Shoot the Rationalist #4: Thinking Small

in #blog2 years ago

Dream big. Shoot for the stars. Aim for the moon. A large part of American exceptionalism is rooted in unbounded ambition. But as someone who has struggled with procrastination and perfectionism in the face of these ideals, I propose we think a little differently. It would be nice if everyone just lowered their expectations a little bit and recognize that months of hard work doesn't materialize overnight. Let's just take it one step at a time.


First off, I want to make it very clear that I'm not saying you shouldn't follow your dreams. You can follow those dreams if you have a plan and realistic milestones that you're willing to work towards. What I'm talking about are all the ambitious people over-promising, under-delivering, and generally misleading people because they envisioned the roads to riches were already paved for them. Unfortunately, we live in a competitive world where those that can push through the most resistance on their path wins. This makes reaching ambitious goals really hard. Life is more of a long marathon, than an easy sprint. Those that get too ambitious and get ahead of themselves never finish.

Of course this perspective isn't popular because it doesn't jive with the optimists. I've always been a skeptic of optimism. There are so many holes in our knowledge and experience that its seems unreasonable not to experience doubt and pessimism along the way. The key is understanding how to overcome the waves of doubt that arise with more knowledge and adapt to those obstacles. The risk of remaining blissfully ignorant is that one falls off the first peak of the Dunning-Krueger curve and straight into a wall of doubt. The temptation to quit is immense once you realize that you're not the greatest [insert profession or hobby here] ever.

I'm overwhelmed a lot at work. A lot of the time I don't know what I am doing. The project I'm working on is too big. That's not to say I suck at my job. The first step to understanding is to recognize your limitations and adapt. My strategy is to think smaller. I don't need to think about the destination, but the next milestone I can grasp on. As a runner, it's like pushing yourself to the next telephone pole or intersection on a run even though you have many miles to go. Don't think about what you don't need think about until you need to think about it.

Another problem with thinking big is that you take out everyone that follows you if you falter. Deadlines get pushed and everything gets a lot more expensive than was initially expected. Mostly because confidence betrayed you and you were caught by ambition. And once the team hits the wall, it's very hard to get started back up again. Overambitious individuals are one thing. Overambitious individuals in charge of a team is another (smells like Ned Scott?).

By thinking small, lower expectations are given and there is more room to be creative and excel. There's more room to fail because there's plenty of time to fail and experiment. There's no pressure to get it right the first time, so you're more likely to get something right simply through iteration over multiple trials. By thinking small, it's okay to suck sometimes, because its an increment process. You have doubts about completing intermediate tasks, but you can more easily adapt to them when you don't have the monolith staring at you casting a shadow over years of your calendar.

In a success driven world, thinking small is looked down and people flock towards ambition. But it is the most ambitious projects which tend to lead to the biggest disappointments. Not that ambition isn't something individuals can't overcome. Those who aren't afraid to fail can accomplish big things with big risks. But it makes me ponder? Maybe there's some survivorship bias there? Maybe if enough ambitious people make the trek, a few will make it? It's hard to say.

If you can find yourself content with taking the first steps, you are less likely to suffer from the sheer distance between your present and your goals. Because your goals are right at your feet rather than miles down the road you haven't even found yet.