I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how small improvements can compound into big positive changes. Continuous improvement, also known as Kaizen in Japanese business philosophy, is the practice of constantly seeking small, incremental changes in processes to improve efficiency and quality. It is based on the belief that small, consistent changes can lead to major improvements over time.
Similarly, in our personal lives, small steps of change, seemingly insignificant on their own, can accumulate over time and result in substantial progress and growth. In this context, the principle of continuous improvement suggests that we do not need to make large, overwhelming changes to see improvement. Instead, it’s the consistent, small changes that, when compounded over time, can lead to substantial progress.
More darkly, it works the opposite way as well. Small amounts of neglect, can eventually compound and completely swallow up a human being, and turn them into something unrecognisable. Consider the cruel path to homelessness. It usually starts with something as small as missing a couple of bills, which leads to debt, relationship problems, eviction, and ultimately the streets. Drug addiction often begins with a simple experiment or a momentary escape from reality, gradually leading to dependency and, in many instances, a life ruined. Alcohol abuse can begin with a single drink to unwind, becoming a daily ritual, which then spirals into addiction, possibly resulting in destroyed relationships and compromised health. Similarly, a seemingly insignificant feeling of sadness or disinterest can, over time, develop into chronic depression, potentially leading to self-harm or even suicide.
Each of these tragic trajectories often begins with a small, unaddressed issue that compounds over time, evolving into a life-altering crisis. It’s like a quiet corrosion, its damage not immediately noticeable but, over time, it can degrade the very structure of our lives. Left unchecked, these seemingly inconsequential choices can compound, leading us down a path of deterioration.
That said, continuous positive improvements over long periods of time can also create some of the finest examples in history.
Let’s consider Albert Einstein, known worldwide as one of the most brilliant minds in history. Interestingly, he was not always seen as such. He was born in 1879 in Ulm, in the Kingdom of Württemberg in the German Empire. As a child, he didn’t start speaking until he was around three years old, leading his parents to initially fear that he was developmentally delayed. This, of course, was not the case.
Einstein was indeed different, but not in a deficient way. Rather, his mind was constantly at work, questioning and exploring the world around him. His curiosity led him to start teaching himself calculus at the tender age of twelve. He was not satisfied with the standard rote learning methods employed by his school and preferred to study on his own.
Despite his obvious intelligence, Einstein did not fare well in the regimented school system, and his rebellious nature led to clashes with his teachers. His less than stellar academic performance resulted in a denial of his application to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich at the age of 16.
Despite this setback, Einstein did not give up. Instead, he took it as an opportunity to further his self-study. He continued to pursue his education, eventually gaining admission to the Polytechnic Institute after an additional year of preparation.
His time at the Polytechnic Institute was characterised by independent learning and questioning, often challenging the standard theories and approaches of the time. This self-guided exploration helped him to develop the groundwork for his later theories.
Upon graduation, Einstein faced another round of adversity. His professors did not think highly of him due to his nonconformist attitude, which made it difficult for him to secure a recommendation for a university teaching position. Instead, he ended up working at the Swiss Patent Office, reviewing patent applications.
Many would view a job like this as mundane, far removed from the academic dream Einstein had. However, Einstein turned this situation into an opportunity. He treated each patent application as a puzzle, a mental exercise that allowed him to further hone his logical reasoning skills.
Furthermore, working at the patent office provided Einstein with a stable income and sufficient free time to continue his scientific research independently. In 1905, he published four groundbreaking papers, on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of mass and energy, which forever changed the field of physics. These were written in his spare time while working at the patent office.
Einstein’s story is a testament to the power of continuous improvement and lifelong learning. Despite the obstacles he encountered, he never ceased questioning, exploring, and learning. He turned every setback into an opportunity for growth. His journey shows us that even the most humble of circumstances can be the foundation for incredible achievements, and that our potential for growth and improvement is only limited by our willingness to pursue it.
So to do big things, we have to be able to do small things. In fact, we can probably only do small things. You can’t write a book, but you can write a sentence. You can’t learn “the piano”, but you can practice a specific movement or a set of scales or arpeggios.
And so we cannot simply become the person that we think we can be. That jump is too big, because we are ambitious. We can imagine what we could be if we did everything we know that is right, and if everything went our way. But this ideal version of ourselves is problematic, is stops us from seeing the self evident: We must start small.
Look around, there are plenty of little things that you can change. Ask yourself, am I able to change that? Would I want to change that? Will I? Give it a try. Pick something truly easy, that perhaps takes no longer than five minutes. It might be sorting the bookmarks on your browser. If that seems like a chore, then perhaps just sort out the bookmarks in one folder of your bookmarks.
The point of this is to just get something done. Do realise that we can affect our environment, that we can fight entropy. That we can make that 0.01% improvement. And in our minds, we can then celebrate this little success.
Yes, it does feel absurd. Are we really that pathetic that we need to start this small? Well, if you don’t have your life in order, if you’re not yet at the ideal image of yourself, then most likely yes!
But, if you take 100 small things that you could fix, and you do fix them, you’ll already start to see a huge difference in your life. People often think that the routine things in life don’t matter. Actually, they are by far the most important things in our life. We just have to run the maths — it’s then blindingly obvious!
And so we tidy up our rooms, we sort out our closet, we clean behind the desk. Now we’re ready to chew on some bigger things. What’s next? Well, perhaps you’re a student or you’re working. What can you do there? Pick anything, improve it by a fraction of a percent each week, and wait.
Compounding will then take care of the rest.
After all, our lives are but a series of moments, a string of decisions, a symphony composed of small notes that build to a crescendo. When we look back, we don’t see years, we see moments. We remember the steps we took, the turns we made, and the seeds we planted — small changes that, given time, turned into grand transformations.
Consider, if you will, the acorn seed — small and unassuming. Yet, when planted and nurtured, it grows into a mighty oak, a shelter for countless creatures and a testament to the power of small beginnings.
Every action we take is a seed planted, every decision a step towards growth. You tidy up your room, and it’s a seed of discipline. You clean behind your desk, and it’s a seed of organization. You sort out your closet, and it’s a seed of mindfulness.
These seeds, when watered with consistency and patience, grow into habits, and those habits form the tree of our character.