How Anyone Can Overcome Monumental Challenges

Climbing the mountain one small step at a time

Erik Brown
Jan 12 · 6 min read
Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

There’s no way to get around it. Sometimes the world around you feels too big. Its problems can be too big as well. They hover over you like a mountain — a rock too big to pass over. It would be so easy to just give up. After all, the problems in life and society are just too monumental. What can be done to handle something so large and overwhelming?

The good news is that the path isn’t impossible. The way involves many little paths. The victories achieved after each waypoint push you forward to the next. Enjoying your little victories gives you the extra push to move on to the next small challenge.

This sounds like the typical self-help crap you usually get in your internet searches. But, it’s far from that. The idea of small steps and small victories to conquer the greatest challenges is the fact. It’s backed by science, practical use in the real world, and praised by the greatest philosophers in world history.

The challenges faced by humanity and yourself seem impossibly complex. But, this is only true when looked at in total. In pieces, they can be managed and conquered. As that snowball rolls downhill, it gathers momentum into an avalanche that overwhelms the toughest barrier.

Want to overcome a monumental challenge? Read along and see how to make it happen — one small victory at a time.

Science Of Solving Huge Problems In Small Steps

Photo by Riccardo Pelati on Unsplash

In an article in the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman looks into scientific research on the best way to solve large social problems. He begins the article by examining a paper written by organizational theorist Karl E. Weick of Cornell University.

In his paper, Small Wins: Redefining The Scale Of Social Problems, Weick actually admits that the social sciences have produced mainly failures in improving the world. How’s that as a depressing start to a paper promoting your scientific background?

Weick believes the failures are caused by emphasizing how dire and large the problems are. If the problems look impossible to solve, what’s the point of trying? He explains:

“When social problems are described this way, efforts to convey their gravity disable the very resources of thought and action necessary to change them. When the magnitude of problems is scaled upward in the interest of mobilizing action, the quality of thought and action declines, because processes such as frustration, arousal, and helplessness are activated.”

His solution to deal with this is to chunk complex social problems into smaller doable tasks:

“To recast larger problems into smaller, less arousing problems, people can identify a series of controllable opportunities of modest size that produce visible results and that can be gathered into synoptic solutions. This strategy of small wins addresses social problems by working directly on their construction and indirectly on their resolution.”

Burkeman also examines the work of psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer on how to motivate a workforce. In their book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins To Ignite Joy, Engagement, And Creativity At Work, the two examine other ways besides money to motivate employees.

One of Amabile and Kramer’s primary findings is that employee happiness is improved when you bring them on board and let them share on small wins. Burkeman goes on to say of their work:

“By collecting diary entries from 238 people at seven companies, the authors generated 12,000 person-days of data on moods and activities at work. The striking conclusion is that a sense of incremental progress is vastly more important to happiness than either a grand mission or financial incentives — though 95% of the bosses didn’t realise it. Small wins ‘had a surprisingly strong positive effect, and small losses a surprisingly strong negative one’.”

In his research, Burkeman found that a win that’s 10 times bigger doesn’t make you feel that many times happier. But, continual small wins can do a lot to keep you moving along and driven. Breaking large problems into small manageable ones is a good scientific strategy — especially when you can string together small wins.

Burkeman also recommends the website This site emails you daily and asks what you completed. It then generates a list of your wins. Over time the accumulated list can become truly inspiring.

Practical Examples Of This Approach

“I absolutely hated running. But I knew for me to grow I had to do this thing every single day. I wanted to start callus-ing my mind. I wanted to start becoming a better person. And how do you become a better person? How do you gain mental toughness? How do you become the person you want to be? It’s by constantly facing the things that you don’t want to face.” — David Goggins

Former Navy SEAL David Goggins is no stranger to monumental challenges. His list of accomplishments is damn near legendary.

David Goggins Big To Small —
  • He survived an abusive and traumatizing childhood
  • Was functionally illiterate in high school and learned to read in a short time period so he could join the military
  • Lost 100 lbs. in 3 months when he decided he wanted to become a SEAL
  • Broke the world record for pull-ups, doing 4000 in 24 hours
  • Ran a 100-mile race in a 24 hour period with no training and regularly runs ultra-marathons that over 100 miles long

The ultra-marathons might be the most monumental challenge. Goggins explains that at periods during these races, the pain you experience just makes you want to shut down and you have to overcome it.

David has a mental exercise to solve this. He calls it accessing his “cookie jar”. He keeps a record of all the small and large victories he’s accomplished during his life. He opens this jar when he’s struggling and examines the victories.

Each cookie will pull him through a hard part of the race — a cookie for each small section at a time.

David also broke his 4000 pull-up day into sections as well. Having a pace to complete each hour. He didn’t focus on the day as a whole — just his progress in each individual hour.

All of his monumental achievements listed above may look too big to overcome at first. However, when you break them into little pieces and focus on the small victories, crossing the mountain gets much easier.

Philosophical Example Of This Approach

“Well-being is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.” — Zeno of Citium

Zeno would once be a wealthy merchant, carrying expensive purple dyes across the seas. One day disaster would strike. His boat would sink taking his fortune with it.

The once rich merchant would find himself looking for purpose. In his travels, a book written about Socrates would be placed in his hands. Upon reading, he came to the decision to devote his life to philosophy and living the best life possible — an incredibly complex study.

Zeno of Citium — Picture By Paolo Monti Via Wikipedia Commons

He pursued this study gradually, step by step. He studied with the Cynics under Crates of Thebes. He’d also spend time with the Megarian school, learning under their teachers. Zeno would also seek out those teaching Plato’s philosophy.

Only after he gradually worked his way through the major philosophies of the day, he’d create his own school called stoicism. As author and Ph.D. in Philosophy David Fideler explains:

“Stoicism is a kind of path that focuses on making small, incremental amounts of progress each day, one step at a time.”

Even something as complicated as life can be better understood if it’s worked on in small chunks every day.


The problems around you may be huge, but the solutions to them are small victories achieved in gradual steps. This isn’t the normal self-help fluff. This approach is backed by science, practice, and philosophy.

The next time you find yourself facing a mountain-sized crisis and you feel helpless, break it into small pieces. As you knock out each little problem, put it in your “cookie jar”. Pull out a cookie when you need some inspiration to keep you going. Or perhaps looking at your win list will encourage you.

If Zeno were alive today, he might say, “Large problems are solved little by little and nevertheless is no little thing itself”.

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Erik Brown

Written by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information.

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