You Should Always Sweat the Small Stuff

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I’m sure you’ve been told not to sweat the small stuff.

Let it go, it isn’t a big deal. Stop worrying, it’ll be a footnote in your life.

So what should you do instead, sweat the huge things? Stress about the soul-crushing moments in life that make your palms clammy and your forehead hot?

Sounds terrible.

What if, instead of not sweating the small stuff, we decided to do just that? Worry about the little things in life. And what if I told you, contrary to popular belief, that if you focused on the tiny, minuscule, and microscopic events, you’ll actually become happier and more successful than you ever thought possible?

Well, that’s exactly what I’m telling you.

Small Stuff is Exactly What it Isn't

The key to sweating the small stuff is momentum. Remember that Isaac Newton taught us an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and vice versa. This means if you’re able to generate forward movement, however small, you’ll continue to move forward.

It could be fast or it could be slow, but the point is that you’ll always have the propulsion of momentum.

So, to prove the point, let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum: The big wins.

You see, there’s a phenomenon where the richest and most successful people are actually the most depressed. Internet millionaires and billionaires, famous astronauts, and YouTube sensations seem to have it all. However, on the inside, they’re more depressed than a person living paycheck-to-paycheck. Why?

The answer is momentum. When you win big, you’re rewarded big. You’ve been working tirelessly toward a single goal, a guiding purpose, and then you achieve it, and the answer soon becomes, “now what?” A lot of people don’t have an answer. They lose their forward progress.

As therapist Mandred Kets de Vries says, “When money is available in near-limitless quantities, the victim sinks into a kind of inertia."

Funny to think of a billionaire as a victim, but it’s true.

When people achieve high levels of success, life stops moving forward.

And the problem is exacerbated when people win big fast, or without much work. Lottery winners, for example, are notoriously depressed.

Again, this is because their life loses momentum. They won big without having to work hard and now they don’t have to work at all. But what have they actually achieved for themselves? Not much, and it causes life to stall.

One more quick example, highlighted in Shane Snow’s book Smartcuts. Buzz Aldrin, while I’ve never met the man, was known to struggle after walking on the moon. He became an alcoholic, had three marriages, wrote two memoirs about his depression, consulted for NASA briefly, and then faded away.

How could the second most famous astronaut in history be that depressed? Well, after you walk on the moon, what else is there for you to do?

Focus on the Small Wins

Big wins aren’t bad. Of course not. I want to achieve high levels of success as much as the next guy or gal. However, when large achievements are devoid of small wins, things are quick to unravel.

Why? Well, say it with me: Momentum.

So, instead of focusing on the big wins, choose to emphasize the small wins that’ll get you there. This forces you to measure success based on forward progress rather than large achievements.

For example, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amiable conducted a study of employee happiness. She had 238 white-collar workers keep a work diary and catalog how they felt in the day-to-day, given the tasks they were performing at the time.

After analyzing over 12,000 total entries, Amiable and her team found that simple progress had the largest effect on inner happiness. Specifically, forward motion, regardless of size, directly led to psychological contentment.

So, rather than needing big wins, all employees want is a succession of small wins that proves they’re moving forward.

Further, The Progress Principle, written by Steven J. Kramer, points out that leaders are effective when they help their teams experience lots of tiny wins.

Again, it’s a case of forward progress. And if you think about it, momentum results in a feeling of purpose.

So, in a sense, motion results in meaning. Therefore, take joy in the small stuff in life. It’s what matters most and the evidence supports it.

Success is Built one Brick at a Time

Ok, back to the big wins. Let’s face it, we all want to win big. Most - if not all - of our goals end in massive success, whether it be money, fame, or influence.

And of course, that’s great! We should all have lofty endeavors.

But let’s break down wins for a second with a modified version of what Elon Musk calls “back to first principles."

According to Musk, when you want to make a 10x impact rather than a 10% incremental increase, you have to boil down your goals and desires to their most simple form. The best analogy I've heard is again from Snow’s book Smartcuts:

Before the invention of the automobile, if someone wanted faster transportation, they’d try to breed better horses. This is a 10% increase. But what is it you’re really after? You don’t want faster horses, you want better transportation. You want to move forward with efficiency and speed. Consistent propulsion.

So, when you realize that your goal isn’t about stronger horses at all but is instead about traveling long distances in minimal time, you can think outside the box and eventually come up with the combustion engine.

That’s a 10x change.

Now let’s apply first principles to big wins and small wins.

Think about your loftiest goal. It could be the sale of a billion dollar startup, becoming a commercially successful artist, founding a world-changing nonprofit, or anything in between. Do you have it in your mind? Good.

Now, how many steps are there for you to get from point A to big win? A lot, I’m sure.

And that’s the point. Big wins are made up of a series of small, successive wins. So, instead of focusing on your big hairy audacious goal, break it down into a chain of tiny steps.

Because that’s what success is: a series of small wins over time.

Have a dream, turn it into a vision, write it down as a plan, and then enact the plan, beginning with step one. Celebrate each step like it’ll change your life, because over time, it will.

And then once you’ve had that big win, don’t be afraid that you’ll become the next depressed lotto winner or moonwalker.

Instead, go back to first principles. Parlay your big win into another goal with a series of successive small wins.


If you haven’t seen it now, I’ll spell it out for ya: Small stuff equals Momentum.

Small wins are key because they give you forward progress that you can hang your hat on. So, rather than striving for the big wins that leave you feeling empty, focus on the incremental changes that propel your life in a positive direction.

Then, before long, you’ll achieve every big goal you ever wanted.

And the funny thing? They’ll feel like just another small win. And that’s the point.

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