Today I’m going to clue you in on a concept crucial to success in all endeavours of life: baby steps. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase many times, it essentially means to take small, incremental steps in whatever you are doing. When we look at how skill is developed, this makes perfect sense. Rather than speaking of baby steps in relation to skill, however, I’m going to speak of it in relation to success and goal setting, so that you can apply it to your career, a business plan or any other goal you might have.
See, the thing about Western culture is that everything has to be big. Big goals, big dreams, big payoff. This belies the reality of the work that goes into anything. Watching a movie like The Social Network would make you think that Mark Zuckerberg just had (or stole, depending on your viewpoint) a really great idea, he spent a night coding and it went from there. The amount of work that would go into something like Facebook is mind boggling. No one just comes up with an idea that grows by itself. Even if it seems to just grow organically, it needs to be treated like a bonsai tree – for the tree to grow the way you want it to, you need a goal and constant, minor corrections to reach that goal.
In this case, constant, minor corrections are the baby steps. Let’s make it something more simple though. Let’s make it about health and fitness. The new year comes around, and millions of people realize they have to get in shape. So they spend a huge amount of money on a gym membership, they go at it all gung ho for the first day or two, and then because their body isn’t used to it they end up too sore to even walk properly or even worse, injured. The problem here is their goal is vague (ie get fit) and they have immediately tried to jump several steps on the first day. If your goal is to “get fit”, first define exactly what that means to you. If that means losing 10kgs, how are you going to map that out? Start by walking half an hour a day, if you spend most of the day chained to a desk at work. When that becomes a comfortable habit, turn that walk into a run. When that becomes comfortable, turn the run into sprints, or increase the distance, or try to maintain a faster pace.
The gym is a great example. I’m asked often by friends and colleagues “should I take protein shakes, should I try creatine, should I take testosterone boosters?”. I ask them what program they are on, they just look at me. I ask them what their diet is like, they shift uncomfortably and look at their feet. They don’t realise that if you want to build strength and muscle, it starts with going to the gym and lifting weights. But everyone wants to skip the steps. Guys will do a program for a few months and change, or will go and spend hundreds of dollars on supplements when they can’t even hit decent numbers in the main lifts. Look at Schwarzenegger at 14, 18 and in his 20s – you see the progression in his physique and size. It didn’t happen overnight, it was baby steps for him too.
As you can see from the above example, you are more likely to gain success by starting as small as possible, and then making incremental jumps. The first thing this does is set you up for success. The small goal is easy to succeed in, and success always feels good. This means you are more likely to maintain what you are doing on the next step, and the next.
Let’s go to another example. I have a friend who is very good at baking. She eventually wants to have her own store selling baked goods. Knowing how many people have tried and failed miserably at such an endeavour, I started asking her tough questions and offering helpful suggestions in how she could get there taking baby steps. Imagine being good at baking, and then going straight to buying a shop – you would be absolutely overwhelmed. You’d know nothing about owning and running a business, you probably wouldn’t even know all the things you needed in the shop to do your job properly in the beginning. This is a prime example of where baby steps are so important to success. Here is a list I gave her:
- Since you like bringing in baked goods to work, start experimenting. Use people as guinea pigs and get feedback on what they like and what they don’t. Find out exactly why they do or don’t like it.
- Open a stall at a market. Now that you’ve been experimenting a while, start with your best sellers from work.
- After each day at the market, analyse your costs vs your takings. Work out how you can keep your costs down and maximize your profit. Also look at your equipment – is it helping you do your job well enough? If you bought a bigger oven, for example, how would that help with your volume, and how long would it take to pay off?
- Once you are running things well at the market, maybe look at renting a really small shopfront. No equipment except what you need to display what you’re selling. This will introduce you to paying rent, electricity and so on. It will also help you to work out if it’s economically viable to run your own bakery out of a fully equipped shop.
- Only at this point, if everything has gone well, should you consider opening up your own bakery.
I also gave her advice which can be summed up from this very simple sentence which I took from The Primal Connection (which actually shows the universality of the principle): “there is no failure, only feedback”. When you take giant leaps, things tend to fall apart and fall apart in a huge way. So many things go wrong at once that you have no idea exactly what it was and you cannot fix it. However, when you take baby steps as I outlined in the plan above, there is no catastrophe when things don’t turn out well. There is no failure. You are making small investments in time and money, so if things don’t work out, it isn’t a case of losing so much you have to stop. In addition, the fact that you are taking small steps means that if things don’t go to plan, you can work out exactly why, and modify accordingly.
So with whatever endeavour you are looking at, be it your career, your health, or perhaps a hobby, first find a long term goal. Work out what you have to do to get to that goal. Then, map out the smallest steps possible you need to take to make it there. Don’t fudge it and try to skip steps, that will almost certainly lead to problems. Learn to take those baby steps towards what you want, and you will find success.