Tyranny of the Small Picture

Author Gregg Easterbrook, in his book The Progress Paradox describes the “Tyranny of the Small Picture”.  This “tyranny” is the concept where solving one problem often creates another.  Unfortunately, the new problem is noted and fretted about while the original problem, being solved, is forgotten. Instead of the big picture (“Hey, I solved a problem I’ve had”), we often see the small picture, aware only of the lesser negative within the greater positive.

We all employ the tyranny of the small picture in many parts of our life.  We identify something that needs fixed, addressed or dealt with.  It might be major.  It might be a small item in a string of things.  We finally get the courage to deal with it.  Once we are done, we “all-of-a-sudden” realize there is another problem.  So we start worrying about the new problem.  It consumes us.  Or at least it lingers in the back of our minds as we go about doing whatever else we have to get done.  Sometimes, we “blame” the result of taking the first action for creating a new problem.  Or we decide whatever “it” was actually shows our incompetence because we have not achieved the larger goal. We might never acknowledge the accomplishment of the original objective.  We might not even acknowledge progress.

That’s not good.

Here is a simple example.  My car is looking pretty bad.  So I decide to wash and wax it.  I’ve taken action and the results are good: the car looks a lot better on the outside now.  HOWEVER, upon closer examination, I can now see all of the scratches and dents in the exterior.  The small picture tells me I need to do something about those.  It will be expensive to get rid of those scratches.  Maybe I decide the inside is looking very dirty.  So I have more work to do – I need to vacuum and clean the inside.   Whoa is me. I have all this extra work to do.  The Big Picture – get your car washed and waxed was successful.  But that is immediately forgotten by my focus on the new small picture.

Here is a real example from my own life.  Most people know I am an avid runner.  I take it seriously.  My training is important to me from fitness, mental attitude and lifestyle perspectives.  It is a major part of my life.  One day my goal was to run 4 miles at half marathon pace.  I barely achieved the goal, struggling near the end and was left momentarily wondering, “if I struggled to run 4 miles at this pace, how will I ever run 13 miles at the same pace?”  I caught myself looking at the small picture!  The goal of that day was clear.  I achieved it.  I can’t worry about “what might be”.  Celebrate the success and move on to the next task.

That is what the tyranny of the small picture will do to you.  It gets you off task.  It makes you forget that whatever you are doing is part of a long process.  You need to trust that what you did today is a step along a long journey to your intended goal.

How often are you with someone where they complete something but immediately start talking about what they “didn’t accomplish” or “still must do” or “now have to do (groan)”?  I would be willing to guess that you do it to yourself.  Progress only happens in short bursts.  You have to take those short bursts as steps along the way.  Achieving that one step needs to be acknowledged, maybe even celebrated.  Yes, there will probably be newly-found obstacles or questions in your mind.  That’s okay.  You also have accomplished something.  To be honest with yourself, those new questions/concerns were always there.  They were just hidden by the obstacle you just took down.  


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