The English language is of full of clichés that need to go the way of the dinosaur. (Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.)
For most of my life I’ve heard, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” This translates to, “don’t let the small details and annoyances of life drag you down.” Some guy even trademarked that phrase and wrote a book called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … and It’s All Small Stuff. And then he convinced over 25 million people to buy it.
I haven’t read the book. But I have listened to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” on a loop for 17 hours. Same thing, right?
I’m sure the book has plenty of useful advice about not letting petty things affect our lives. And that’s good advice. But life is not all small stuff — there’s plenty of big stuff. So I’d like to put a spin on this best-seller.
I’d rather worry about small stuff than big stuff.
July 22nd, 2017, was an exciting day. That morning I woke up and realized I had helped keep a tiny human being alive for an entire year. I went to the mailbox expecting to find my new membership card for this exclusive club. After all, an accomplishment of this magnitude surely comes with some sort of reward. We have succeeded as parents!
But there was no congratulatory letter. No “Certificate of Excellence.” Not even a coupon for Babies ‘R Us. Unfortunately, there are no awards or accolades for doing what we’re supposed to do — for doing the small stuff.
It all sounds simple. Feed him. Burp him. Change his diaper. Tummy time. Nap time. Bath time. Day in and day out.
Nothing glamorous. Each of those activities takes just a few minutes. It’s all “small stuff.” And then we celebrate their one-year birthday. It’s a big win made possible by worrying about those small things.
Taking care of the small details we can control allows the big things to happen we cannot control.
It sounds ridiculous to use raising a child as a metaphor for everything else in life. If we miss a nap or feeding here or there, the kid is probably still going to make it to his first birthday. And we won’t miss many — they’re good at letting us know when we drop the ball.
That’s part of the beauty of focusing on small stuff. We can’t always control the outcome of something, but we can control the input.
Bill Belichick — head coach for the NFL’s New England Patriot’s — is famous for his motto: “Do your job.” It’s the mantra for a team that wins a staggering number of games. And it’s a perfect example of worrying about the small stuff (or better than raising a baby, at least).
Each player on a football field has a job. In fact, each player has a specific task to perform on each individual play. The task is different for every play, and it may not always seem important. Wide receivers want to score touchdowns. They don’t want to spend most of their time blocking defenders.
But if any one of the eleven players fails at their small task, the play may fail. Instead of getting a first down, the offense may have to punt. And this may cost the team seven points, which may cost them the game.
Every NFL team’s ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl. But if that is what the players focus on — the big stuff — then they don’t focus on the task at hand. To make it to the Super Bowl, a team must win most of their games. But even winning each game is too broad of a goal. To win a single game, the team needs to “win” more of their plays than the other team.
The team wins by focusing on the small stuff. If every single player just commits to doing his job on every single play, the wins and championships will take care of themselves. This outcome isn’t guaranteed, of course. The team still may not win the Super Bowl. But they won’t even have a chance if the players don’t do their jobs.
Reverse engineering is good … in moderation.
Doing the small stuff is part of a process. If we stick to it, we believe (hope) that big things will happen. So it seems natural to start with the big outcome we want and back our way into the process used to get there. We believe we can reverse engineer the exact playbook needed to guarantee success.
But it doesn’t always work like that. Many of the factors that influence outcomes are beyond our control: external markets, negative press, unethical competitors — and don’t forget luck. We can do everything right and the ball can still take an unlucky bounce.
Scott Adams — famous for creating the Dilbert comic strip — wrote a great book called, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.” One of the themes in the book is a comparison of “systems versus goals.” Rather than just setting goals and checking them off, we focus on systems that ultimately shape us into the people we want to be.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with goals. If we need to lose 30 pounds, it feels great to succeed and check off that accomplishment. The problem is many of us don’t immediately set a new goal. We revert back to our old ways as soon as we check it off.
Under a systems approach, we would focus on making smarter decisions about what we eat on a daily basis. By sweating those small decisions, we would be left with a system of eating that keeps us at a healthy weight. The big stuff would take care of itself.
[Adams does a much better job explaining this than I do. I guess that makes sense — it was his idea. Read this article for a lot more clarity.]
I don’t even know what the “big stuff” is anymore.
I never set out to learn how to code. In fact, I still wouldn’t really say I know how. And I definitely never intended for people to pay me to build websites for them. But I wanted to build one for myself.
So I started building a website, working on it a little at a time. When I needed to change the padding on the menu items — well, first I had to Google what “padding” was. Sometimes it would take me days to learn the smallest thing.
But I eventually figured it out. Then I got faster at figuring things out. And four years later someone offered to pay me to build a website.
I never saw that coming — it wasn’t a goal I had four years ago. It wasn’t even a goal I had four months ago. But I (accidentally) created a system by doing something I wanted to do. I focused on the small stuff because it was all I knew. The big stuff just kind of happened.
Don’t sweat the big stuff.
P.S. — For further reading, check out:
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams — This includes much more depth on systems versus goals and tons of other good stuff.
Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday — This book talks about the pitfalls of letting your ego interfere with your life. This applies to doing the small stuff that you may not think is important.