I believe in the cumulative power of small steps

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (739 Words)

I’m now sometimes referred to as an ’entrepreneur’, and occasionally I spend a little of my time trying to figure out what that actually means. I realise that a lot of the time, how other people perceive it is quite different to how I see myself. Much of the talk around entrepreneurship is about blue-sky thinking, of aiming for the moon shot, of being the big-talking guy who is always selling his next grand vision of the future. I have opinions, sure, and I don’t mind sharing them and sometimes they get me into trouble. But that big talker with grand visions is not me.

I’m like a snowball, or a stalagtite. I’m like that underground stream that’s been carved out slowly out of sight underground. Little by little, without anyone really noticing for a long time, I’ve built things in small steps, one after the other. One day that suddenly got noticed by a few more people than I was used to. I owe everything I have now to a series of tiny steps over the last 20 plus years, just by deciding to keep walking the path. The thing is, you don’t even have to know exactly where you’re going, just so long as you keep walking. A wise man once said: “There’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path”, and he knew what he was talking about ;). Tiny steps are inherently powerful once accumulated.

This concept permeates everything that I do. I build software, and that’s naturally built up patiently in small incremental steps. When I build stuff I do it not by imagining a grand sprawling vision that will dwarf all others; I start with a small, manageable picture in my head of something that solves a genuine problem - usually one that’s annoying me - and  I put one block on top of another until I have something that I like the look of.  Then I show other people, take bits off, put them back, add new bits where they make sense. And I keep doing this, over and over and over until what I end up with is something far bigger than I originally envisaged, but which was shaped by my evolving understanding of the problem, and the feedback from people who encountered it. And sometimes, just sometimes, it becomes a big deal during that process - but if it doesn’t, you keep walking the path anyway to the next way station.

A lot of people don’t see how this can work. We’re sometimes sold on an impression that to be an entrepreneur or to evoke change in any way at all you need to have a grand vision & strategy, usually with large amounts of money sloshing around to fund it. But being big and beholden to people who’ve funded you comes with a whole host of its own problems, and there’s a lot to be said for being a scrappy, hungry startup with little money, just finding a way through via inventive thinking and experimentation. Worse is when I see people look at small incremental actions and think “that’s not making a difference”, “that’s not good enough, only the big steps make a dent”, as if giant leaps from A to B are all that’s worthy of spending time on. Sometimes this leads to people seeking money from others to accelerate things when that’s really just going to make them miserable. In reality the vast majority of things that are perceived as giant leaps were actually a very long sequence of small hops; that’s just skimmed over in the marketing brochure.

My message is this: value the small steps, embrace the journey. If progress looks small by day, trust me that when you zoom out you’ll be surprised at how far you came - but that only works if you keep on walking. Don’t devalue apparently mundane, everyday progress because that’s what giant leaps are actually made of, if you look a little closer. You don’t need a special rocket ship, all you need is the passion and determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other and to keep your wits about you. It might sound too simple to be true, but it works for a surprising number of people.

There was a great quote I saw on Twitter recently:

It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.