All You Need Are a Few Small Wins Every Day
We have a false picture of how success happens. Because we often see only the results and almost never the process involved to achieve them, we tend to think that the finished product — a new film, a popular podcast, a fitness accomplishment — is impressive, and therefore the process by which the product was created must have been equally brilliant.
In fact, it was likely the opposite. Success, like the proverbial sausage, is much less pretty when you see how it’s made.
As an author, I know books well. I also remember equally well how I thought books were created back when I was solely a reader. I assumed there must be some magical, special process. If only that were so.
The single best piece of advice I’ve heard about writing a book is to produce “two crappy pages a day.” It is by carving out a small win each and every day — getting words on the page — that a book is created. Hemingway once said that “the first draft of anything is shit,” and he’s right. (I actually have those words on my wall as a reminder.)
While it would be wonderful if books could be created through raw genius, if we could spit fire each time we sat down at the keyboard, that’s not how it goes. Instead, the best writers have routines that get their asses in their chairs and create opportunities to move the ball slightly forward each day. Enough of these small actions strung together — reviewed, dissected, iterated upon — produces publishable work. Sometimes it even produces something that takes readers’ breath away. The same rule applies to anything of value. Realizing this might strip away some of the mystique of the things you love, the upside is that the path to brilliance turns out to be more accessible than you may have previously thought.
Businesses are built by humble means — good businesses, anyway. Sure, the WeWorks of the world get all sorts of attention for their ambitious plans to take over the world, and their stratospheric valuations can make people believe that they will. But often, these companies implode, and in the end, not even the bones remain. Why? Because they never existed in the first place. They were fictions, created in a flash while no one was watching.
Trees that grow tall and live long grow slowly — especially at first, but then grow steadily. They may be underground a long time, and a vulnerable sapling for longer still, but like any good idea or habit, once the roots are in, they’re hard to dislodge. Plutarch tells the story of a rich Delian ship owner who was asked how he built his fortune. “The greater part came quite easily,” he said, “but the first, smaller part took time and effort.”
Creating anything of consequence or magnitude requires deliberate, incremental, and consistent work. At the beginning, these efforts might not look like they are amounting to much. But with time, they accumulate and then compound on each other. Whether it’s an anthill or a stalagmite or a book or a business, from humble beginnings come impressive outcomes.
A friend of mine, Pete Williams, once surprised me a few years ago with a stat: He reported that 10% improvements across just, say, seven categories in a business would combine to double your profits. This is the approach I apply to my writing, my business, and my personal life: When I am not creating, I look for areas where I can make small tweaks. How can the subject lines of my emails be better? Could my art be better? Where do I have leaks (of time, money, energy) in my business? Are there habits or systems that are holding me back? What groundwork can I lay now that might come in handy in the future? What investments can I make? What deals can I make (or renegotiate) to improve the health of my finances or the quality of my products?
In one of his most famous letters to Lucilius, Seneca gives a pretty simple prescription for the good life. “Each day,” he wrote, “acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes, as well and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day.” One gain per day. That’s it.
George Washington’s favorite saying was “many mickles make a muckle.” It was an old Scottish proverb that illustrates a truth we all know: Things add up. Even little ones. Even at the pace of one per day. The Stoics believed it was the little things that added up to wisdom and virtue. What you read. Who you studied under. What you prioritized. How you treated someone. What your routine was like. The training you underwent. What rules you followed. What habits you cultivated. Day to day, practiced over a lifetime, this is what created greatness. This is what led to a good life.
“Well-being is realized by small steps,” Zeno would say, looking back on his life, “but is truly no small thing.” Which is why today and every day, you need to think about those little things. They are worth sweating. You need to create good habits. You need to stick to your rules. You can’t make excuses to yourself, saying, “Oh, this doesn’t matter.” Because it adds up. Because it determines what you’ll accomplish and what you won’t. Most important, it determines who you are.
No longer naive about the process, today I focus on improving a little bit every day, personally and professionally. I know that cumulatively this will have an enormous impact. It’s not as sexy as transformative reinvention or bold, risky bets, but it’s dependable, and it works. It’s something I control. No one can stop me from showing up. From getting better in the areas that most people don’t pay attention to. From what I do when nobody’s watching.
Epictetus called incremental action “fueling the habit bonfire.” That’s what I try to do day in and day out. Even this article is an example. How it turned out is a far cry from where it started — as an idea on a notecard, to an item on my to-do list, which became a commitment I honored, which became a piece I spent time on across several days, which I returned to when I had tweaks and improvements, which was edited by a team, and then finally published. Is it the best thing ever written? Absolutely not. But I am better for writing it, and it is better for the work I put into it. It’s a small win, and that is all that I needed today.