I have been told, many times, not to sweat the small stuff. To focus on grader dreams and the big picture. But after many years, I have found the opposite is true. Sweating the Small Stuff When I say “small stuff” I refer to the little decisions that life throws at me. Whether to use a hyphen or an em-dash. Whether to use first names on an e-mail. Whether that tie with the dancing skeletons is too much, or just enough to show I have personality. They’re the little concerns everyone says it isn’t worth sweating over. But I believe the opposite, that real success comes from sweating the small stuff. And Il make a constant effort to live by these four principles:
- The changes we need to make life better are smaller than we think
- Small things compound
- If I see just one big problem, my analysis is wrong
1. The changes we need to make life better are smaller than we think
Most people assume that, in order to make life better, we need to dream big. This is the “visualisation” thing that’s spewed by self-help books and life coaches. I believe it’s way off target. The changes most people are need are smaller – and more attainable – than we suspect. To explain the impact of a small change, let’s say I reduce my monthly income by $200. Most average income earners would agree this is a fairly small amount, which should not affect me much. But the breakdown will go something like this:
- Not being able to watch a movie once a week (around $40)
- No buying a game off Steam (around $56)
- No cabbing home early on Sundays for extra reading time (around $16)
- No buying a novel that month (around $22)
- No buying any apps (I spend about $10 a month on these)
And all of that comes to just $144. I’ll still need to give up a lot more stuff, my conclusion being this: I’ll be pretty miserable if my pay drops by just $200. So if $200 less degrades my quality of life so much, then $200 more should improve it by a proportionate amount. $200 is enough to cover loan repayments on some HDB flats. It’s the difference between smoked salmon versus Maggi mee for lunch. It’s the difference between buying new glasses and keeping ratty old ones. Just $200 more makes one hell of a difference. Thus, increments of $500 to $1,000 might turn a life around completely. So instead of wasting my time dreaming of yachts and how to make a million dollars, I’ll just focus on small, achievable targets. If I just focus on raising my income in small 10% increments, I’m pretty sure I’ll have that million or so dollars at retirement.
2. Small things compound
I am not good at my job because I am a genius. I am good at my job because I do lots of small things well. Whether it’s cooking, writing, playing music, teaching, etc. the essence of being exceptional is something one finds with a microscope. Quality is an accumulation of many good little things, like pausing properly between the notes when playing music, or choosing the right colours in a classroom. Each of these things, when viewed in isolation, seems trivial. Perhaps they are trivial. But put them together, and these small things compound. A BMW isn’t an exceptional car because of one feature – it’s an exceptional car because of hundreds of small features, from the feel of the seats to the grip of the steering wheel. Just as small things add up to great things, ignoring small things leads to great failures. It takes one loose screw to crash an airplane. A highly visible, if less dramatic, example are buildings: why do some condos look great after 30 years, while others look like landfills? It’s because a crappy management council ignores small things. A mirror breaks? Leave it. Paint chips from the fence? It’s nothing. A door broke? Forget it, no one uses it often. Over the years, these little bits of neglect snowball into a massive wreck of a building. Little things matter. They are trivial individually, but they compound and have great ultimate effect.
3. If I see just one big problem, my analysis is wrong
If there is a major problem, it is always a collection of smaller problems. To relate a single cause to it is lazy thinking. Israel is not in a difficult situation just because Palestinians are Muslims. Singapore’s high cost of living is not just due to rich foreigners. Jaundiced eyes are not just caused by a problem in the eyes. To believe that major problems have a single cause is to mistake a symptom for the entire disease. Resolving the problem never comes from making a single, slapdash connection. Big problems are only fixed by addressing each of the small problems they consist of. If we want to lower the rate of drug abuse, the answer can’t just be to run around hanging every dealer we find – it has to be combined with social outreach, addressing the problems that drive one to drug abuse, challenging society’s refusal to readmit former offenders, etc. If we want to advance in a career, it cannot be boiled down to one thing (e.g. getting an appropriate degree). It breaks down into improving relations with colleagues, learning to speak with confidence, dress sense, etc. Most problems do not have a single cause, and hence require multiple solutions. If it seems that just one solution is needed, important details have been missed.
Caveat: Attention to detail is not the same as hoarding data
Attention to detail (sweating the small stuff) does not mean memorising reams of information. It means the following:
- Identifying the various problems that make up a bigger one
- Devising solutions to each of those problems
- Taking the time to test and perfect each step of the solution, no matter how minor it seems
- Evaluating every failure and success
Data is acquired as a way to address each of the above. Acquiring data for the sake of having it does nothing to help; in fact it further confuses the analysis – there’s no point memorising the serial number of a camera if the end goal is to fix its broken lens.
Do YOU think it’s worth sweating small stuff? Tell me why and message me on Facebook.