Learning To Appreciate Incremental Progress

I am not patient.  When I want something to happen, whether it is something I want to learn, or something I want to change in society, I want it instantly.

To my credit, I do everything in my power to affect the changes I want to see.  If I want to learn a programming language, then I am watching tutorials on that language, doing exercises, reading books, from waking to sleep.  If I want to organize something in the community, I am constantly meeting people, finding common ground, and devoting the hours necessary to bring it about.  If I am writing, I wrestle with words and symbols all week until finally I’m able to drag some essay or poem or song from nothing to something.

Yet some things cannot be reached by merely charging until you are at the summit.  Some endeavors proceed slowly, glacially sliding toward progress over the days, weeks, years, decades, centuries.   Lining up the right time, the right place, the right people, sometimes cannot be rushed.

This sort of slow progress, while absolutely necessary, I have the hardest time with.  However I am coming around to appreciating the increments.  Two quotes have furthered this appreciation for me lately.

The first is from Linus Torvalds, creator of the GNU/Linux kernel:

“Nobody should start to undertake a large project. You start with a small trivial project, and you should never expect it to get large. If you do, you’ll just overdesign and generally think it is more important than it likely is at that stage.

Or worse, you might be scared away by the sheer size of the work you envision. So start small, and think about the details. Don’t think about some big picture and fancy design. If it doesn’t solve some fairly immediate need, it’s almost certainly over-designed.

And don’t expect people to jump in and help you. That’s not how these things work. You need to get something half-way useful first, and then others will say “hey, that almost works for me”, and they’ll get involved in the project.” (Linus Torvalds)

Torvalds is talking about programming, but I think the principle can be extrapolated to almost anything.  Start small, start on something concrete, don’t build a big intimidating sky castle before you have a realistic foundation.  Everything comes gradually, and trying to see the big picture before even taking a step is often counter-productive.

The next quote is from the environmental author Derrick Jensen:

“I’ve written more than 20 books. But the truth is that I haven’t written more than 20 books. Instead I’ve written a page or two every day, and it has added up to more than 20 books. My mom always tells me something her grandmother always said to her: Yard by yard life is hard; inch by inch life’s a cinch.

It’s extraordinary how much work you can get done if you just keep at it, and you actually do the work.” (Derrick Jensen)

When I meet people who have accomplished extraordinary things, whether it is writing a book, composing an album, building an amazing program, pushing some inspiring changes in political arenas, what often strikes me is how ordinary these people are.  They are often not more remarkable then many people I have met who have not done these things.

What seems to separate the ones who accomplish these amazing things is they slowly keep going toward whatever they are trying to do.  A page or two a day adds up over the years into twenty books.  A chord here and there turns into five albums.  Changing a mind or two adds up to systemic change for the good in a community.

I think a lot of us could accomplish similar things with whatever our visions and talents may be if we learned to appreciate incremental progress.


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