still interesting and creative.
Consistency is the glue that holds small steps together. Most failures towards a goal are not the result of a lack of willpower or courage, but a lack of consistency. I believe a major reason this website has been successful is that I write consistently. I’ve only missed my regular writing schedule for 2 weeks over the last 3 years.
A famous author is known for committing himself to write for four hours every day, even when he has nothing to say. This could mean he stares at a blank screen for four hours in a case of extreme writer’s block.
Consistency of action doesn’t necessarily mean consistency of direction. Although I’ve stuck to a schedule for writing since I started, I’ve never been afraid to change that schedule and experiment with new types of writing. I’ve experimented with different types of projects, all to test out new paths to my goal.
The best way to consistently take steps is to build new habits. That is one of the reasons I’ve devoted so much of my writing to the topic. Although habits seem unnecessary, they are the psychological wand that performs the magic contained in small steps.
Becoming a Magician
Three years ago, the idea of someone like me getting a book deal through a publisher would have been magic. But I know dozens of blogging friends that have leveraged their success to get published. Now, the act of getting a book published hardly seems magical and appears to be a reasonable step I might take in the next few years.
Figure out what you want and consistently apply small steps towards the goal. Even if you don’t understand fully how you are going to get there.