Yeah, I Said It – Think Small

Think small.

Who says that, right? (Aside from the lauded Volkswagen Beetle ad campaign of the 1950s, but I digress).

Lately it keeps popping up on my radar, this idea that thinking big – too big – can sometimes stop us from doing anything at all. Often progress, from personal to global, is simply about small shifts in thinking or small-scale ideas.

Last week I was crossing the main street in my town when I heard someone call my name from a car stopped at the traffic light. Much to my delight, it was two friends who used to live here but had moved to Denver a few years ago. I smiled and waved and continued on to my destination – a café a block down.

Suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps their toddler son, whom I’d never met, was with them and I quickly got out my phone and dialed. As it turns out, they were heading out for a burger just a few blocks away and asked me to join them. My default was “no” because the little busy meter went off in my head ticking off all the things I had to do. Tasking mode ruled the moment.

And then almost as instantly there was a jolt of alternate -- sane? -- thought. How often do these wonderful people from Denver visit? Stop, breathe, be in the moment. I joined them, met their adorable son, and was thrilled to connect.

To put some context around this, think about what it’s like for someone who has the issue of rigidity in her life. Now ponder the idea of deciding that one day all of that will change in one fell swoop. That’s big, daunting and darned near impossible. But small shifts, situation by situation, are sometimes the effective means to changing the behavior that is hanging us up. For some of us, flexibility and spontaneity must be consciously worked on. As in, go see your out-of-town friends when you have the chance – duh.

Let’s take it to a different kind of shift in mindset, the kind we have when we’re shopping for clothes. Perhaps we see a mannequin wearing a shirt and admire it, thinking, “ohhh, that will hide all my flaws.” That’s pretty conventional thinking for a woman, I’d venture. But suppose you’ve just been working out and you feel terrific and you look at that same shirt with this thought – “ohhh, that would accentuate all my assets.”

What a shift! Imagine selecting your entire wardrobe based on what enhances your best features instead of what might shroud your perceived weak areas. Do you know how much taller you’ll stand in that outfit? How much more spring you’ll have in your step? Not just for one outfit, but for purchase after purchase. Your confidence would grow exponentially.

Incremental change. Leads to big result.

There’s way more to this, though. Two recent stories in The New York Times were fascinating examples of people thinking small to great – actually brilliant – effect and both were part of a series of articles it calls “Small Fixes.”

In “Fighting Cervical Cancer with Vinegar and Ingenuity” writer Donald G. McNeil Jr. describes a procedure developed at Johns Hopkins medical school in the 1990s where vinegar is brushed on a woman’s cervix; it makes precancerous spots turn white and they can be froze off. Endorsed by the World Health Organization last year and now being used in Thailand, it is “a remarkably simple, brief and inexpensive procedure, one with the potential to do for poor countries what the Pap smear did for rich ones: end cervical cancer’s reign as the No. 1 cancer killer of women.”

Dr. Paul D. Blumenthal, one of its pioneers, told McNeil he and colleagues at Johns Hopkins “had debated ways to make cervical lesions easier to see, and concluded that whitening them with acetic acid would be effective. Freezing off lesions is routine in gynecology and dermatology; the challenge was making it cheap and easy.” Further, it can be done by a nurse in one visit.

How to detect cancer. Think small. Household item. Bam. Progress on a global scale.

Also part of the “Small Fixes” series is a piece on Dr. Paul Polak, who counts among his inventions a treadle pump that “lets farmers raise groundwater in the dry season, when crops fetch more money.” In “An Entrepreneur Creating Chances at a Better Life”, McNeil (also the writer on this one) gives a glimpse at another mind whose streamlined thinking around poverty-stricken areas produced global results.

“It was brilliantly simple, it could be manufactured by local workshops, and a local driller could dig a 40-foot well and install it for $25,” Polak told McNeil. “Studies showed that farmers made $100 in one season on that investment.”

Brilliantly simple to monumental results.

This made me think of an interview I did for Game Plan recently with Brian Hamilton, co-founder and CEO of Sageworks and its community outreach program, Inmates to Entrepreneurs. The idea is to give prisoners the basics for starting a very small business when they are released. He begins his workshops with examples.

“I say, ‘Let’s go run a full-page ad in Time magazine and they start smiling,’” Hamilton told me. “And I say, ‘Well, how about this? We’re going to go run a Super Bowl ad.’ And they start smiling. And I say, ‘As silly as that sounds, you’d be surprised at how far off some people are when they’re starting a business.’ They’re trying to do something so lofty that they never get it off the ground.”

Instead, Hamilton advocates something more like renting a lawn mower and building a customer base, then taking it from there.

Baby steps. One after another. Day by day. In the moment.

By the way, that Volkswagen ad campaign was named the best of the century by Ad Age. Not too shabby.

Think small indeed.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to