We all want to solve the big problem. We want to be the one who creates the breakthrough, who upends the paradigm, who stops or starts “it” once and for all.
When you can’t solve the big problem, it often feels futile to try. Because if you try and you don’t succeed, it seems like wasted effort.
But it’s not, sometimes moving the needle is enough.
For example, a friend of mine took in her high school school-age nephew during a crisis. The nephew was her late brother’s child. Her brother had died in an accident many years earlier. The mom had remarried, and things weren’t going well with the new family. The kid was on the verge of dropping out of high school, and his parents were ready to kick him out of the house.
My friend thought she could right the ship. She knew the kid was smart. She believed that she could get him on the same track her own kids were on: high school, college, and then a successful career.
Four long years later, he graduated from high school but is floundering in college: poor grades, incomplete classes, lack of direction.
My friend feels like she had failed. But she didn’t. Though it’s unclear whether or not her nephew will ever graduate from college, had he stayed where he was he wouldn’t have finished high school. My friend didn’t accomplish her big goal, but she moved the needle.
Her experience with her nephew is not unlike what we encounter in many other areas of our life.
For example, I was in a client meeting last week discussing the viability of their big huge goal. My client is in the adventure travel business. Part of their big huge purpose is to change the way people think about and experience travel. To accomplish this audacious goal, they need to change the way travel agents think about and talk about travel. No easy feat given the size of the industry and the fact that most people are used to doing things in a certain way.
As we considered the hugeness of their goal, one of the managers asked, “Is it realistic to think we’re going to change every single person in this industry?”
My answer was, “No, we’re not going to change every single person.”
What we are going to do is move the needle. The more we move the needle, the more we’ll get traction, then there will be more energy, then more people will emerge to help us, and so on.
You don’t have to know how the endgame will turn out to start moving the needle. The same principle applies to simple projects:
You don’t have to declutter your whole house; just start with one drawer.
Don’t think about losing 20 lbs; just start eating more vegetables.
Don’t try to be the perfect parent all the time; just be nicer at dinner.
Don’t get overwhelmed by thinking about having to sell 1,000 widgets; start by selling five.
Trying to tackle the whole big thing at once can feel overwhelming and prevent you from starting.
Instead, focus on moving the needle. Because when you move the needle it gives you the energy to do more.
You don’t accomplish big things overnight; you move the needle every day. Sometimes you get the big score and sometime you don’t. Whichever way it turns out moving the needle is always worth the effort.