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The Tyranny of the Small Picture

Note from Ann: Hello, blog readers.  I’m off on extended medical leave for a few weeks so I’ve turned my blog over to some of my colleagues who are business experts and community leaders in their own ways. Enjoy their thoughts, words and ideas.  I’ll be back on duty after the first of the year.

Today’s guest blogger is Dean Waggenspack (, a Career and Life Coach.

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 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.

wallHere 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.  Woe 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.

Job Seekers run into this tyranny.  A job seeker decides to update their resume.  They spend time reformatting the resume and adding new information.  They have accomplished the goal of having a useable resume.  Then they ask a friend or peer to review it.  All kinds of recommendations for improving it are given.  They are told they need to update their LinkedIn profile with the information from this resume.  Perhaps they are told to start incorporating part of their resume in their elevator speech.  That one initial action, “update my resume”, becomes a whole new set of actions.  So the job seeker feels defeated (“Look at all of this additional work I have to do”).

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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