The Power of Small
We can do no great things--only small things with great love.
Larry was a computer programmer in the sales division of a major San Francisco apparel company. He was the guy who dealt with the data, fixed people's computer problems, and spent long hours creating new ways to slice and dice the numbers. In short, Larry was a self--proclaimed computer nerd.
He would watch the men and women of the sales department and admire their outgoing natures, their easy conversational skills, the way they looked so sophisticated and stylish. Larry often thought to himself, "I can do that. I want to do that." But he had no idea how to go about changing his career path, and he wasn't sure he had the confidence to try. Should he quit his job and go to business school? Should he work nights getting sales experience at a smaller company? Did he need a career coach? He didn't know where to begin. The idea of changing the direction of his life seemed daunting.
Then one day, he strolled into Patricia Fripp's men's hair salon. Patricia was a pioneer in her field, one of the first to coax men out of utilitarian barbershops and into hip salons. Patricia approached her job with a unique zeal and passion. She strove to give every client a haircut that would say something special about him. Often she changed only the slightest detail--the angle of the part or the length of the sideburns--but she was a master. She sat Larry down in her chair and went to work.
Larry emerged a half hour later with a new look. He showed up at work and all the women cooed, "Larry! You look great." At home that night his wife said, "Hon--ey, you look so handsome." Even the young woman at the corner deli where Larry bought his coffee each morning noticed, saying "Mr. L., there's something different about you."
Larry's new haircut and the way it changed his self--perception started a chain reaction within him. It dawned on him that taking even small steps could have a real impact on his life. He bought some new clothes. He started going to the gym more often. He made an effort to smile more. Once he began to think of himself in a different light, others saw him differently as well. When he became friendly with some of the sales managers at work, he confided his desire to switch careers. Soon the head of the sales department offered him a junior position.
Larry not only rose to the challenge, he became the best performer the department ever had. They cut the size of his territory five times and he still outsold everyone else. Before long he was the chief sales executive of the company.
It's obvious that Larry had a natural talent for the business, and he put a lot of hard work into understanding every detail about the merchandise and his customers. His computer wizardry with a spreadsheet didn't hurt, either. But if you ask Larry what changed his life, he'll smile and say that truth be told, he owes his success to one great haircut.
That is the surprising power of our small actions, our subtle shifts in thinking, and our dogged attention to the everyday details in life: They can change everything--our careers, relationships, well--being, and, ultimately, how we impact the world around us.
For Larry, that small transformation became a catalyst for change. Before that haircut, he lacked confidence and direction. He yearned for something different in his life, but didn't know how to create it. He was stuck waiting for something BIG to come along.
The haircut didn't just change how Larry looked; it changed his outlook. Instead of brushing off those early compliments as mere conversational niceties, he took them to heart, and built on them. It was a small beginning, but a genuine one, and for so many of us, that's the most difficult part: taking those first small steps that ultimately lead to a huge difference in our lives.
Small, seemingly insignificant acts are powerful agents of change and growth--if we pay attention to them. Unfortunately, we live in a world where we are constantly told to concentrate on the big things, to not sweat the small stuff. Because of that, we often feel that incremental change doesn't count for much--it doesn't pay off. We celebrate milestones, and ignore the daily victories that herald persistent substantial change over time. As Canadian explorer Jamie Clarke, who reached the summit of Mount Everest step by careful step, puts it: "There's not only power in small, but magic, too."
That crucial message often gets buried in the minutiae of our everyday lives. So we screen, filter out, and gloss over insignificant, trifling details in order to navigate the hectic world in which we live. And there is some wisdom and value in that: We need to ignore a lot of the "noise" to get on with our lives. Let's face it, if we worry about memorizing all the channels on our cable system, or all the arcane instructions from the Microsoft Word operating manual, we'll never get out of the house each morning.
However, in the process of ignoring the utterly useless and insignificant, we have given short shrift to something that is extraordinarily essential--the small gestures, words, and daily kindnesses that speak volumes about our attention to detail, and our commitment and concern to effect change and make a difference. Checking--or not checking--that e-mail again before sending it out says a lot about how careful and meticulous we would be on a larger project. Taking the time to jot a thank--you note to your son's fourth--grade room mother will make a bigger impression than the designer cupcakes you're bringing for the class party. These are the minor details on which careers, relationships, even lives, often pivot.
We often labor over creating long--term life and career goals and planning strategies to accomplish them. But life rarely works according to such a grand design. Sometimes, the small, spontaneous acts make all the difference. That can be especially true in matters of the heart.
A Little Bit of Kindness
Simone and Jake had been dating for nearly two years. In Simone's mind, they were a perfect couple. She was convinced that Jake was the man she wanted to marry. Jake, on the other hand, wasn't ready to make a formal commitment. Every time Simone tried to talk to him about their future, he would change the subject.
As time passed, Simone began to despair. Finally, she decided that she had to take a stand. If he didn't get serious about their relationship, she would have to break up with him. Simone knew that it would devastate her to walk away from Jake, but she saw no other option. She certainly wasn't going to beg him to propose.
One evening, as Simone and Jake were hurrying along the street to dinner, they passed a homeless man, huddled against the icy wind. Simone, who had been wrapped up in her concerns, stopped in her tracks, jarred back to reality by the sight of this cold, dirty, hungry stranger.
"I'll be right back," she told Jake.
Simone dashed across the street toward an open thrift store; next, she went into the deli on the corner. When she returned, her arms were full. Simone walked over to the man sitting on the street. In the larger bag was a big woolen coat. The smaller bag held a container of hot soup and a freshly made sandwich.
"Here," she said simply. "This is for you."
As Jake and Simone walked on to the restaurant, Simone silently vowed to tell Jake that night how she felt. Once seated, she took a deep breath. "Jake," she began, "I have something to tell you."
"I have to tell you something first," he interrupted. And then he leaned over and blurted out, "I don't have a ring, Simone, I'm sorry. But I have to ask you: Will you marry me?"
Simone was overwhelmed. "Why now?" she managed to stammer.
"When I saw you stop to give that homeless man a coat and a warm meal," Jake said, "I thought, 'How could I not spend the rest of my life with someone this kind?' "
Needless to say, Simone said yes. Today, Simone and Jake are happily married, and the proud parents of three wonderful children.
Simone's reaction to the homeless man wasn't premeditated. It was a small, spur-of-the-moment action, and yet it had gigantic repercussions. Her instinctive act of kindness struck Jake like a lightning bolt--everything he needed to know about the next twenty years of his life was right in front of him. With that one act, he learned more about Simone than a thousand conversations could have told him.
"Most couples in trouble think that for things to improve, extraordinary changes, if not a miracle, have to take place," says Howard Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver. Couples have a tendency to think that it's the other person that needs to change. But we can't change other people--all we can control is what we do.
"The breakthrough," says Professor Markman, "comes when we realize that by making even small changes in ourselves, we can effect big, positive changes."
Simone had just naturally done something to help another human being in need--offering him a ten--dollar thrift--shop coat and a two--dollar cup of soup--and the course of her entire life changed. These are the kinds of changes that can take place in our lives and the lives of those around us when we unleash the power of small.
And the way to do that is to learn to pay attention to the right details.
No one better grasps the importance of small details than John Wooden, the first man to make it to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. In his book, A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court, Wooden points out that seemingly innocuous things make the difference between "champions and near--champions." He would begin the first squad meeting of a new season with the same demonstration, year after year. The demonstration wasn't about showing his college players how to execute the perfect dunk or fast break: What the legendary coach wanted to teach them was how to put on their socks.
"I wanted absolutely no folds, wrinkles, or creases of any kind on the sock," he explains. "I would demonstrate for the players and then have the players demonstrate for me. This may seem like a nuisance... but I had a very practical reason for being meticulous about this. Wrinkles, folds, and creases can cause blisters. Blisters interfere with performance during practice and games... These seemingly trivial matters, taken together and added to many, many other so--called trivial matters, build into something very big: namely, your success."
In the business world, that kind of attention to detail is exactly what we need to both avoid missteps and perfect our own winning jump shots. When we launched The Kaplan Thaler Group, we didn't envision becoming a billion--dollar agency that would be acquired by a public company. We didn't have a five--year or ten--year goal--we had twenty thousand little goals, because we have found that when you focus on solving the myriad problems of today, you create the most promising tomorrow. But to do that, you need an environment where, no matter how small the task, everyone is willing to pitch in.
We began as a six--person operation and grew to fifteen before we even had enough chairs to go around in the cramped brownstone attic that served as our corporate headquarters. Although we served different functions at the agency, we had an egalitarian attitude toward daily responsibilities and chores. Each of us had to carry a bag of trash out every night and surreptitiously toss it in the school Dumpster across the street, because we couldn't afford our own. And while we can laugh sheepishly now at stealth garbage duty, that daily task convinced us that we had the team we needed to grow our business--employees who were both flexible and loyal. Everyone understood that no job was too small. It's easier to complain than comply when it comes to getting the little things done. But our bosses, our colleagues, and even our friends learn a lot about us by the way we handle the smallest tasks, the briefest encounters, the tiniest details.
Linda recalls that when she went on her very first date with her husband, Fred, it was one small action that convinced her he was the one. "It was a particularly chilly night, and I was about to walk out the door with my coat only halfway buttoned. Without saying a word, Fred reached over and buttoned up the rest of my coat. It may have been cold out, but that one action melted my heart. Twenty--two years later, Fred still checks to make sure our coats are buttoned, whether it's mine or the kids'."
A few years back, the Girl Scouts asked us to create a campaign that would encourage girls to remain involved in math and science when they entered their tween years. Research has revealed that although girls outshine boys in those academic arenas when they are in elementary school, they suddenly seem to lose confidence in math and science when they enter middle school. The parents we spoke to in our research groups were baffled. They believed they were doing everything possible to fuel their young daughters' curiosity about and passion for these subjects. After three exhausting days of focus groups, one mother casually mentioned that she wanted to record a science show for her daughter, but because her husband was out of town, she was unable to do so. Our ears perked up. "Why did you say that?" we asked.
"Well, as I told my daughter, I'm not really good with all that technology stuff. I think it's like a girl thing or something," she chuckled. For us, the lightbulb went on when we heard this mother's remark. Her casual words led us to write an award--winning commercial underscoring the importance of mothers not only encouraging their daughters' natural curiosity in math and science, but being more aware of the subtle cues that reveal their own insecurities and negative predispositions. In essence, women had been inadvertently passing on the "girls can't do math or science" myth without even being consciously aware of it. That campaign went on to win the White House Project Award for building self--esteem among young women.
In advertising, an obsession for detail is essential in creating an effective ad, because every second counts. A Hollywood director can tell his story over two and a half hours, on a twenty--foot silver screen, to a dedicated audience sitting in a dark room paying full attention. In advertising, we must compress our message into fifteen or thirty seconds that flash across a TV screen most likely playing in the background of busy multitasking families. Every nuance, every syllable needs to continually draw you in, or you'll mute, fast--forward, or flip to another channel. The rule of thumb is that if an ad doesn't capture a viewer's attention within the first five seconds, you're history. And the subject matter deals with small, everyday problems that certainly wouldn't be blockbuster fare--"What should I make my family for dinner?" "How do I stop my hair from frizzing in the rain?" "Where can I get a pair of jeans that will make my butt look smaller?" Our success, therefore, is measured in how artfully we portray the moment the ferret peers out from a BabyBjorn in a Kraft Bagel--fuls commercial, or perfecting just the right notes that make the Toys "R" Us song so memorable that millions of Americans can still sing it by heart.
But what about the power of small in our personal and professional lives?
We all want to change or improve our lives and advance our careers. In fact, each January, many of us make a list of life--changing resolutions that we forget by Valentine's Day. Every Monday, we focus our attention on winning that big brass ring, or corner office, or the big promotion, instead of doing the small things every day that will get us there. The secret to getting ahead in life sometimes involves changing our perspective from the grandiose and the difficult to the small and doable. Those are the actions that produce tangible results.
Our "small" outlook on life not only drives our business but is present in everything we do--in the way we interact with our employees, our clients, our friends, our family, and, frankly, the random people we encounter each day. The positive impressions we make through little words, deeds, and gestures are what lay the groundwork for success in life. It isn't difficult, but it does take commitment.
In the following chapters we will look at how the power of small, of focusing on the trees as well as the forest, works in various aspects of our lives--and how to make it work for you.
Excerpted from The Power of Small by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval. Copyright © 2009 by Linda Kaplan Thaler. Excerpted by permission of Crown Business, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.