Big Hammer or Small Blade? What it Really Takes to Achieve Your Goals

Want to achieve your goals?  Don’t listen to the marketers…

We are continually bombarded by messages that to cater to, and encourage, our short attention span. There is no shortage of “life hacks,” quick-fix remedies, and promises of miraculous overnight success.  Like a blow from Thor’s mighty hammer, we’re led to expect quick resolution to our problems, and rapid attainment of our goals.

But something I saw recently reminded me that most of that is not helpful.  When it comes to achieving your goals, there is a better approach you can employ. This may be best explained using an oddly shaped chunk of apple tree.

Big Hammer or Small Blade - Achieve Goals

Prefer to listen? Check out the podcast version, otherwise, scroll on!


Taking Shape

I must have watched a woodworking video on Facebook recently.  All of a sudden the algorithm is filling my feed with videos of people making things on lathes. My favorites are ones where the project begins with an unlikely block of scrap wood.  Maybe there are shreds of bark sticking off it, it’s a strange shape, or it has gnarly knots.

The woodworker attaches the ungainly chunk of timber to the spindle, and sets it spinning.  Then he holds a simple chisel near the edge of the whirring mass, and begins the process of shaping it.  Experienced craftsmen make it look easy.

Before long, a contorted piece of tree once destined for the chipper is transformed into a beautiful vase, bowl, or table leg suitable for the front room.  Here’s a short video example; in this case, Matt Jordan is making a coffee mug from the burled limb of an apple tree: (no need to watch the whole thing, but maybe watch the start, then skip to the end to see the finished product…)

As cool as the overall transformation from bristly block to magnificent mug is, there is something even more compelling about the process itself.

Slowing and Zooming

At full speed, it is almost as if the wood is morphing into a new shape.  But if you slow everything down and zoom in, you can see in detail what’s really happening.  As this video example shows, progress is not a rapid remolding of the whole piece.  In reality, change comes from the careful removal of a thousand tiny chips of wood from specific places, one at a time. 

At every turn of the lathe, a few more atoms of wood are carved away.  With enough revolutions of the spindle, the rough edges disappear, and something more elegant begins to emerge.

So much of what we do in pursuit of our goals is similar to how these tools work.  We are conditioned to think that in three easy steps we can have what we want.  Internet riches are just a click away.  We can have a beach-ready body in a week, while still eating all the French fries we want. 

Yet, as the close-up of the lathe shows, progress is not measured in a few giant swings of a hammer but in thousands of little chips from a blade.  The craftsman creates the final product out of raw material one tiny chunk at a time. 

Even the blacksmith, who actually does swing a hammer, makes thousands of blows.  Each one gradually shapes the work.

How does all this help us achieve our goals?

Spinning and Grinning

Focus small instead of big.  Know that every tiny little bit matters, and all those little bits can add up to something amazing.

  • Start with a clear vision of what you want to achieve.
  • Be ready to invest time, care, and patience.
  • Like the rotation of the lathe, see the passing of each day as an opportunity to take out another chip and refine the final product.
  • Missing a day is like working with dull tools or a saw with missing teeth; it’s going to take longer and the outcome may not be as good; steady persistence is a multiplier.
  • Simple tools and processes are the best – they are easiest to understand, put into action, and stick with.
  • Revolution by revolution, there’s very little decision-making to be done; the wood spins, the blade cuts. When we take advantage of the Habit Cycle and replace decisions with habits, it becomes easier to stick to the plan.
  • At regular intervals, we need to pause, compare our progress to the goal, and make adjustments (but keep the lathe turned on).
  • Beauty can be found even in the most unlikely places if we’re willing to work at it.

Achieve Your Goals – The Takeaway

There’s a professional triathlete I follow on social media who understands this idea well.  He has a sign posted on the wall in front of his indoor bike trainer that reminds him:

One great workout will not win a race. 
30-40 good workouts strung together in close proximity
is what wins races!

Whatever your personal or professional goals, it’s easy to fall into the fiction that one big effort, a simple pill, a secret hack, or a blow from a magical hammer will get us there.  But like Thor’s hammer, that approach is a myth. 

Success most often comes not from one great blow, but in a thousand tiny chips.

The question becomes this:  What are you chipping away at today?

Lead On!

For more skills to help you achieve your goals, be sure to check out my Goal Setting Mastery Course to help you build the habits that will turn your future into the one you envision.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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