An Ode to Small Things: All You Need Is What's Next

Aaron Orendorff
Aaron Orendorff

Big problems demand big answers.

That’s the way of common wisdom anyway. And it’s what our hearts and minds tell us in the middle of overwhelming, life-toppling situations.

But is that true?

I’m coaching one of the keynoters at this year’s NextCon16 (no, it’s not Steve Wozniak or Guy Kawasaki).

We wrapped up our first one-on-one session today with a question to bridge the tactical first half of the presentation and the deeply personal second half, both of which are all about overcoming what feel like huge problems … with small solutions.

“What we need,” I said, “is a story completely about life, totally unrelated to business, that makes the audience feel this whole connection between small and big. What comes to mind?”

The client paused. Then said …

My father died last year. He was 94, still thinking clearly and ambulatory. He was pulling weeds in his backyard when he fell and broke his neck.

After being rushed to the hospital, doctors were able to stabilize him, but his recovery meant going weeks without being able to swallow, along with other complications.

My dad couldn’t communicate, so the doctors gave us choice, “To keep him alive we can either insert a feeding tube through his nose or by puncturing the stomach wall.”

That was the wrong question. My father always said he didn’t want exceptional measures. Those tubes were the exact opposite of what he always wanted. The right question was, ‘Should there be a tube … or not?’

That’s a huge decision. It’s one of those decisions that we dread to face, but the kind that’s coming for us, in business and in life. And the thing is … making that big decision did not come down to slogging through the meaning of death or wrestling with the enormity of something so hard to wrap our heads around.

The answer came from the small things, from the kind of life my father had lived — being a radio man in the second World War, rebuilding old Mercedes engines, graduating from Stanford with a degree in electrical engineering, making me a 400 volt power supply when I was seven (which today would be seen as a way of killing your child). He was always doing stuff. Always busy. Always living.

So my wife, my mother, and I talked. We went back to the small things that made up my dad’s life, and we decided that what he would have wanted wasn’t a tube … but to go home.

Four hours later, hospice did just that.

My wife spoke to the ambulance driver and he told her that when they pulled up and saw the house, my father — who couldn’t talk — had such a huge smile on his face. He knew he was going to die at home.

Of course, our decision — that decision, just like all the huge decisions and insurmountable problems we face — was hard. We had the choice of prolonging his life. But what was more important was the choice of how to end his life. My father went out the way he wanted to, surrounded by the small stuff — the trinkets, the books, the furniture, the rooms — and in many ways the small people — just a handful of us — that he loved.

I was stunned. And the story reminded me of a quote from Anthony Greenbank:

In order to get through an impossible situation, you don’t need the reflexes of a Grand Prix driver, the muscles of Hercules, or the mind of Einstein. You simply need to know what to do.

That’s good news.

All you need to know is what to do … what to do next. That’s it.CLICK TO TWEET

And the truth is, that next right thing is always something small, always something manageable, always something far easier than tackling the huge, looming problem all at once.

Here’s to you doing small things today. I’d love to hear about it below.

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