One of my favorite teaching experiences is seeing a person have a big “Aha!” moment. The shout of surprise, the uncontrollable laughter, the exaggerated body language, the light in the eyes. It might come in an improv, public speaking, or creative writing workshop, but there’s nothing quite as rewarding as playing a part in someone’s epiphany.
But as exciting as these grand realizations are, they’re not necessarily the events that have the biggest impact. Often the most enduring changes come from incidents that may not seem significant at the time, but that lead to big things down the line.
I call those little changes the ‘three-degrees shift’. It’s a small correction applied to a bad habit or some attention paid to something previously overlooked. Continually enforced, that new habit will yield big results down the line. It’s a new habit, a course correction. It’s small improvements, which over time add up to significant growth. This concept, borrowed from the Japanese, is known as kaizen.
If you’re in a sailboat and heading across the Atlantic, and you shift your trajectory just three degrees (even just one degree), over the course of your journey you’ll end up in a much different place. A small adjustment yields big results down the line.
It’s why, for example, I try and write every day, not because I love writing (which I do) or because that daily writing turns out to be useful as a story or blogpost (generally not). I do it because writing every day is good for my writing muscle. And the pieces that have become stories, standup bits, tweets, sketches, emails, essays or blogposts are of course useful. But even the ones that haven’t become anything.. that doesn’t matter. because it’s the act of writing every day that matters.
Taking 10-20 minutes out of my day to do some free writing.
Life-changing little moments
It reminds me of a conversation I had about 20 years ago, back when I was sharing a basement suite at 859 West 17th in Vancouver with a couple of friends.
One day, I was chatting with my roomie Girish, and he was asking me about something I had done recently, a date, a movie, an art exhibit… I don’t remember exactly. But I do remember giving it a middling review, saying “Well, it didn’t change my life”. Which was a thing I said occasionally to describe these type of circumstances.
Girish challenged me on that, quite gently, as was his way. I don’t remember how the whole conversation went, but when I countered at a certain point, along the lines of “Does everything you do have a big impact on you?” He replied, “I’m the product of all my experience”.
That phrase stuck with me. There’s truth in it. Especially when we let the things that happen to us and the thigns we do have an impact,a dn guide our future actions and decisions. I recently reminded Girish of that insight he shared with me so long ago, and he laughed sheepishly. I think to him it no longer seemed like a piece of great advice.
But it was. To me, anyway. I may not remember exactly what sparked the discussion, but I do know that since that time I’ve been a lot better at taking in the things that happen, and letting them affect me.
Moral of the story
It’s a lot easier for us to make those little shifts, the ones that will yield big results down the line, if we allow ourselves to be the product of all our experiences.