April 11, 2017 • 10 minute read • by Saeed
“Little strokes fell great oaks.” –Benjamin Franklin
Life (insert success, innovation, change etc.) is not a moon shot. There are no silver bullets, overnight success stories, lottery bonanzas, and sudden epiphanies that lead to big bang solutions. You can’t leap frog your way into the CEO chair. You can’t just quit the job you hate to be your own boss tomorrow.
Does it ever happen? Yes, of course it does. But those are the one-offs. The aberrations. The deviations from the norm. Look beyond the gloss and the hype and you’ll discover that most overnight success stories were years in the making. If you want to be an overnight success, you have to be an everyday hustler.
In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell famously posited that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become world-class in any field. That’s about 10 years to you and me. Deliberate practice, in turn, requires patience and above all self-discipline. It is not a lack of luck but a lack of self-discipline that makes success elusive for so many.
To make matters worse, stress and chronic dissatisfaction with jobs (insert relationships, finances, fitness etc.) become the flames of urgency that stoke your false belief that everything has to happen right now. With no concrete goal or system in place to move the ball forward, you are left frustrated and unhappy.
I’ve obsessed over and studied the back stories of hundreds of successful people. Here’s the deeper insight into how they level up that almost no one talks about: success is about doing the work. It is about action and action is about implementation, follow-through, and completion. You get there, not in one giant leap of faith, but in one small step at a time. That is the difference between winning and losing.
Success is about inches not yards
In the movie Any Given Sunday, a once-great (American) football team that is now plagued with injuries and internal dissension, is struggling to make the playoffs. The coach, played by Al Pacino, has to give a speech (must watch) to his players that will motivate them to put aside their differences and work together as a team.
Pacino starts with expressing that he is overwhelmed by the situation. At first, he appears a broken man similar to his players. Then, he changes gradually to a sage who offers words of profound wisdom and a solution for how to win in life and in the game.
“You know when you get old in life things get taken from you.
That’s, that’s part of life.
But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff.
You find out that life is just a game of inches.
So is football.
Because in either game life or football the margin for error is so small.
I mean one half step too late or to early you don’t quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in ever break of the game
every minute, every second.”
Winston Churchill said that a speech is poetry without form or rhyme. This is one of the greatest inspirational speeches ever captured on celluloid. It is regularly used in courses about public speaking, rhetoric, coaching, and teamwork. Even if you don’t like American football, you will love this speech because it’s really about life. It is about how you execute on a plan. How you reach a goal. It is about how life battles aren’t won with a huge step or a big achievement. It is about how you progress and continually improve “inch by inch” with small steps and tasks done with full effort.
Kaizen – Cultivating a mindset of discipline
One approach to continuous and incremental improvement originated in Japan and is called kaizen. The word translates to mean change (kai) for the good (zen). Kaizen is more philosophy than tool, more mindset than mechanism. It is responsible for the success of lean Japanese manufacturing but you can gain the benefits of kaisen at the personal, team, and organizational level. Much of the focus of kaisen is on reducing waste while increasing efficiency. The genius of kaizen is that it recognizes that improvement is not a destination, it is a process. It is a 4-step circular process usually executed in a systematic manner with some variation of these elements: assess, plan, implement and evaluate (another version is plan, do, check, act).
Kaizen is about instilling discipline where previously there was none. It’s about showing up and doing the work in a systematic manner, one step, one hour, one task, and one improvement at a time. Like sunlight through a magnifying glass, laser focused discipline applied in a systematic manner towards an objective or a goal has magical power.
All achievement follows deliberate and disciplined action.
Kaizen strives to even out the uneven nature of improvement. It is an antidote to the adrenaline fueled panic that you get when you realize your life is passing you by, your business is failing, or your team is falling apart. It is the counterbalance to those moments where you decide that you are going to tackle xyz once and for all, forever and for good only to have your fiery ambition extinguished within a matter of days or at the first setback you experience.
Focusing on big goals far into the distant future may inspire awe and wonderment at first. It may even give you a boost of motivation. But inevitably it leads to stupefaction, paralysis and inaction. Motivation is easy to find but hard to maintain. You’ll soon start looking for shortcuts and excuses for why you can’t make it to the gym or start that new blog or fill in the blank. To find success, you have to find a permanent way to get off that rollercoaster. You have to embrace the philosophy of small, gradual, incremental, and disciplined continuous improvement. The path to change is through sustained action. By breaking down big, audacious goals into small, discrete tasks, kaizen encourages that action. Live for the small wins rather than the big windfalls.
As Pacino says:
“If I am going to have any life anymore, it is because I am still willing to fight and die for that inch. Because that’s what LIVING is. The six inches in front of your face.”