The Astounding Power of Small

Never underestimate how valuable a small change can be. You don’t need to do a massive overhaul to better your life. Sometimes success is just a hairbreadth away

the-power-of-small-297x350In a world in which we are urged to only look at the big picture and see “the forest through trees,” where the world is madly accelerating with every new technological tool and available app, it often feels as if we don’t have the time, or the desire, to sweat the small stuff. Details get derailed and forgotten in a flood of digital data, e-mails and YouTube videos. We get so easily distracted, that we lose the fine, and often crucial, points in the process.

As a result, the small cues, the simple gestures, the random acts of kindness that give life texture and meaning are too often overlooked or ignored. We feel too pressured to notice the nuances of human behaviour, or to bother with the small personal efforts that may, ultimately, win us more attention than our grand acts or intentions. Taking the time to give a compliment, or being attuned to a colleague or customer’s subtle body cues, are not inconsequential actions. They tell a story. They are the details that make or break a relationship, or decide your promotion. It is our smallest behaviours, and not our grandest gestures, that so often define us and create an imprint of who we are. But the fact is, no one gets ahead, wins the promotion or saves the guy or girl, without noticing, sweating over and taking care of the small stuff.

Believing that it is the small things we do that make the greatest difference is not just an ideology, it is also timely and pragmatic advice born out of the economically challenged world we live in today. Saving a large sum for the future is a daunting task, but focussing on saving penny by penny, fen by fen, paisa by paisa, is easily done, no matter where in the world you live.

We often labour over creating long-term life and career goals and plan five- or ten-year strategies to accomplish them. But life rarely works according to such a grand design. It is the tiny victories we accomplish each day, the details we take the time to worry about, that ultimately lead us to future success.

So please, read on. Just by following these “small” suggestions, you will begin to notice the huge impact it will have on your life.

Taking the time to give a compliment, or being attuned to a colleague or customer’s subtle body cues, are not inconsequential actions

1. Little things matter

Something as small as a new hairdo improved Larry’s self-confidence and transformed his entire life
Something as small as a new hairdo improved Larry’s self-confidence and transformed his entire life

Larry was a computer programmer stuck in the sales division of a major apparel company. He was someone everyone took for granted, and was largely invisible to everyone around him. Larry would watch the men and women of the sales department who were constantly getting promoted and praised, and would admire their outgoing and confident demeanour. Larry knew he had some great ideas, and secretly thought, “I can get ahead, I want to get ahead, but no one even knows I’m alive!”

Then one day, Larry strolled into Patricia Fripp’s men’s hair salon. Patricia was an immensely talented hair stylist, because she saw the inner ‘amazing’ in each of her customers, and decided to give Larry a new ‘do’, one that was contemporary, sexy, and a bit daring.

The second Larry got back from the salon, all the women took notice. “Lar-ry,” they squealed, “you look awesome!” Even his wife gave him a knowing wink when he came home to dinner that night. That small gesture, a new haircut, had given Larry a totally new lease on life. He bought a new set of clothes, started working out in the local gym and became more socially engaged with his colleagues.

Larry began to walk, talk and behave with a newfound confidence even he didn’t know he possessed. He offered his boss suggestions on how to improve the company, and so impressed his superiors that when he asked to be moved to a regional sales position, he was awarded the job.

A job he executed brilliantly.

Before long, Larry became the best performer the department ever had, and within a few years he became the chief sales executive of the company.

Yes, Larry had brains and talent, but if you ask him what changed his life [and we did ask], he will tell you that he owes his success to one great haircut from Patricia Fripp [who is now a successful life coach!]

Point here: never underestimate how valuable a small change can be. You don’t need to do a massive overhaul to overhaul your life. Sometimes success is just a hairbreadth away.

 no one gets ahead, wins the promotion or saves the guy or girl, without noticing, sweating over and taking care of the small stuff

2. A kernel of kindness goes a long way

A small gesture of kindness changed the course of life for Simone and Jake
A small gesture of kindness changed the course of life for Simone and Jake

Simone and Jake had been dating for two years. In Simone’s mind, they were a perfect couple, and she was convinced Jake was the man she wanted to marry. There was just one problem: Jake was commitment phobic, and terribly fearful of the ‘M’ word.

Over time, Simone began to despair. Nothing seemed to change Jake’s mind—no amount of convincing, pressuring or ultimatum conversations even made a dent in his desire to remain single. So one evening Simone decided that she was going to break up with Jake once and for all. She had to move on with her life.

On their way to dinner at their favourite restaurant, they passed a homeless man, shivering and starving in the cold, wintry night. Simone, who had been wrapped up in thinking about how she was going to break up with Jake, suddenly stopped in her tracks, jarred back to reality by the sight of this desperate stranger.

“I’ll be right back,” she told Jake. Simone dashed across to the deli across the street and next, into a second hand clothing store. When she returned, she draped a warm woollen coat around the man, and offered him hot soup and a home-made sandwich. The stranger smiled, and they continued on to the restaurant.

As they were about to order, Jake suddenly blurted out, “Simone, will you marry me?” Simone was totally overwhelmed and perplexed with Jake’s spontaneous proposal.

“Why now?” she asked. Jake replied, “When I saw you stop to give that homeless man a coat and a warm meal, all I could think was: ‘How could I not spend the rest of my life with someone this kind?’”

Needless to say, Simone said yes, and today they are happily married with three beautiful children.

More than anything else, it is not the huge investments of time and money that truly chart the path our lives will take, it’s those tiny gestures of compassion and empathy that will make the hugest impact.

Especially when it comes to relationships with our loved ones.

According to Howard Markman, a professor of psychology, “Most couples in trouble think that for things to improve, extraordinary changes, if not miracles, have to take place. But the breakthrough comes when we realise that by making even small changes in ourselves, we can effect big, positive changes.” It means paying attention to the smallest details, listening more attentively, and treating those we care about with just a tad more empathy and love.

It’s the tiny gestures of compassion and empathy that make the hugest impact

3. It’s a byte size world

People texting using mobile
Thanks to our technology driven world, the South Korean woman’s single act of rudeness will haunt her for the rest of her life

The digital age has condensed planet Earth into a cosy community of seven billion citizens, give or take a few million, and it’s shrinking by the nanosecond. We’re LinkedIn, YouTubed, Facebooked, Tweeted, Instagramed and Googled at all hours of the day and night. Most of us think this is a good thing. But is it?

Living in a byte-sized world also means we are a click away from being totally visible and vulnerable to virtually everyone from Bombay to Bermuda. That’s great if you’re launching your new “how to build a house in three days” app, but not so great if you do something rude, illegal, or just down-right thoughtless.

A few years back, a young woman from South Korea, who will forever be known throughout the world now as “Dog Poop Girl,” took her pet with her on a South Korean subway train. When the woman’s dog decided to relieve himself on the floor of the train, the passengers urged her to clean up after her pooch. The woman haughtily refused, made a rude remark, and happily left the smelly mess behind. But what she also left behind were over two dozen irate riders with myriad cell phone cameras that recorded the unfortunate event. Within minutes, the pictures were posted, and within a short time, the whole world saw the owner and her hound’s heinous gift on Facebook and YouTube.

This woman’s small selfish act will haunt her forever. Yes, she may one day cure cancer, but the first thing that will come up when you Google her name will be the moniker, “Dog Poop Girl.” For pages and pages and pages.

Moral here? Next time you are about to do something thoughtless or mean spirited, think how it will look on the International CNN report that night. Yes, the world is now that small!

Living in a byte-sized world means we are a click away from being totally visible and vulnerable to virtually anyone

4. Everyone matters

In the frenetically paced world of today, we often interact with several people a day, sometimes hundreds a week, and there is a tendency to believe that only a select few of those people are important to us. We tend to ignore or disregard those at the bottom of the corporate rung, or the lower socio-economic strata, because we assume their opinions will not amount to much.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Several years back, a major restaurant chain was losing a ton of money because its crystal glassware was breaking with alarming frequency. Regional bigwigs and district managers met at one of the restaurants to discuss the problem. Should the glassware be replaced even though it would be a huge expense? Would it keep happening, no matter which brand they switched to?

Waiter serving a drink
Never judge someone by their job description. Even a seemingly insignificant busboy can change the course of your life

Suddenly, a busboy, overhearing the discussion, pulled one of the executives aside and took him to the kitchen. There, he demonstrated how the commercial dishwashers the restaurant had installed would vibrate. Repeated exposure to those vibrations, he suggested, might have weakened and ultimately shattered the crystal. The dishwashers were replaced, the breakage stopped, and the restaurant chain saved a fortune. The busboy was given a $150,000 tip. Not bad for a day’s work!

Never judge someone by their pedigree, their diploma, or their job description. Because, that someone—just maybe—could change the course of your company, your future, and your life.

5. Make small talk

We are so pressed for time that we routinely dismiss casual conversation as idle chitchat, a waste of energy. Why bother with polite pleasantries when you have a 45-page PowerPoint presentation to get through? It’s not like a life-or-death decision is being made when you forego a few minutes of small talk.

Well, we would argue, sometimes small talk can be a lifesaver, figuratively and literally.

Annamarie Ausnes loved meeting people and getting to know more about their lives. Every morning she would see her favourite barista, Sandie Anderson, at her local Starbucks and would ask her how her day was going while waiting for her favourite short-drip double-cup of coffee to be brewed. One morning, however, Sandie could tell that Annamarie just wasn’t herself. She seemed extremely tired and depressed.

“Are you feeling okay?” Sandie asked her. Annamarie was reluctant to speak the truth, but because they had exchanged pleasantries for so many months, she blurted out the tragic news. “I was just placed on the national kidney transplant list, and I’m getting ready to go on dialysis.” Her kidneys were failing and, tragically, none of her relatives were a blood match, so it would be years before she might receive a kidney from the organ bank.

Looking across from the counter, Sandie blurted out, “I’m going to get tested for you!” Annamarie was astounded, but Sandie felt that although they did not even know each other’s names, their casual conversations over the years had created a bond between them.

As luck would have it, Sandie was a perfect blood match, and soon after, she successfully donated one of her kidneys to Annamarie, very well saving her life. Needless to say, they are now the best of friends, inexorably tied to each others lives.

Look at it this way: every person you meet is a door that, once opened, can potentially enrich your life in ways you never imagined. And all it takes are a few kind words to turn the knob.

sometimes small talk can be a lifesaver, figuratively and literally

6. Go the extra inch

Man surprised in receiving a greeting card
Little gestures such as sending a personal greeting to your clients have the power to catapult your business and your career

It’s not the grandest gestures that lead to change, because those opportunities are not often available to us, and involve great sacrifice, time and money.

It’s the smallest steps you take that have the power to catapult your career, your business and your life’s trajectory.

Take the case of celebrated restaurateur Danny Meyer, the owner of several high end restaurants throughout New York, whose little meaningful gestures have made him renowned in his field. But ask Danny and he will readily agree that his success is not attributable to any single brilliant business decision. Rather, he credits his success to the myriad small decisions that make every customer’s experience enjoyable, positive and memorable.

Danny personally hand writes at least two notes a day to people dining in his award-winning establishments, whether it’s to wish them happy birthday or congratulate them on a recent promotion that he has read about.

When booking a reservation, he has his staff ask if there is a special reason for the lunch or dinner. If, for example, a couple will be celebrating their anniversary, he has a special menu printed for them, so when they open it up there is a heartfelt note from him and the staff. And that couple, like all the others his warmth and personal attention have impacted, will now be customers for life.

Remember, climbing Mt. Everest can only be accomplished with a series of steps, each one taking you further up the mountain.

So what small steps can you take to improve your business?

It’s the smallest steps you take that have the power to catapult your career, your business and your life’s trajectory

7. Solve small problems

Hungarian mathematician George Polya believed that the biggest problem we face is that we are trying to solve problems that are too big to solve! He believed that every huge challenge needed to be unbundled into a series of smaller, more doable problems. Just by tackling those, one at a time, the larger questions could eventually be answered. In essence, there was no bridge that could not be crossed, as you shall soon see.

Bridge connecting two countries-USA and Canada
All it took was a tiny idea to bridge two countries and give us a magnificent view of the Niagara

In the late 1800s, Niagara Falls, which separated the United States from Canada, was a natural wonder that both countries were eager to market as a vacation destination. But, lacking a bridge over the falls, one that would give sightseers a magnificent view as well as connect the two countries, made it an undesirable tourist attraction. They knew they had to build a suspension bridge but there was no way for a boat to get a cable wire across the falls in order to begin construction. The engineers were stymied; without a cable to connect the US and Canadian sides, building the bridge was an impossibility.

Ultimately, the winning solution came not from a member of the experienced team of engineers, but a local man. He suggested they have a kite flying contest! Needless to say, the engineers thought he was crazy. Until the man suggested that whoever was able to fly their kite across the river first would have successfully landed a string across the falls. And that string, once secured on the other side, could be attached to thicker and stronger lines, which eventually could become a steel cable.

Several months later, the bridge opened to the public, and today Niagara Falls has become one of the premiere destinations for travellers everywhere. All because someone was suggested that a kite be flown!

Break every roadblock down to bite-sized bits and you’ll see how much easier it is to tackle even the biggest problems that come your way.

The biggest problem we face is that we are trying to solve problems that are too big to solve!

8. Little mistakes spell disaster

Years ago I had a college boyfriend who graduated at the top of his class, excelling in every pre-med course he took. His dream was to become a physician, and his professors assured him he would make every top tier medical school in the world.

To his amazement, he was turned down from every school. As he was about to apply to one last med school, I asked him if he would show me his application. His grades were stellar, but, while reading the personal essay he had written, I realised he had spelled the word “medicine” incorrectly. He had spelled it “medecine” repeatedly throughout his essay. Fortunately, I pointed out the error before he sent out his last application. Needless to say, he was accepted to the med school and went on to become a successful doctor. [Good thing he had not attempted to become an English teacher!]

We are doomed by the smallest mistakes we make. Sending an email to a client and spelling his name incorrectly. Cc’ing someone on a note that you absolutely never intended for them. Not taking the time to proof read even the smallest FB post, or not double-checking your presentation slides, shows a lack of respect for the other person. Think about the last time you received a correspondence that was obviously never spellchecked. That person definitely will go down a rung or two in your book.

We are doomed by the smallest mistakes we make

9. Celebrate small victories

Man happy to receive a letter
It’s easy to feel great when you create small goals and celebrate achieving them one at a time

Smaller, more attainable goals will allow you to experience more frequent mini-rewards. And those myriad rewards send a feel good sensation to your brain, a sensation that makes you feel happier and more empowered to work harder on the task ahead. Marathon runner Paula Radcliffe believes that this “thinking small” mantra has been key to her success.

When Paula wakes up at the crack of dawn to train each day, she never thinks, “I have to run 10 miles this morning.” Fixating on the long run ahead would only make her want to hit the snooze button and fall back to sleep. Instead, she concentrates on counting her footfalls. “When I count to a hundred three times, it’s a mile,” she says. “It helps me to focus on the moment and not think about how many miles I have to go.” Paula’s strategy pays off—because she sets small goals, she feels good every time she achieves those goals.

So tomorrow, instead of picturing how much work you have ahead of you, try making a list, and checking off one small item at a time. Your endorphins will be flying high as they experience a whole slew of mini-accomplishments, and you’ll be surprised how much you will end up tackling by the time the day ends.

Smaller, more attainable goals will allow you to experience more frequent mini-rewards

10. Small things can change the world

A wheelchair
Don Schoendorfer decided to develop a low cost wheelchair for poor people in developing nations. He has has delivered more than 75,000 wheelchairs to date; his mission is to build 20 million units

Never believe, for one instant, that no single individual has the power to improve the world. In fact, world changing ideas are coming more and more from individuals rather than foundations or governments as we become increasingly connected to the plights and misfortunes of others.

While vacationing in Morocco with his wife, Don Schoendorfer watched beggars jeer as a destitute woman dragged herself across the road by her fingernails. He was outraged, but felt powerless to help her. Nonetheless, the vision of this poor crippled woman scrabbling painfully across the Moroccan road stayed with him long after he returned to his comfortable home in California.

A mechanical engineer by profession, Schoendorfer, spent the next several months scouring discount stores and tinkering through the night in his garage, and finally was able to build a low cost, durable wheelchair that people in developing countries could afford to use.

Today, Schoendorfer’s non-profit group, Free Wheelchair Mission, has delivered more than 75,000 chairs to people in over 33 countries, but he’s not stopping until he has built over 20 million chairs.

The truth is, each of us, no matter if we are eight or 80, has the potential to make this world a bit better than the way we found it.

Never believe, for one instant, that no single individual has the power to improve the world

The first small step

As the co-founder of one of America’s fastest growing agencies, which we grew from a small fledging startup to one with over three billion in billings, I can tell you first hand that using the power of small is what made our agency as big as it is today. We built our business day by day, brick by brick, idea by idea. And once we realised the power of thinking small, it became the vital element of our professional and personal lives, nurturing both our careers and our relationships. Focussing on the tiniest details of the work we love, finding magic in even the smallest inspirations, embracing the briefest moments—that’s where the passion is.

And what about you? Why not embrace the power of small in your life? There’s a world that needs fixing, a career waiting to soar, a life ready to be transformed into the extraordinary.

So the next time you are searching for the “next big thing” or trying to see “the bigger picture”, remember it’s the little things that, ultimately, make all the difference.

Take that first small step.

And keep on walking.

A version of this was first published in the July 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
Linda Thaler
Linda Kaplan Thaler is Chairman of Publicis Kaplan Thaler, a fully integrated advertising agency with digital, social and technology at its core. She is a television personality and best-selling author of The Power of Small: Why Little Things Make All the Difference, The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness and Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World have all received national recognition. Her new book GRIT to GREAT, which she has co-authored with Robin Koval, is now available online.
Robin Koval
Robin Koval leads Legacy, the nation’s largest public health foundation. She is co-author of The Power of Small: Why Little Things Make All the Difference, The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness and Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World and have all received national recognition.


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