3 Stories to Make the World Small
If you want to be happier, focus on what’s in front of you
It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true: My biggest problem is overwhelming possibility. Chances are, you’re in the same boat. Every morning, endless paths present themselves to you.
First, there are the basics. Simple, supposedly easy choices, like “what do I eat?” or “which outfit should I wear?” Then, there are the heavy hitters. Which project should you tackle? Who do you ask on a date? Where do you want to live? Wow, that escalated quickly. As it always does.
Some of it is hardwired into our psychology. We know too much choice makes us unhappy. Analysis paralysis, regret before and after the decision, escalated expectations — we’re just not built to pick one path out of 1,000.
But if you’re working towards a life of maximum freedom like me, you’ll feel an even more acute sense of anxiety. You may not have full control over your work and time just yet, but still, what you choose to work on has far-reaching implications. Not just for your finances, for your happiness too.
For me, writing a book requires months, maybe years of work. Creating products takes time away from that. Even a long article pushes aside many other options for a week. These are short-term choices, but they add up.
What we work on today defines how we’ll spend our time tomorrow. Articles, books, products — soon, I’ll look back and see five years of my life, spread neatly across a small set of endeavors. What if I pick the wrong ones? What if they don’t fulfill me? What if I won’t see meaning and happiness when I turn back around?
Of course, there are no answers to these questions. No algorithm can maximize our happiness in advance. Unfortunately, my brain insists on finding one. I’ve spent thousands of hours obsessing over what goals to pursue, how to reach them, and who to spend time with. Not only have I failed to find conclusive answers — because the answers are always changing — I’ve also flip-flopped from one point of view to another countless times.
I think you have too. You want your choices — big and small — to make you happy and, ironically, you worry a great deal about how happy they’ll ultimately make you.
What I’ve learned about this dynamic and seem to forget on a regular basis is that happiness lies in smallness. Sure, there is a time to think about the big picture, but on most days, that time is not today.
Happiness is waking up in the morning with clear eyes, ready to find joy in the 24 hours ahead. It’s writing one article, helping one friend, going to one dinner, and fully being there for all of those experiences. Then, you repeat the next day. Your life will never be completely regret-free, but this way, when you turn around later, you’ll look back on a lot of happy days.
To better remember this smallness, I’ve collected a set of stories throughout the years. They remind me that I’m one person, living one day and one choice at a time. I hope they’ll do the same for you.
1. Superman’s Island
In elementary school, a young Clark Kent first discovers he’s hypersensitive. He can hear faint noises miles away and see right through walls, doors, even people.
Since he doesn’t know how to control these powers yet, all the impressions overwhelm him and trigger a seizure. Clark runs away and hides in a closet.
Eventually, the teacher calls his mom to the scene, and she starts speaking to Clark through the locked door:
“Sweetie, how can I help you if you won’t let me in?”
“The world’s too big, Mom.”
“Then make it small. Just focus on my voice. Pretend it’s an island, out in the ocean. Can you see it?”
“I see it.”
“Then swim towards it, honey.”
Once he hones in on the one thing right in front of him — his mom — Clark calms down and leaves the closet.
Social media, the internet, our state of constant connection — Clark Kent isn’t the only one who’s hypersensitive. It’s all of us. We share and communicate so much, we too can see other people’s insides; their thoughts, wishes, feelings. It creates a lot of noise too, and we can hear it, even if it’s made far away.
Cheaper entertainment, travel, remote work. As consumers, workers, experiencers, we hold more power to choose than ever. It scares us. There’s too much of everything, and it puts a grave responsibility on our shoulders: What do we do with our limited time? Because we’ll never get to it all.
Unfortunately, we can’t replay our lives like movie scenes. Our moms won’t always be there when we want to run and hide. But we can still make an effort to find our island.
2. The Wall
In the 1970s, there was an electrician in Philadelphia. The man’s job was to install freezing cases in supermarkets. You know, the long ones with glass doors, from which you pick up your milk and frozen pizza. To set up his own little workshop, the man bought an old bakery.
One summer, he decided to rebuild the front wall. It was made of bricks, about 16 feet high, and 30 feet long. After he had torn down the old one, he called his two sons to the site. They were twelve and nine years old. He told them that they were now in charge of building a new wall.
The boys’ first task was to dig a six-foot hole for the foundation. Then, they filled it with concrete, which they had to mix first — by hand. Clearly, this wasn’t just a job for the summer holidays. For the next year and a half, every day after school, they went to their father’s shop to build that wall. To the young brothers, it felt like forever. But eventually, they laid the final brick.
When their dad came to audit what they had done, the three of them stood back and looked at the result. There it was. A brand new, magnificent, 16 by 30 feet wall. The man looked at his sons and said, “Don’t y’all never tell me that you can’t do something” — and then he walked into the shop.
The electrician’s name was Willard Carrol Smith. It’s the same name he gave his oldest son. Today, we know the 12-year-old as Will Smith.
When Will recounted this story on Charlie Rose in 2002, he said:
You don’t try to build a wall. You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say, “I’m gonna build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built. You don’t start there. You say, “I’m gonna lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. There will not be one brick on the face of the earth that’s gonna be laid better than this brick that I’m gonna lay in these next 10 minutes.” And you do that every single day, and soon, you have a wall.
“Brick by Brick,” as we might call it, is a story about the value of hard work. But it’s also a story about happiness. Because what Will also said is this:
I think, psychologically, the advantage that that gives me over a lot of people that I’ve been in competition with in different situations is: It’s difficult to take the first step when you look at how big the task is. The task is never huge to me. It’s always one brick.
That’s more than a competitive advantage. It’s a philosophy of relief. By choosing to focus on the next step, the next brick, not the end result, Will never feels overwhelmed. That’s happiness and, if we make that same decision, it’s available to us all.
3. The Bowl
A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?
The monk replied, “I have eaten.”
Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.
I eat a lot of cereal. Every time I do the dishes is a chance to remember this story. Leo Babauta shared it years ago. He added:
Remembering to do these things when we’re done with the activity isn’t just about neatness. It’s about mindfulness, about completing what we started, about being present in all we do instead of rushing to the next activity.
Don’t get your head caught up in all this thinking about the meaning of life … instead, just do. Just wash your bowl. And in the washing, you’ll find all you need.
Some tasks feel inherently comforting, but all tasks offer comfort if we let them. Enough-ness is transferable. You can bring it to all your activities. Whatever life demands of you, if you do it with intention, the outcome won’t matter so much because, simply by being there, you gave it your best.
Life is big, but it’s made of small moments. Every event is a tiny piece of an infinite puzzle. Washing your bowl is choosing to enjoy the shape and detail of each one. And since the puzzle will never be complete, you might as well start doing that today.
Our children are constant, living reminders of the now. Inseparable from the present, they move from one moment to the next. “What do we do now?” they ask us. Often, our reaction is to be annoyed when, rightfully, they could be annoyed at us. We’re the ones lost in the future, not them.
Children don’t forget their smallness because, by any grown-up measure, they are small. But no matter how much we gain in size, whether it’s our mind, our body, our accomplishments, at the end of the day, we’re still atoms. Tiny particles drifting through the vast, cosmic sea.
Happiness is not just accepting our littleness, it’s embracing it. To wear it proudly, if only for a few minutes a day. So let’s make our beds small before we sleep in them. I’m sure we’ll feel rested when we eventually wake up.