Small Steps Lead to Giant Leaps

To create implies some kind of active effort. Creating means, literally, to create something. We are all struck by fabulous ideas from time to time—or maybe all the time, but if you don’t convert the ideas into something physical or concrete, you aren’t really being creative. Good intentions aren’t enough. You simply aren’t creating before you actually do.

Sometimes the challenge in creating is not that there’s a lack of ideas, but rather that our heads are so filled with ideas that we can’t quite figure out how to make the first move. Our mind doesn’t mind (excuse the pun) coming up with ideas. But it plays tricks with us when it comes to translate the ideas into action. There is a fear of failure in the equation, but also, strangely enough, a fear of success. More so, just the amount of work we believe is needed can pull us off.

We find all kinds of excuses for not doing the actual work. We insist that we need to answer all the incoming emails first or clear our desk, or convince ourselves that we need to gather more information before proceeding. But in the end, the best way to create something is simply to start. And there is no need to take a flying leap. Tiny steps are OK.

Some time ago, I lost a chapter in a book about Cuba I am working on. It was all due to lack of a backup when I deleted a file I thought was a copy (but wasn’t). The thought of having to rewrite the chapter was overwhelming, but I got around the obstacle but telling myself that I only needed to write one paragraph—or even just one sentence if necessary to get me going—at any given time. This morning I finished the rewrite, and I think the second draft is actually better than the first.

Researcher and writer Loretta Graziano Brenning says in her book Meet Your Happy Chemicals that “you don’t have to finish a job in one fell swoop, you can also chop it up into smaller pieces. One advantage is that each time you finish a piece you will be rewarded by a dose of dopamine. Each step you complete feels like a triumph and will trigger this pleasure hormone.”

Those first few strokes of the brush on a canvas, or the first few sentences in a chapter, can be the hardest, but once you commit to making them, the next stroke will be easier. With writing, it’s typing or scrawling the first word, then another, then another.

All beginnings are difficult. Why is it so hard to take the first step? According to Robert Maurer, professor of psychology, it has to do with fear. When you take on a challenge—large or small—it means you have to leave behind your safe routines. Even more so with a creative endeavour. When you create you commence on something completely new, a route you have no idea where it will take you.

That which hinders us is very physical. The amygdale in your brain (which likes clarity, tranquillity, and predictability) sets off an alarm, which, to you, feels like a block. Maurer says you can get around this by taking small steps: “Setting yourself goals that are easy to reach, like meditating five minutes each day, or clearing only one of the stacks on your desk, allows you to sneak by your amygdale on tippy toes so that it doesn’t set off an alarm.”

Little steps lower the threshold to starting something new but there is also another advantage: You can do them even when you only have little time. There are plenty of scientific studies proving that little steps can lead to big leaps. Such as a sentence or paragraph at a time can lead to chapter or even a book.

Maurer says taking small steps builds new familiar neural pathways: “You will soon start feeling less resistance to your new resolutions and it will take barely any effort. What’s more it’s quite likely that your brain will start longing for new behaviour, whether it’s regular physical exercise, ten minutes of meditation, or standing up for yourself… It won’t feel like a challenge anymore but like part of your daily routine.

So what about making your creative efforts into a daily routine? You can do it.

On a different note, but nevertheless related, this year I am teaching five photo workshops. If you are into photography, nothing gets you going like attending a workshop. This year I will teach workshops in Norway, Cuba, Prague, Bolivia and Nicaragua. If this sounds interesting you can find more information here: Scheduled Photo Workshops in 2023.

Would you like to get motivating thoughts related to the act of photographing? Every once a month I write Sideways—nuggets of inspiration on photography. Sign up to receive Sideways in your email.


16 thoughts on “Small Steps Lead to Giant Leaps

    1. That’s right. There’s also a great quotation from Woody Allen: “The longest journey begins with a single step, but the best journeys begin with a moment of temporary insanity.”

  1. I enjoyed this, Otto: partly because I was nodding in recognition as I read along. Several of the points you make here are lessons I’ve learned, and it’s good to be reminded of them.

  2. Sometimes that first step is like jumping off a cliff into a pool – even if it’s not a very high cliff. Guess that’s why Nike came up with the slogan, Just Do It!

  3. Excellent post, Otto. Sometimes it feels like there is a dam holding back all the creative thoughts a person can have, and all it takes is one small trickle before a flood of ideas turns into action. But until that moment happens, the pressure builds ~ hopefully, the dam will burst with creativity, leaving beautiful things behind, like the piece of driftwood in your post. I hope you are well, take care ~

    1. That is a good description and analogue for how the creative process often feels. Then we can only hope the dam will burst, as you write. All well, thank you, Randall. I hope likewise.

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