From Little Things Big Things Grow: The First Step to Impact Is Always the Small Act

From Little Things Big Things Grow: The First Step to Impact Is Always the Small Act

Create November 19, 2020 / By Larry Robertson
From Little Things Big Things Grow: The First Step to Impact Is Always the Small Act

In the face of great change, it's the simplest acts that fuel creative thought, adaptation, and the progress we seek.

There is no debate. A pandemic is a daunting thing. If asked, each of us could quickly and easily make a list of reasons why. Chances are however, that two contributing characteristics wouldn’t appear on our list, though they deserve to be right at the top. The first, is that no matter what specific impacts this pandemic brings, in total it is new. It’s not just new in a passing way, or new at the edges. It is new in the rawest, fullest form of new, the kind that ‘breaks through’ what we know and who we are, in ways that forever reshape us and the landscape around us. Second, such extreme newness inevitably means change. Change of any sort can be challenging. This kind of change is more so. What we are experiencing right now is a change in change itself—from conventional change to complex, and from localized change to interwoven and rippling change. That’s what makes it daunting. Change and newness ought to top our lists, but they shouldn’t stop us.

If there is anything that truly distinguishes humans, it’s that we are evolved not just to handle newness and change, but to turn them to our advantage. It’s true, some are more practiced at this than others, making them only seem more equipped. But the ability to create new and harness change exists within every one of us. Beyond a lack of practice in using our shared capacity for creative thought and adaptation, we often mute that capacity’s potency to help us by our tendency to want to rush through change and new, in particular by swinging for the fences in our search for answers for how to deal with the formidable in one fell swoop. In facing a pandemic, that means honing in on thoughts of vaccines, or greater still, of full recovery and renewal of ourselves, our work, and our communities. These ‘ends,’ these ideals, areattractive. We want them, and eventually we will arrive at them. But pause for a moment and you’ll see that we never begin at such places. We begin with simpler steps… ones closer to now and to this moment… ones seemingly unrelated to some far away goal and moment yet to come... steps like displaying a photograph.

“A photograph?” Like the cognitive dissonance that’s been a side effect of this contagion, your brain might be saying, perhaps even incredulously, “How on earth can a photograph end a pandemic?!” It can’t. But that’s not the point, nor the power. The power is in the simple act of starting simply, but most of all, starting. Let me remind you…

In a hospital overwhelmed by the pandemic, as nearly every hospital is these days, doctors and nurses frenetically trying to fight the monster among us paused long enough to engaged in a simple act: They began wearing 8x10 photographs of themselves on lanyards around their necks. It was just a photo—something requiring less than a second to take, perhaps a minute to print, and a no time to rig up in a plastic sleeve attached to a string around the neck. Yet think of the act’s resonance.

To protect themselves from the disease, the medical personnel had collectively adopted a uniform more common to a hazmat cleanup site than a hospital ward in calmer times. Head to toe they were hidden, and from more than from the virus. Shoe booties, melded into full bodysuits and gloves, which in turn were topped off by head hoods, face masks, and for good measure, plexiglass face shields. It left them all safer, but virtually indistinguishable from one another. Until the photographs. In a single small act and from what amounted to no more than a colored sheet of paper, emerged a man in his 40s with a broad smile and casual attire. He now stood where a masked physician once had. Close by were the curly locks of a nurse, whose sunny face could now be seen, making her eyes, barely visible underneath the glare of the shield, somehow brighter and less exhausted.

The photos could not replace the sight and the touch of family members banned from visiting their hospitalized relatives. They were not a cure for what physically ailed the person in bed and connected to a ventilator either. Yet, meager as they may have seemed, they were the necessary beginning. They were the kind of act that leads to such things. In this instance, a photograph transformed into a shot of humanity injected into the room, a window of hope, one that said to the patient, ‘there is a moment beyond this one, and we’re here to journey with you.’ These are the kind of small beginnings that accumulate into the true breakthroughs we seek and celebrate.

In less feverish times, when we proactively create, we purposefully seek disruption, change, breakthroughs, and the new. As we do, we develop skills and understanding, including: the skill of taking the first step, the knowledge of the power inherent in a small act, and the wisdom to know that any breakthrough is always an accumulation of small acts, ones co-created by the many, rather than the few. What we miss sometimes, however, is that those skills are transferable to any new landscape and any form of change. Let a ten-year-old girl indelibly remind of this.

Recently, a friend of a friend’s daughter wrote a letter to her school district’s superintendent when her daily recreation at school—in other words, how she had always been allowed to interact, to play, and to think and be—was suddenly removed. When a substitute teacher took over her class for a week, a new mandate was laid down: only the boys could play football. The girls, including many who had long been playing football with the boys, were unexpectedly relegated to kickball as their only option, and then insultingly treated as if they didn’t know the rules of a game they’d played all their young lives. In a word, the girls were suddenly treated differently, unequally. It was new. It was change. And she didn’t like it. By the time she wrote the letter, the old and equal ways had been restored, but the feeling of “being treated as if we were stupid and not good enough” had not. “I do not want girls to be treated differently in my school,” she wrote, “that is why I am writing you this letter.” A small act in the grand scheme of school district policies, teacher training, and gender equality at large, but one with potency. My friend, a revered journalist and author, retold this story to her thousands of followers on social media. I now share it with you. From little things, big things grow.

Every day we see this simple lesson around us—dozens of small acts, often in forms far from their end goals, but vitally important nonetheless. We see their accumulations as well. It’s true of course that 30 NFL football end zones lined with the words “Fight Racism,” and streets painted with words “Black Lives Matter,” are not in and of themselves going to turn the tide of how we look at diversity and inclusion, any more than a photograph around someone’s neck will cure a disease. Still such acts matter, they ripple, and they remind us that our creative capacities run deeper and extend further than we tend to think. The future is closer than you sense, all you need do is act.

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