Is the small stuff important?

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

Young people will often hear conflicting advice about whether the ‘small stuff’ is important. As a schoolboy, for example, I was encouraged to think about the ‘big picture’. But I also recall being told I should focus on the ‘day to day’ and ‘not get too carried away’ with the larger elements beyond my immediate control. This applied to everything from personal finance tips like saving through to advice on how to advance professionally.

Without approaching these two bits of advice with some experience, however, they can be intensely confusing. What is the ‘small stuff’? We usually take it to mean the tiny inconsequential matters chewing up our time at the expense of focusing on big deliverables. The financial advice guru Ramit Sethi provides a great example about sweating the small things when trying to save money:

It’s easy to talk about cutting back on lattes, disabling the oven light to save $0.03 over 2 years, and never ordering appetizers. Great! You’ll save $11,000 in 30 years and hate yourself every day of your life.

None of us wants to live like a penny pincher. Do you really want to know how to make your own laundry detergent and save $0.32/year? Who wants to live like that?

It’s much easier, he says, investing early, focusing on getting a dream job, starting a side business or optimising your credit. In other words moving away from the ‘small stuff’ and focusing on ‘big wins’.

Young Australians will hear a similar philosophy in the professional arena. ‘Don’t get beaten down by the minutiae of the day-to-day life’. ‘Get used to imperfection’. And, as the title of the late Richard Carlson’s bestseller suggests, ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’.

Indeed, there’s a great deal of benefit in thinking this way. But I’ve also found that the day to day also matters a great deal. I can recall a few times, in fact, when ‘not sweating the small stuff’ put me in a bit of bother and led to lousy outcomes.

First, I thought such advice meant being careless about minor details. When writing assignments or other professional documents (cover letters, briefs etc) I thought that a mistake here or a mistake there wasn’t worth much – the big picture took precedence over the seemingly minor. That was until poor grades and red marks came back all over my work.

In another example, when working for the United Nations (UN), I remember not doing a small piece of work in the lead up to a regional policy workshop. It’s not that the task didn’t come up – I thought about it regularly. But I carelessly left it alone. My supervisor, as you can imagine, wasn’t impressed.

Clearly, as these examples show, I was incorrectly interpreting the small stuff. These tasks, although seemingly minor, were actually incredibly important in the wider scheme of things. I’ve discovered that this comes from understanding where both big and small things matter. By thinking with the end in mind, for example, or understanding where my efforts properly fitted into the wider picture, I could now see where the small pieces of the puzzle became critical.

The professional term for this is called ‘strategic thinking’ and, as one manager explained to me, it’s what it takes to start emerging upward in the workplace. Knowing where your efforts fit in requires the right balance of vision and, ultimately, plain old experience. Had I gone through school or university again I would’ve sweated small details like my assignments or the written work I was given. And, when confronted by even a small amount of responsibility, like organising that UN workshop, I would’ve gone at it harder and not let anyone down. ‘If you can’t be trusted with small matters,’ asks US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, ‘how can you be trusted with important ones?’

And you don’t have to wait for such learning experiences to come to you. If you want to know what’s down the road, as the saying goes, ask the person who’s coming back. Enlist your supervisors, mentors and others around you to help canvas the bigger picture. You can even learn a great deal from people who do the wrong thing. This will make it much clearer on where you can add value and enrich your contribution. It’ll also make even mundane tasks tolerable and help you move up the ladder. Both the big and the small stuff matter.