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The Big Impact of Small Actions

The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

It is easy to criticize the world. To point fingers and cast blame on others for their shortcomings.

With digital technology at our fingertips, anyone can boast about their perceived sense of self-righteousness and take the moral high ground. We post our opinions online in contempt about the injustices we see in the news. We are then subsequently congratulated through likes and comments on our social media accounts. This temporarily makes us feel good about who we are as we are bringing awareness to issues that matter to us. 

But without concrete action, what good are these words other than empty promises. A front or a mirage.

As an idealist myself, I like many, am guilty of communicating my frustration about the state of the world rather than taking concrete actions to solve the issues that matter to me. In retrospect, the issue with these broad critiques is that many of these claims are too simplistic, reductionist and naïve of the complexities of the world. Most importantly they don’t propose real-world tangible solutions.

As a society, we revere those who make bold and sweeping social and cultural reforms. We all know the great figures who altered the course of history. Indeed, the efforts of these individuals should be celebrated.

However, what about those ordinary men and women who work hard, make sacrifices and bestow kindness onto others in their normal everyday lives. Those who nurture their relationships to their family, friends, community and to the land they live on.

Perhaps our reach or impact isn’t as large as we would like. But, even if we haven’t achieved our intended outcomes, we would have succeeded in strengthening our character and disposition.

Nonetheless, the place to begin to change the world starts from within. From our influence on what is directly under our control – our immediate environment.

 If one begins to live by their ideals, their actions are out of integrity and sincerity. This will be noticed by others.  In the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig elucidates on the culminative impact of cultivating mental clarity and earnestness.

“Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.”

In an interconnected world, we just don’t know the true compound effects of our actions. A subtle act of kindness may brighten up the day of a friend who was feeling down. That friend feeling grateful for the attention and care you provided them, may be inspired to impart that kind-heartedness onto others.

Wendell Berry beautifully summarizes this sentiment in his essay Think Little,

the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem. A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it – he is doing that work. A couple who make a good marriage, and raise healthy, morally competent children, are serving the world’s future more directly and surely than any political leader, though they never utter a public word……. A man who is willing to undertake the discipline and the difficulty of mending his own ways is worth more to the conservation movement than a hundred who are insisting merely that the government and the industries mend their ways.

Our work is cut out for us. It all begins with accepting responsibility for our actions, and for our lives. This is how we become the people we aspire to be. This is how we change ourselves, and inspire change in others.

Think big, act small.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Lao Tzu

You can view more of my writing on my personal blog at A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life – In Search of Inner Freedom

Featured Image: Pexels Free Photos

19 thoughts on “The Big Impact of Small Actions

  1. Beautiful words Andrew. This resonated: “But without concrete action, what good are these words other than empty promises. A front or a mirage.” I am certainly guilty of this. 🙏

  2. Nice writing! This is teaching me to be humble and appreciative of every small action whenever that arises and also to start learning to do the small things well so as to be more skilled at big things!

  3. Inspiring post, Andrew! It reminds me that even though I might not see the overall effect of the small actions I take, I for sure will not see them if I don’t them!

  4. For me the bottom line is that you have to make choices in the immediate circumstances with the attitude of doing what is best for all. Good impact will result.

  5. Being outraged and speaking that outrage in a public way is a political act. Apathy is killing us. Caring enough to spend time reading, thinking, and writing out one’s thoughts about the direction things are going is patriotic and positive because it demonstrates engagement and love. It is impossible for a person to claim to love something and then be apathetic to that something. We all have to pick the tool that we want to use to build a better world. I pick the tool that I know how to use and feels right for my hand. Your tool may be different from mine because you aren’t me. Thanks for this piece.

    1. I use to say to my complaining colleagues a quote from Gandhi that goes in the direction of the importance of small actions: You must be the change you wish to see in the world. Most of the people tend to put on others the actions they would need to take to improve things in our world. Think about the climate crisis. We all know that we need a big and dramatic change but most of us think the change is for the others to implement, not for us. But, as you say, we all have a responsibility towards the society we live in. Thank you for the very meaningful post Andrew, it will support me in my daily small actions.

      1. Yes, I am currently reading a book by Wendell Berry (a farmer/conversationalist) who makes a similar point. We often defer responsibility to other people or institutions without ‘being the change’ we want to see within our own lives.

  6. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is a fascinating book. You don’t really figure out what it is about until you’re past the midpoint. I recommend it to anyone who has a philosophical nature.

    1. Yes, indeed. The first read through, I didn’t understand many of the points made. However, it has grown on me over the years. I keep coming back to it

  7. Well written post. I totally agree with you that change should start from within. We often try to change others by saying something (through our opinion) or expressing our thoughts but actually at the end of the day we have to look at ourselves and start making the changes. This is somewhat similar with the idea of taking control of our life that I just recently posted. https://virglarea.com/2022/04/11/take-control-and-you-will-see-life-differently/

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