Pebbles In Our Shoes

I used to run. A lot. At one point my running partners and I were doing 200-mile relays with four people and competing in 100-mile individual races. I learned something very important during this time of my life. It’s the little things that matter.

Often it isn’t the mountains ahead that wear you out, it’s the little pebble in your shoe.

Muhammad Ali

On those long runs, what ends up taking you down is a little blister or bump or rub. Over many, many miles, those little things grow into huge problems. During one 100-mile run, very early in the race, I started having a little discomfort in my left ankle around my Achilles tendon. By the 50-mile mark, my ankle was swollen, and I decided not to take my shoe off in case I couldn’t get it back on. At the 78-mile mark, my friend and the official race doctor forced me to quit because my ankle was twice its normal size.

Attention to the tiny details early in a run are the best indicators of success. The same thing is true about our lives and our work. It can be difficult to focus on small things when we are constantly surrounded by big things.

There are a lot of big numbers being thrown around these days. The Powerball lottery is routinely hundreds of millions. Jeff Bezos is worth $195 billion. We just passed a $1,900 billion relief package. The national debt is over $28 trillion. Do we even understand what those numbers mean?

One thousand seconds is 16 minutes and forty seconds. One million seconds is 11 days, 13 hours, 46 minutes, and 40 seconds. One billion seconds is a bit over 31 and one-half years. One trillion seconds is slightly over 31,688 years! It is hard to even comprehend numbers that large. It is, therefore, easy to understand that sometimes our lawmakers have a hard time staying focused on small things.

We can have the same problem as leaders. We are often responsible for large budgets and lots of people. We see big numbers every day and make decisions that impact large numbers of people and can result in making (or losing) large amounts of money. We are constantly in danger of becoming jaded and not noticing or caring about small things. But it is the small things that matter.

My grandfather used to tell me, “Take care of the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.” He also used to say that it is easier to save a dollar than it is to make one. Likewise, when we care about the individual, we are more likely to make decisions that are good for the group.

How can we learn to stop missing the small (and important) things in the face of the big (and overwhelming) things?

Stop multitasking. When we try to focus on too many things at one time, we miss the details. Put down your phone when you are talking to someone or in a meeting. Slow down a little, and notice what is going on around you. Listen to, or read, or watch one thing at a time. You are likely to make fewer mistakes and find richness you have been missing.

Carry a camera or a notebook. When you look through a lens (or phone camera) or write notes and sketch about things you see and things that happen, you become more in tune with your environment. When I have my sketch book with me, which is always, I am looking for things to write down or note. Just having that discipline helps me look at the world around me differently.

Connect with people. Listen. Let people know you are thinking about them when you DON’T need anything from them. Write personal notes to people. Experiences are far more valuable than things, and most experiences involve people. When we practice paying attention to people, we also get better at seeing the small, yet important, things around us.

As leaders we are most at risk from pebbles in our shoes. We see the mountains, and we are educated and trained for them. We have plans and strategies and teams. We are willing and ready to go. A little pebble in our shoe can cause us to come up lame long before we reach the summit. A team where we make sure we are paying attention to people and important things (large or small) and helping each other check for pebbles in our shoes is a team that will conquer the mountains, and it is The Kimray Way.