Small Things

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

Small Things

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.

  • Jamie Ellis

    Wow! Phenomenal story, Aaron…I SOBBED! Love how you connected it with the small things. Excellent read.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      No kidding. My jaw dropped when he told the story. And then he asked, “Is that any good?”

      YES! I love it when an amazing story just falls into your lap.

      Plus it made my wife cry when she was proofreading. (First time every, I’m sure.)

  • I agree. I’ve gone through a lot of challenges.

    I focus on two things:
    1. Pray. God knows more than I ever will.
    2. Put one foot in front of the other. There’s a huge mess in front. But it will only get untangled one step at a time.

    Thanks for sharing Aaron.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Hear. Hear!

      To both steps. A really good friend of mine — who isn’t actually “religious” — says, “Only to things have ever helped me change and face the hard stuff: God and action.”

      All I gotta do is trust … and take the next (merger, embarrassingly small, minuscule) step.

      Thx, buddy.

  • That’s a powerful story, for more reasons than I can put my finger on.

    I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve found that the actions which most inspire me in life are the simple decisions to do things that are uncomfortable but have to be done. It’s weird because, when a really tough challenge faces me or a storm of circumstances seem to arrive all at once, I sort of pull inspiration from my future self – as in, I know how inspired I’m going to be by own choice to move forward, make the hard decisions, and do what needs to be done, and I simply grab the inspiration ahead of time and use it to actually do the stuff lol.

    Granted, this is in the context of a white male living in the first world, but so far, it’s worked for me.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Man … what a great idea: pull inspiration from me future self.

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard it out that way.

      Totally reminds me of NT Wright talking about how the kingdom is God’s future (our future) invading the present.

      • Haha absolutely, and I love that you just threw NT Wright into this conversation. I have the best friends.

        • Aaron Orendorff

          Me too.


      • Thank you for noting NT Wright and a bit of Kingdom theology. I love the concept of God’s future (our future) backing into the present … through awareness and belief!

        • Aaron Orendorff

          I’m a huge NT Wright fan! Although I still haven’t gotten around to reading his big book on Paul (has it already been out for over a year or two?).

          Thx, Brian. How’d you find my blog?

          • Happened on your blog by doing some research on copywriting. I’ve been helping independent authors with books. Looking to also add some entry-level services in copywriting and consulting in instructional design for online courses. Love your site and messaging. Adding it to Feedly. I’ll be a regular! Thx for what you do!

          • Huge smiles to ALL that. Thx again. 😀

  • Ashley Faulkes

    Great piece Aaron, impressed. Almost got me with a tear too! Not something that happens often :> And makes you realise that yes, big exciting things are great, but often it is the people and the small things that keep us going!

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Couldn’t agree more, Ashley! Thanks for the encouragement.

      Small comment = big smile 😀

  • Lesley J. Vos

    This post is my motivation of the day or even week! Wow… I am speechless…

    Thank you for sharing this story, Aaron! Phenomenal, indeed.

    It made me think about how often I consider teeny-tiny hassles global obstacles, worrying a lot about them, and how powerful one small yet right thing can be to change everything.


    • Aaron Orendorff

      You and me both on that. So easy to just stare at the “global” problems — in my word and beyond — and get paralyzed.

      Coming back to the next, small (right) has saved me so many times … as well as restored my hope and sanity. Thx!

  • Dr. Nicolas Rao

    At my age 65 soon to be 66 I have many dreams and kniw that all cannot be accomplished.
    However some small steps towards a big decision were to be made made. Being a trained physician and smart enough to know my present strict blood sugar control and strict diet with medication weas doing nothing towards reversing my diabetes only prolonging a low quality life, I had to decide to change from the prescribed ADA diet to a LCHF one and withdraw medications slowly.

    Those steps began last July, I am now 10 months plus off all diabetic medications, 8kg less and have much more energy than ever in the past 6 years.

    Yes, it was not easy, but one small step after the other helped me get where I am today.

    Thank you “little steps” and small things they all add up to fresh dreams and a better outlook in life.

    Thank you.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Life is lived in the small stuff.

      Thanks for the really meaningful comment. Really appreciate hearing these kinds of responses and stories.

      And HUGE congrats on your “little things.” It’s so true … that’s exactly where “fresh dreams and a better outlook in life” comes from. Always. 🙂

  • Kathryn A. Minturn

    I’m late in joining this conversation, but I reread your post, Aaron, and just had to comment. First of all, it’s great you gave the speaker a chance to tell this story. Too many times we get wrapped up in “busy-ness” and forget about the personal, the emotional. This story reminds me that the micro-happenings in our lives are really macro in effect. A small decision can inspire a whole new direction. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Wow … “reread”! Now that a rarity today.

      Thanks so much. I couldn’t agree more with the wrapped up in “busy-ness” comment. Getting to the emotional core — the story itself — is one of the things I really try to major on in my own writing as well as coach people on.

      The lesson here was so ripe … and the speaker was so hesitate to share it. Ironic, because THAT’S what other people connect with.

  • Heart-wrenching but on point. Thank you.

    • All the really true stuff is. And the thanks go to you! Always appreciate those kind of encouraging comments 🙂