I take my employees to lunch on (or around) their birthdays every year. It’s a simple thing, but it’s an intentional opportunity to get to know each of them better, one-on-one. The conversations vary, but there is one question I always make time for.
Last month, I took a Sparkboxer to lunch, and while enjoying the Italian Grilled Cheese and Tomato Bisque from Coco’s here in Dayton, I asked my question: “Do you have any advice for me?” Without blinking an eye, he looked at me and said, “Life is about the little things.”
I paused. Usually, people share ideas focused on Sparkbox—our culture, the benefits we offer, the kind of work we’re seeking out. But this guy was giving me advice. He threw me for a loop. My mind went immediately to sorting out the difference between the little things and the not-little things. But clearly he had been thinking about this, so I just asked: “What are little things?”
What he said next has stuck with me. I’m going to paraphrase my best here…
Everyone wants to change the world. If you’re only focused on changing the world, you miss out on so many opportunities to impact the people you care most about—the people immediately around you. I think the world would be a much better place if we just focused on how we can make a difference where we are, today, in this moment. —Josiah Stroh
I’m a big-picture person. The way my brain works is almost exactly the opposite of the advice I had just received. I’m always thinking about changing the world. I’m always trying to better understand why I’m here, why Sparkbox is here, and how we can better live up to our potential. I want us to make a difference—a big one. “To inspire and empower a better web.”
That’s what we’re trying to accomplish. So, the idea that I needed to stop focusing so much on the big stuff and start taking the little opportunities before me made me stop and think.
It made me think about a previous job where I didn’t really believe in the mission of the company. It was tough for me to even go to work because my personal values were genuinely not in line with the place I worked.
It made me think about the people I employ at Sparkbox: as I write this, 41 individuals, all with a burning desire to help create a better web. But not every project will give us the opportunity to do that in the way that seems best—sometimes the perfect solution is not the right solution for that client at that time.
It made me think about all the times I’ve been so eager to teach that I’ve failed to learn. For some reason, we associate “making an impact” with doing instead of being. Sometimes the way to make an impact is to stop doing. Shut up and listen; learn something. It’s a little thing for most of us, but putting yourself in learning mode means you see others as teachers. There are too many people on the fringe of our industry with so much to offer. And we tell them to stay on the fringe one small encounter at a time by refusing to learn from them. How many of those opportunities have I missed by assuming I was the teacher?
Imagine what would happen if we approached each other in this way. Imagine if, instead of trying to demonstrate how smart we are each time we meet someone new, we genuinely tried to learn from them. Think about how much more welcoming meetups would be if you asked more questions than you answered. And think about how much better our products would be if we invited those people we’ve kept on the fringe into the process—if we asked for their opinion and expertise and actually listened.
This little thing—staying in “learning mode”—could completely change the dynamic of our industry. If enough people made the decision in the moment to be instead of do, to learn instead of teach. It’s such a little thing, but life is about the little things. And the little things add up.
Here’s where I am. If we are going to make a big impact, it has to happen in the little things. Sure, we need that big thinking to align with our direction. But the real work happens in a Slack thread with a new employee. It happens in an email to a customer, or in the way we word a code review. It happens in the language we use to greet a new attendee at the monthly meetup. The impact is made by thousands and thousands of little decisions, each one taking us a fraction closer to the bigger vision. In the moment, it’s so easy to feel that we’ve failed or that we’re not making progress. But if we step back and look at where we’ve been, we suddenly see that we’re closer to that vision than we were before.
The next time I find myself feeling like I’m not making a difference, I’m going to pause for a moment. I’m going to try to remember that the big things are really made up of a bunch of little things. And I’m going to choose to do one little thing in that moment, even if that means shutting up and listening.