My dad is a direct descendant of one of the original three wise men. Seriously, we bought one of those Ancestry.com things for his birthday, and after about a year of research, we discovered that his lineage included one of the wise men. I can’t remember which one, but it was one of them, maybe Melchior.
One of the wise things he told me occurred, as they often do, while we were tinkering in the garage. If you want to discover or uncover wisdom, tinkering in the garage is a great place to start. If you want to triple your chances, see if you can get my dad to join you.
What he said was, “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by yard, life is hard. It’s called incrementalism, son” (he punctuated his wisdom with, “son” for greater effect). According to my dad, we should be willing to move along our journey/improvement/career incrementally, rather than always trying to take big leaps, or looking for the home run.
When I was coaching basketball in college, one year I worked for a program that was both near the mountains and had a strong military tradition. As a part of pre-season conditioning, we combined the challenges of the surrounding terrain, with military like workouts and gear, which provided a particularly grueling workout for our players.
This is Amicalola Falls State Park. It may not look very big in the picture, but there is a significant hike up the mountain. The trail winds around a great deal, and if memory serves me correctly, this picture is only taken about halfway up the mountain, meaning there was a decent hike to get to this point, and a much more to go from here to get to the top.
The players were carrying full, military style water jugs. Not like personal water bottles, but the kind you might see strapped to the side of a jeep or something. I think they weighed about 25 pounds.
My job was to pull up the rear, encourage kids along the way, and make sure nobody fell into the waterfall or dumped out their jug.
Because of this perspective, I was able to see all sorts of different strategies. Some kids put the jug on the top of their back, just behind their neck, hunched over, so the weight was supported by their back, neck, and both hands. Others alternated the weight between each shoulder, constantly shifting the jug as one shoulder tired. Others carried it like a large, over-sized, sloshy baby. Some just dragged it all the way up the mountain, clanging into every step and passerby as they went.
There may have been one strategy that was better than others, but what I remember most is how different players approached the challenge differently, and how that affected them over the course of the grueling hike.
Some kids, before they got started, looked up at the mountain, looked down at their water jug, let out a huge sigh, and then, begrudgingly got started. Along the way, their eyes never lingered far from the top of the mountain, as they calculated how much further they had to go. Their body language screamed, “This is SOOOO HARD!!”
Others, when they were given the directive to start, did just that. They started.
They picked up the water jug, put it into one of many creative carrying positions and just started walking. For those kids, their eyes never lingered far from the step in front of them. So, step by step, they moved up the mountain.
Everyone, regardless of carrying position or perspective, stopped along the way. Carrying 25 pounds up a steep mountain is no joke. But the ones moving “inch by inch”, simply took a rest, picked up the weight, and stayed focused on their small steps.
What we like to do is look at greatness (or achievement or success), and assume that it has been reserved for those who are “special”, people who have been anointed at birth with great gifts, just beyond our reach.
And while inherent gifts can certainly be a part of the equation, there’s more to the story.
Greatness is not for the chosen few, it’s for the few who choose.
And the choice, based on the wisdom I gleaned in the garage, is to live life inch by inch, and to not get lost in the yards. So often we place the reasoning behind our inability to be great on our circumstances, or parents (genetics/DNA), or talent, etc. When in reality, most of it is dependent on our ability to stay focused on the small steps, directly in front of us, rather than the yards and yards that lay ahead.
We don’t often get rejected by some proverbial greatness gate-keeper who tells us, “No, you are in fact, not good enough, resign yourself to being average.” We stop before we even begin, because we aren’t willing to commit to the inches.
Commit To The Inches
I read about a potter recently, who said that in the beginning of his career, he was making all different types of art, spreading himself very thin, trying to create through all different mediums. Eventually he settled his focus on pottery…and he was lousy at it. With great commitment, he sat down on the potter’s wheel every single day, without fail, until he mastered his craft. The quote that struck me was,
“The first 10,000 pots are difficult, then it gets a little bit easier.”
And then, it gets a LITTLE BIT easier.
That could easily sound discouraging if we let it. But what I hear, is not a guy who was a natural-born potter, but someone who was willing to hone his craft, consistently and faithfully. Someone who was willing to move along, inch by inch, until he became great.
And yes, it takes work. Alot of it.
One of the biggest reasons it isn’t for everyone, is because everyone isn’t willing to do the work. There’s plenty of room at the top, because most people are willing to hang out in the middle, or at the bottom, making excuses, looking up at the top, cursing the top, or blaming everyone around them for not helping them get to the top.
But if you are willing to do the work…inch by inch…
We like to look at people who are at the end of their journey, who have put in the work in the dark, or long before we took notice, and claim them as “talented” or “gifted”. German philosopher Nietzsche stated:
Because we think well of ourselves, but nevertheless do not imagine that we are capable of the conception of one of Raphael’s pictures or of a scene such as those of one of Shakespeare’s dramas, we persuade ourselves that the faculty for doing this is quite extraordinarily wonderful. Thus the cult of genius fosters our vanity, our self love, for it is only when we think of it as very far removed from us, as a miracle, that it does not wound us.
(I just learned that Nietzsche was a pretty supreme Atheist. For any of you that this may offend, I am indeed, aware of this fact. However, what he has to say about our perspective on “greatness” and achievement is pretty spot on).
When we can just explain other’s positions or greatness as some inherent talent or blessing, it make it easier for us to deal with it. We don’t have to wonder what might happen if we worked hard at something over a period of time. We don’t have to think about the sacrifices that might be demanded of us. “They” are just blessed, so…
Greatness, however, is doable.
It is many, many individual feats. And each of them is doable. -Duckworth, Grit
My encouragement to you, is:
Dream big dreams, attain them with small steps.
Inch by Inch