In Which I Talk About “Little Things” and Mimic a Bad Evangelical Speaker

Sometimes I want to write and see immediate change. Type in “better microwave” and all of a sudden the microwave has more cooking power. Or scribble something in my journal about that red-haired girl and actually have a date Valentine’s Day.

I got up this morning thinking that I have to learn to take “getting there” in stride, that I have to enjoy not being there yet. It isn’t just that plenty of people get successful and have no idea what to do with themselves. There’s something deeper about the myriad injustices you don’t see because you’re in a position of relative success. From my vantage point, I see a million and one failures and problems. I’m hardly cynical. Each of them could be remedied or alleviated and give some slight advantage or happiness to someone that wasn’t available before. One doesn’t need to tackle an entire system’s corruption all at once. A lot of good can be had through really little things that seem really stupid.

It sounds like hippie nonsense, I know. I don’t even know my younger self would laugh at me, because this might be a naivete I’ve had all along. At the same time, it occurred to me that one criterion for when you know everything is busted is actually the stupid little things.

This is very counterintuitive. Don’t get me wrong, the big things do matter: if there’s no difference between a president and a tyrant, then yes, there are repercussions that affect everyone whether they like it or not. And yes, there are certain markets – for example, for lawyers and academics – where the possibilities of getting long-term success are so remote that one might as well give up before trying.

And yet, that’s why the little things matter so much. The big things matter, but they’re never guaranteed. The greats fail far more than they succeed. What keeps them going? We’ve got all these business gurus focusing on what an individual can do to keep going and maximize the possibility of success.

But anything worth doing – especially when one has to change the rules the game is played with – requires those “little things,” the times people show trust and attention and hope in whatever it is you’re trying to do. Those times people show a willingness to change or bend a rule or disagree with some norm, those times they want to invest.

What stunned me when thinking through the issue is how we have an individualism that doesn’t at all complement how enterprise or activism actually work. We want to do things and that requires us to be far more social than we are, perhaps far more involved with each other. It requires a tremendous amount of giving support and believing that each of us makes the world better. Yet we’ve got a bunch of notions from “leave me alone” to “look at that CEO. He used the money he made from cutting all those workers to get his son into Yale. Good for him!” that just don’t fit. I don’t think this is because we have such a debased notion of individual freedom: we do need to be left alone at times, we do need to do some things that are obviously advantageous for us. I think it’s mainly because we want success so badly that we want to feel it in every little thing we do. Unfortunately, that leads to forgetting what success really looks like.

1 Comment

  1. “I think it’s mainly because we want success so badly that we want to feel it in every little thing we do. Unfortunately, that leads to forgetting what success really looks like.” – truth. Learning to enjoy the process and not “being” there is not an easy thing to do.

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