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Small Things Matter


We were racing around the island on the final day of the program. We won the start, were first to the windward mark, and never made any tactical or strategic errors. Nevertheless, two boats passed us, pushing us into third. In our post-race debrief the helmsman asked what happened. I paused before sharing my most profound comment of the year, then said “We spent too much time going slow.”

You see, when the puffs hit, the boat would round up, luffing the sails. The new driver responded sluggishly, slowing the boat slightly, and costing us a few feet on our position with each puff. The lost distance wasn’t even enough to see, but over the dozens of puffs during the race, it added up to set us back two places at the finish.

It was an example in which small things mattered, and it wasn’t unique. Glance at the column of numbers to the left. Quickly, and without doing the calculation, what do you guess is their sum?

The raindrop doesn't blame itself for the flood. – Douglas Adams

The answer is three thousand. If you guessed less than that, you’re not alone. Our brains aren’t very good at accumulating the contributions of many small items. This is why we can often be surprised when we get our credit card bills at the end of the month. The numbers add up quickly. It is another example in which small things matter.

Compound interest is also an example where small things matter. You have probably seen the charts where a 10% return on a $100 monthly retirement contribution adds up to nearly half a million dollars in a 40-year working career. Small things do matter.

Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. – Albert Einstein

What is less obvious, is how small choices in our behavior matter. A few years ago, I spent time as the deckhand on a private ferry. I determined in my first week to learn the names of the passengers and to greet them by name when they boarded the boat at 5:30 in the morning. That was it. When I left the position six months later, there was a huge outpouring from the passengers, and two of them told me that me saying good morning to them was the best part of their day. It doesn’t take much to make a difference. Small things do matter.

Most of us aren’t defeated in one decisive battle; we are defeated one tiny, seemingly insignificant surrender at a time that chips away at who we really should be. That’s how we lose. – Jocko Willink

The converse is also true. When we fail to follow through on our word, miss appointments, or are late, it lowers people’s expectations of our future performance, and reduces the opportunities that are presented to us. We don’t see how much harm we are doing to ourselves, so our behavior doesn’t change. But over time the cost is huge. These small things DO matter.