The Case For “Thinking Small” (or, How Thinking Big F**ked Everything Up)

You’ve heard it a million times:

Think big, man! You’re limiting yourself.

If you believe it will happen, it will happen.

Anything is possible. You just have to want it.

If you’ve ever read any kind of self-improvement literature, you've probably been advised to “think big”.

If you're not in the know, “thinking big” is the habit of extreme positive thinking and goal-setting in order to break free of personal limitations.

It’s talked about so often that it could be the subtitle of every book in the genre.

But, in the spirit of trying new things, I recently unsubscribed from big-thinking, which, ironically, paid off big-time.

Here are some realisations from doing exactly what you shouldn't do - think small:

 

1. There’s a difference between “thinking big” and “thinking without limits”

I don’t think anyone wants to feel stuck.

Drudging around thinking that there’s nothing you can change about your circumstances is dreadful.

There are 2 ways to get out of a funk like this.

You could “think big”: shoot for a MASSIVE goal and, even if you miss, you “land among the stars” — way beyond your expectations.

Or: become AWARE of your limits and think small.

Often, nailing down why you are scared of something, is enough to discover that you don’t have to think that way.

A bit like remembering you don’t like a particular food because of a childhood trauma.

mushrooms

I used to be unable to eat mushrooms because I saw bugs and worms coming out of them when I went mushroom-picking once. Calling that out as a bullshit reason for a grown-ass man to refuse to eat ALL mushrooms was enough to get over it. I didn’t need to visualize myself as CEO of a mushroom startup or imagine a flurry of fungal pleasures.

Figure out why and let it go.

All of your beliefs and limits can be traced back to something in your past. It could be some misinformed thing on the internet or something a tired teacher once said to you.

It might be deep and tucked away, but it’s there.

Figure out why you think the way you think and take it one mushroom at a time. You don’t need to think big to get out of your circumstances.

 

2. There’s a difference between “big” and “great”

Did The Beatles dream about playing in stadiums?

Did DaVinci or Van Gogh do it for the fame?

Did Einstein or Nikola Tesla want to transform science forever?

Did Mother Teresa or Gandhi want to be a symbol of compassion?

All they did was show up. Every day.

Their greatness came from thinking small and humble, not big.

They didn’t set out to shake the world. It was because they thought deeply about each painting, song, and person, that they moved us.

Notice the subtle but profound difference between “big” and “great” and let it guide your actions.

 

3. “Thinking Big” is the self-help equivalent of American Idol.

I think Dave Grohl put it best...

Dave Grohl quote

“Thinking Big”, like American Idol, teaches you that success is measured by the size of your audience, the size of your business, and the size of your dreams.

Small dreams aren’t as valuable as big dreams, small businesses aren’t as valuable as big businesses and so on…

(It’s no coincidence that the U.S is the source of the self-help boom)

When someone points to a successful “big thinker”, I see someone who is yet to discover the pleasure of small, great steps.

The antidote to the think-big-American-Idol mentality is found in the East. Reading Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, you can learn to “be like water”, “stay low and humble”, “detach from external possessions” and so on…

After tasting both “think big” and “think small” philosophies, it becomes clear which one brings long-term joy to you and those you serve.

Realise today that meaning is found in small, day to day things, not in the size of your dreams.

 

4. We SUCK at predicting what will make us happy.

jim carrey

It is very unlikely, if you are unhappy now, that you will be able to predict a situation that will make you happy in the future.

Unless you are working on being content now, setting big goals is unlikely to change you for the better.

What you arrive at is a magnified version of yourself right now:

If you’re impatient now, growing a business will stress you beyond your limits.

If you can’t be content by yourself now, being famous will destroy you.

If you don’t trust people now, leading / teaching / parenting will make you a despised leader.

Without focussing on the joy of small, significant things, chasing lofty goals can be destructive.

 

5. Thinking big is a moving goal-post.

If you listen carefully to the words of “big thinkers” you’ll realise that they rarely come across content.

As they celebrate an achievement, they are already eyeing up the next big thing.

Grown to $10 million, how about $50 million?
Got a house. How about a bigger house?
Got the car. How about a better car?

It’s the same logic as chasing money. Yes, you will get it. Yes, it will feel good. And yes, you will want more.

Unless you know when enough is enough (hint: you already are and have enough).

It takes balls to “think big” and “hustle” but it takes wisdom to know when your cup is full and stop pouring.

 

6. Thinking big leads to procrastination.

You and I procrastinate for the same reason:

When the pain of the whole project is bigger than the pleasure of taking small steps.

Here are some classics you might relate to:

The last-minute school project.

The domain you bought for that food / photography / design / video blog that is still empty.

The YouTube channel you never started.

The business idea you looked into for a few hours.

The magnitude of the project leads us to paralysis.

When I started writing the first articles here… instead of enjoying it, my mind was imagining the end result and how LONG it would take to build up an audience. It took me FOREVER to get started.

Why? Because I got suckered into thinking big. I wanted the blog to become a print magazine and a book and podcasts and speaking gigs…

Nobody told me that the same joy you get from watching a child playing is the same joy that can be found in the day-to-day act of creating ANYTHING.

By focussing on getting better, drip by drip, is when the pleasure of getting STARTED becomes bigger than the project and procrastination fizzes away.

 

7. The journey of a thousand miles begins with…

… a single step.

We know this.

So isn't the only thing left to do is to fall in love with stepping?

This is not-so-secret Secret of the greats.

Being brave enough to love the small steps is a quality that we intuitively admire.

We love the stories of chefs, painters, and scientists, who worked anonymously because they loved their craft.

So, a more helpful question to help you find your great passion is “what process are you willing to endure?”

What steps do you want to fall in love with?

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, thinking big and thinking small will get you to a goal but in very different ways.

One will pull you there irrespective of the costs. The other will push you there through small acts of GREATness.

For me, “thinking big” turned out to be a spiritual turn-off. If you feel you don’t align with it either, try out small and humble. It just might change everything.

So start your project and tell no-one. Especially if you’re a chronic procrastinator, impatient learner, or repeat habit-breaker.

Find the steps you want to fall in love with, and everything falls into its natural place.

And now feels like a good time to stop pouring…