How To Go Big By Going Small
“Showing up is essential. Showing up consistently is powerful. Showing up consistently with a positive outlook is even more powerful.” -Jeff Olson, The Slight Edge
You don’t have to go big to be great. All you have to do is go small in a big way.
Severe abuse, poverty, and mental illness plagued my family. My grandfather was a decorated Korean War hero tortured by manic depression. After the war, he took up robbing armored cars and found himself prison hopping.
At age thirty-seven, a fellow prisoner used the opportunity of a prison riot to kill him a week before parole.
Bipolar disorder also plagued my father. He experienced unspeakable abuse. He was a gay man ravaged by the present and the past, traits that derailed my parent’s marriage.
He served stints of homelessness and hospitalization. Eventually, he contracted HIV and died of AIDS when I was 21.
Despite those challenges, I pushed forward, and hard. I prided myself in my ability to overcome life’s hurdles. As a kid from the ghetto, I parlayed my childhood dream into an early graduation and a one-way trip to Hawaii. The only problem: I lived in tomorrow. As I got older, I showed up most of the time, just not consistently.
I still struggle. The dream of tomorrow kept me going, lurching forward. I dreamed big. I still do. But sometimes big dreams are daunting. Overwhelming. Frightening.
As more tomorrows came and went, my attendance grew sporadic. I played hooky. I thought I had the right attitude, the right mindset. It even paid off on occasion, but accolades and degrees do not a happy person make.
I cut too many deals with myself. As the deals caught up with me, my focus on tomorrow shifted to yesterday.
What I lacked was The Slight Edge. I focused on the big actions instead of consistency. I had the big dreams but ignored the daily actions needed to get there. I promised myself I’d do it tomorrow only twice as hard. Sometimes I did. Most of the time I didn’t. I failed to show up.
It’s simple. And just as simple not to do. That’s why most people don’t. So which kind of person are you: The person who shows up, or the person puts it off until tomorrow?
The good news: It’s never too late. As the old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
Keep dreaming, and big, but if you haven’t achieved what you’ve hoped, maybe it’s time you go big by going small. Here’s how.
Dream Or Tragedy?
I achieved my early successes through consistency and habit. But in my adulthood, I replaced those habits with infrequent power sessions.
Through my unreliable attendance, I shattered my foundation. I played the part of the hare. I ran a lot, but I rested even more. Over time, life’s tortoises caught up with me. So did my vices. They’re still catching up.
Hubris hid the true cause of my triumphs, and ignorance blinded me to the consequences of my actions.
Soon, I found myself in a tragedy of my own making. I lost the university position and research grant I worked so hard to achieve.
I blamed the loss on the budget sequester and NASA’s funding loss. It was a convenient excuse for my inadequate effort and lackluster performance. But this tragedy was no one’s fault but my own.
Like professional athletes who burn up before their star can light the sky, I squelched my own star. I failed to realize the race never ends. There is no finish line. It only transforms from one type of race to another.
Once I achieved my goals, I lost my sense of urgency.
Most of my prior successes were born out of necessity. My childhood dream burned brightly when confronted with abuse and hunger. When I got to Hawaii, the dream fizzled.
A year later, the struggles compounded. My ex-wife filed for divorce, and I filed chapter thirteen bankruptcy.
I ate too much, drank too much, and blew up my marriage. Doctors diagnosed more people in my family with mental illness. My landlord issued a notice of intent to evict. I had five degrees and a prestigious job only a year earlier. What I didn’t have was a place to stay or a clear direction.
Once again, life forced me to choose. I could destroy my life or transform it.
I hated the thought of asking for help, but I sucked up my pride and called every person and charity that came to mind. The US Vets deemed me a parent with a minor child at high risk for homelessness and found a place for us to stay.
I remained optimistic, but I knew the mental struggle required physical strength. I needed to gain more energy and drop twenty pounds.
If I continued with my existing habits, they would kill me.
Optimize Your Health
Five months after nearly losing everything, I created an action plan. It was the first step in my new direction. It should be your next step if you don’t have one.
My solution was a lifestyle change. I gave up two things: Fast food and alcohol.
I dropped twelve pounds the first four weeks.
Later, I added a five-minute morning workout routine of basic push-ups and sit-ups. With no other changes, I lost 44 pounds in 44 weeks. I’ve kept it off for two and half years, only recouping twelve pounds of lean muscle.
As a research scientist, I knew diets rarely worked. They may for a select few, but everything works for a select few. For everyone else, it’s all about routine.
With no system in place after you achieve a big goal, you can lose your focus and sense of urgency. The same principle works when you finish a diet. Once complete, you return to your old habits and your old weight.
Chronic dieting destroys your self-esteem. It creates a mental expectation of permanent failure.
To create lasting health and a steady weight, you need consistent healthy habits. You don’t have to give up fast food and alcohol. You can keep your sacred cows. All you need to do is find a positive, consistent behavior to crowd out a negative one.
You could pick something simple like packing your lunch instead of eating out. You could drink water with your meal instead of juice or soda. Find something that suits you.
It may be hard in the beginning, but visualize what you want the rest of your life. Do you want a life of lethargy and struggle or do you want vitality, focus, and vigor to power your hopes and dreams?
Focus on the positive, not what you’re giving up. Don’t cut deals with yourself, but if you do fall down, get back up. Don’t beat yourself up over being human. You made great gains, so build on them. Most habits take 66 days to develop, but each habit will vary. Give yourself time.
Once you create a new habit, stack another one on top. You may only need a couple new habits to achieve your ideal results.
Take A Breath
The foundation of your mind is a healthy body. That also means giving your body the rest it needs.
Find one needless activity in your day. If you think everything is important, read Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Split the time saved between rest and finding more unessential tasks.
As you progress, use part of the extra time to reflect, plan, and track your behaviors. Use the remaining time on what matters in your life plan. Leverage that time. Before long, you’ll find you’ve constructed a sustainable and improving routine.
Add one minute of daily mindfulness meditation, or at least quiet, uninterrupted contemplation. Build up that time until you reach a level comfortable for you.
Change Your Inputs
Reinforce your goals with the right tools and mindset.
Part of my action plan included daily consumption of personal development information. I traded in my radio-filled two-hour commute with podcasts of Zig Ziglar and John Lee Dumas. Later, I added weekly audiobooks.
Start with five-minute podcast sessions in the restroom if that’s all the time you have. MWF Motivation is a great one for that. Whatever you decide, anchor your new habit to an existing one to make it stick, and do it daily.
I recommend spending a few minutes searching for a combination of sources that suit you. They should include personal, professional, and physical development.
Compound Your Money
It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when you’re caught up in each new thing.
At age twelve, I studied the financial markets. In eighth grade, I wrote an algorithm based computer program to invest in the stock market. I soon realized, market realities and brokerage fees devoured short-term gains.
The real power was in compounding. I made a commitment then to open up an individual retirement account once I turned eighteen. I would max out the allotted retirement contribution. I kept the initial promise only to cash out six months later. It would take me over twenty years to open another one. It was one of the single biggest mistakes I ever made.
Studies show your spending habits adjust to your available cash. The easiest way to build your financial foundation is to take money out from each paycheck. Set up automatic payments into your brokerage or financial account. This reduces the need for willpower and the chance you’ll spend the money.
If you’re strapped for cash, start with five dollars a paycheck. Increase the amount by five dollars each paycheck until you’ve reached your ideal amount. If you can’t start with five dollars, start with one. The point is to start small and start now then increase it over time.
Don’t be afraid to take risks. I took plenty. They often paid off. I succeeded in moving to Hawaii from the ghetto with only a hundred dollars in my pocket. At age 27, I purchased a condo with proceeds from a business I started five years earlier.
That success was short lived. Bad luck, excessive spending, impatience, and lack of planning quickly compounded. I lost my home two and half years later. My failure was in poor choices and improperly assessing risk.
The great news for investing is that relatively safe, diversified, high-yield investments exist. When you combine compound interest with monthly investing, you supercharge your finances.
Seek a professional if you need one, but don’t let fear or ignorance stop you. Instead, create a solid financial cornerstone to leverage other aspects of your life.
Compound Your Life
Fortunately, I understood the power of time multipliers.
After I lost my home and filed bankruptcy a second time, I returned to school to finish my degree. Over the course of the next six years, I earned five degrees. I did all this while working full-time and raising a family.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Gary Vaynerchuk. I need my sleep. I can’t get by on four hours a day.
Some people accused me of being manic, but the truth is, I used simple techniques to multiply my time. I actually had time left over each night and got a consistent 7 to 8 hours of sleep.
How did I do it? I found degree programs that fit my schedule. I attended courses that satisfied many degree requirements. I used powerful study strategies that shrank required study time.
It took a lot of deliberate planning, but the extra time paid enormous dividends.
You don’t have to jump into a degree program or some other massive commitment to enjoy time multipliers.
Look for opportunities to make simple changes that multiply your time. To get started, all you need to do is find several areas of your life that align. Find activities that meet those areas with a single task.
This could include things like listening to podcasts while hiking with loved ones. That action addresses three major sectors.
You can make simple daily changes that will compound over time and transform your life. All it takes is a little reflection and planning.
Make Excuses Or Make A Change
The choice is yours.
Creating your ideal life doesn’t have to be difficult. You don’t need millions of dollars, a high IQ, or even an ideal environment. All that’s required is showing up consistently with the right attitude.
Forgive one person daily. Say something kind to a stranger. Drop one unessential action. Do one push-up. Engage in one healthy action. Track one thing you did. Invest one dollar. Identify one good habit you can use to crowd out a bad habit. Find one reason to be grateful. Spend one minute in thoughtful reflection before you go to sleep. The next day, repeat the process and add one more minute.
“On your last day on earth, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.” — Anonymous
When you’ve lived your final day on Earth, who do you want to be?
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