The Secret Courage of Small Changes

The Secret Courage of Small Changes

When you think of having the courage to make a difference, what comes to mind? Tackling an intractable problem, investing sleepless nights in a rush towards your goal, maybe making the impossible happen at the moment suprême? Or do you think of encouraging incremental changes, establishing new routines, and working diligently to nudge people in the right direction? There is a good chance you would think of the former and not of the latter.

Perhaps taking a page from the superhero mythos of childhood stories, we tend to associate large efforts with bravery. This is one reason why we fête the executive who proclaims they will transform the business, smash their unrealistic profit target, or "change the way people do [insert activity here]." Do not get me wrong, this variety of grandstanding has its place and I have surely employed it from time to time – but is this really what matters?

Sure, this is a bit scary, but I the rush is totally worth it. Like wow. Photo by Maja Kochanowska.

Courage means facing down your fears. Yes, jumping on stage and giving a presentation to a large audience can be courageous, as can having the nerve to take on a daunting challenge. However, often the lure of popular acclaim or the adrenaline rush of a scary obstacle are enough of a reward to overcome any initial trepidation. It is in the situations where these types of instant feedback loops are absent and failure is an option that courage is called for.

These "small" efforts are often the ones critical to long-term achievements.

I have noticed this with ecommerce. While success is on occasion linked to monolithic initiatives, the lion's share of progress is driven by thousands of minor changes. Altering the wording on a button here, tweaking a bidding strategy there: like pennies accruing in a bank account these benefits compound until new levels of performance are reached. Sadly, some people are hesitant to pursue such an approach, uncertain about the payoff.

Straying into cliched territory here, it is worth noting that the Tao Te Ching observes that "a journey of a thousand li (500km) starts beneath one's feet." They could have written that a hero's journey started with being launched by a trebuchet – the Chinese had those in that era – but instead they focused on the most mundane aspect of any adventure: the first step. Not knowing if you will succeed is scary. Small steps can take more courage than big ones.

Not particularly exciting. Not particularly special. Still, pretty brave. Photo by Jeremy Bishop.

The Paralympics are a good example. You can train for years and not end up on the podium, or even be selected. What is more courageous, winning a road cycling medal or training day after day, despite the uncertain outcome? Often we get distracted by the ultimate spectacle and we forget to focus on the initiatives that yield  incremental changes – but are critical in the long run. Efforts promoting sustainability or fighting climate fall within this bracket.

Perhaps it is time we reorient our ideas of bravery. Instead of only cheering on the big changes, let us recognise the courage of those tackling the thorniest of challenges with the most incremental of steps. We need to do more to celebrate those who forego the spotlight to focus on the meaningful work behind the scenes. If we acknowledge that paradoxically the big changes are sometimes the easiest, perhaps we will discover more heroes around us.

– Ryan