I saw a now famous American speak at a youth entrepreneurship summit years ago. I won’t soon forget it. A student stood up and told the speaker he wanted to “change the world” for the better, like that man, and he wanted advice. The older man sparked some laughter and lit a few fires when he replied:
I’ve met so many young people like you who want to change the world. I tell them to start by just making their bed.
That later became the title of a book by that man. It was an exhortation to do “the next small thing” faithfully and a reminder that we are, in many respects, the sum of small thoughts and actions. As Emerson put it: “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”
This weekend we’ve continued the months-long process of clearing a pasture for some black angus (a sire and three cows) due to arrive here in just a few weeks. It’s been more than a little overwhelming, in part because we’ve not had the right tools for the job. Alas. But we’ve sought good advice, and we’ve pecked away at it, tree by tree, stone by stone, stick by stick – pushing around one mound of clay at a time.
The progress has been very incremental. But I’m learning to be content with that, even to celebrate it. In business school I was taught the Japanese management idea of kaizen. One professor described it as a personal and organizational commitment to finding 1/10 of 1% improvement each day. In four weeks time, that’s 2% improvement, or 26% in a year, and more than 1000% in a decade.
Sometimes a “multiplier effect” can also get added to an incrementalist’s progress. For example, we’ve cleared a forest of trees so overcrowded and dense that trees were literally competing for soil and for sunlight – and were all less healthy because of it. Freeing legacy trees to flourish in a savannah-style pasture will pay dividends for years to come, multiplying the effect of the incremental improvements we’re working toward each day.
In the midst of all this, I’ve been reminded of some good lessons for business, for relationships, and for life. When we get overwhelmed by a task or a problem, the challenge is in fact quite often to simply do the next (sometimes very little) thing faithfully, the very next hour or day. There is energy, sometimes like momentum, that comes from pressing on, one specific next step at a time.
Along those same lines, of all the great wisdom my father has passed on to me, one of the very best quotes he gave me was this one:
Nothing is dynamic until it is specific.
Two other by-products of incrementalism are often overlooked. First, we can “fail fast” through small actions and learn from that, so we don’t fail big. We often rob ourselves of this opportunity. As the iconic farmer-philosopher Joel Saladin put it:
We’re scared to death to try new things because we think we have to get it right the first time.
That’s not true, of course. We can learn a lot by making incremental mis-steps.
And the second underrated thing we learn by pressing on toward incremental improvement each day is: patience. That’s obvious enough.
Kaizen is a disposition to make things better, little by little, as opportunities present themselves. We can teach ourselves to habitually hunt for continuous improvement. In some respects, it’s the central challenge of our lives. Another word for it, when incrementalism is applied to the character-building project of our lives and is aided by the Spirit of the living God, is sanctification.
And that’s worth considering as a Sabbath evening bonfire runs its course.
Make sharing easy!