The Tyranny of Small Things

Okay, where do you stand on the sliding scale of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” to “The Devil’s in the Details”? Lately, I’m beginning to be aware of the tiny bits that portend larger problems; the marginal items that can trip you up. High School English drummed into our heads the notion of Macbeth’s dilemma: ‘we carry the seeds of our own destruction’. Now I’m wondering what’s in my seed library?

Recently, an older friend decided to step on a cricket. Not a great strategy when you walk with a cane – actually, not a great strategy in general. However, the cricket strolled onto my friend’s living room carpet with a small ‘Squish Me’ sign stuck to its back, so my friend complied. Of course he missed – that was just never going to happen. It ‘sproinged’ and he did a prattfall – and laid there for an hour trying to get up. Small thing, big problem. Was that need to squash a cricket one of the seeds of his own destruction?

We’ve heard the sayings ‘for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost’ (James Baldwin, The Horseshoe Nails) and ‘little things mean a lot’ (eponymous song by Lindeman and Stutz). Well they are true! Mama Cass was undone by a chicken bone; Napoleon was unhorsed by a severe case of hemorrhoids at Waterloo. George got up from his chair and broke his foot – who’s next??

Recently, I crammed too much into my morning schedule and was in a rush to get to indoor tennis. Even so, I arrived early – too early to enter the facility. So, I thought, okay: I’ll quick stop at Staples and pick up some office supplies for the business. But wait – I forgot my wallet! Alright, well then I’ll change into my tennis sneaks and walk for a bit until it’s time to play. Yikes! I also forgot my sneakers! There’s not enough time to return home and back to the tennis club. Now what? If I play barefoot, I’ll aggravate the Achilles injury… and the doctor that treated that injury plays on the next court – hmmm… dilemmas, dilemmas. (The “solution” was a pair of a half-size too short sneakers in ‘lost and found’). Is hastiness going to be my downfall – or is it crunched feet?

Engineers have a term for all of this: geometric intolerance. That describes the situation where parts that are each slightly off spec, result in much larger failures when combined over multiple connections.  Perhaps that’s how it ends: one off-spec cell, one ill-timed decision, one turn left, when you should have juked right. Like Colin Powell used to say, “Check small things”.

Yet the enormity of possibilities and the inability to cover them all is just too consuming. I started this piece with my needle sliding toward ‘devil/details’, but it is now swinging back to ‘not sweat/small stuff’, simply due to inadequate energy and lack of attention span. So I’ve concluded that the best course of action is to let the needle oscillate back and forth on this gauge, somewhere between complacency and craziness.

Now, that may sound weird and perhaps it is. I just don’t think the needle ought to stay in one position on that spectrum. Being simultaneously nimble and meticulous is a tough assignment. Can you actually do both? I’ve seen people who claim it’s simply a matter of balance get consistently stuck in one mode of approach. I’m interested to read what others have to say…

Balance is Askew

I like Wal’s reflective query about where we stand on paying attention to details and how we feel about allowing small things to happen without giving them the diligence they often solicit from us.  And while I can see how this can be interpreted as opposing sides of a continuum, I lean more toward seeing them as not so much.  Perhaps this comes from how we define “small stuff.”  As I think about the issues many of us stress over and talk about daily, by week’s end they are replaced by totally different concerns and challenges.  If they can be replaced so quickly, weren’t they “small stuff” to begin with? As we create a passionate story around it to tell our friends and family we deceive ourselves into believing it is significant and until the next bump we encounter it remains in our minds, “big stuff.” until the next bump comes along.  However, if I notice that something that signals a potential danger to my health or home (George’s oil burner maintenance for example) I can pay attention to the details of addressing it.  To me, this isn’t necessarily small stuff.  And, even if it were, I can still take steps to correct it without perseverating and worrying (sweating) about it.  What I’m trying to say is, it is possible to not sweat the small stuff and still pay attention to the details of potentially important stuff to prevent them from becoming big stuff.

At the end of his piece, Wal talks about those seeking the balance of being nimble and meticulous as often getting stuck in one mode of approach.  I agree.  Unlike a level see saw where both sides are of equal weight or one has scooted up or back on the seat to create static equilibrium, I see balance as a range of behaviors that is sometimes a +1 over the midpoint and sometimes a +3.  Similarly, the opposing side also fluctuates between a -1 and a -3 to counterbalance.  Our lives are complicated enough without us trying to remain in a perfect stasis of “middledom.”  To put it another way, imagine the more rigid definition of balance as someone holding out both arms such that they are completely level and in line with each other.  Now picture someone holding one arm slightly higher (+1 to +3) and the other arm slightly lower (-1 to -3).   Is not this relative balance easier to sustain or aspire to?  And isn’t it that we often find ourselves a bit more up or down but still being in balance enough to be productive and even happy?  I have accepted this state of being as a guide to living out my days with less stress and more comfort.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

My life has followed Wally’s essential proverbs with one minor exception.  Definitely, I prescribe to the “don’t sweat the small stuff,” however, instead of the devil quote, I prefer, “Keep it Simple Stupid.”  My dad always said to not sweat the small stuff and lived by it.  Unfortunately, he took it literally and ignored the small stuff ‘til it became large. Why service the oil burner?  It is working fine……until it isn’t!

Small stuff are the seedlings of BIG stuff!  And if addressed as small stuff often the stuff disappears.  But that would be too simple! The half full glass people might ignore  small annoyances because always anticipating the good in each situation it could deceive and lead to bigger problems…. Just sayin’.  Whereas the half empty glass folks, expecting the worst, might conceivably take care of things sooner!  Apparently, I fit in the ‘where the hell is the glass?’ people.  

My entire life was spent looking for problems, expecting them, and usually finding them, but instead of getting right on it, I procrastinated and ignored to the best of my ability.  If you accidentally push it aside it doesn’t exist.  Guess I learned that from Dad, too. The difference being that eventually he would deal with the issue with grace and precision as opposed the hysteria it produced in me.  

This applied to all realms of my life. Mechanical things being the worst yet emotional and relationship issues a strong second.  My emotional knee jerk reactions can be excused by the Italian influence of my DNA, which I tend to take exceptional pride in!   However, with age. All processes tend to slow down, not by choice but due to days on earth and wear and tear on parts. Fortunately for me, it appears to make me look reflective, thoughtful and perhaps even mature.  I like that.  As for the Keep it Simple part, I aspire to that but have yet to obtain the required tools to utilize the concept.

All in all, these neurotic tendencies I exhibit have not interfered in a surprisingly successful life, two outstanding careers, many exciting experiences and wonderful memories.  Sure, maybe the adoption of these beliefs would have amplified the positive results.  Woulda, coulda, shoulda!  Maybe someday I’ll catch on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s