Take Little Steps

June 27, 2012

I can’t think of that much I WANT to do but haven’t. The reason is simple: I generally do what I want, close to when I decided I wanted it

I have a friend who is not like this.”I’m thinking about traveling to China,” he’ll say. Knowing him, I always respond: “Dude, you will never go to China.” His reply is beautifully the same every time: “I could totally go to China [or whatever he’s dreaming about that day]” You could, but you don’t. He never does.

I think it, I assign it. I assign it, I do it. He thinks it. And leaves it at that. As though figuring out how much it will cost, committing to saving up the money and then later, booking the trip is some insurmountable task. Of course he could do all those things, but that was never really the choke point.

This is why exercise is such a good metaphor and lesson. If you want to be able to run 10 miles, what to do about it is fairly simple: Start by running one mile. (which itself requires only putting one foot in front of the other). Then slowly run more until you can. In any sport, the path is the same. No matter how small or big the goal: You must commit and then start.

I don’t tell myself I’d like to go for run today. No, I’m going to run. And not just today but nearly everyday. The same goes for everything else I have ever decided to do or wanted to do, from my book deal on down.

I’m not going to claim that these things are easy by any stretch. But they are simple. And when I compare myself to other people I noticed that we both say the things we want to do or like to have. Check back in, they never seem to be any closer to that thing. I am, and I’ve moved on to the next one.

Trust me, I’m not possessed by some insatiable ambition. I haven’t known what I want since I was 4 years old and focused on everything I had on it. No, I just start. And I don’t waste time thinking about what it’d be nice to have–I’d rather just get it and see for myself. Before every show, the comedian Kevin Hart reminds his staff: “Everyone wants to be famous, nobody wants to do the work” and then they hit the stage and get to work.

I gloss over the big things because I know that’s not the issue. Otherwise the same attitude wouldn’t manifest itself in the tinniest and most banal parts of our lives: “Oh I heard that book was good and I’m thinking about buying it.” Do you know how many books I heard were good but don’t own? Like zero. It’s a book–just make the investment. You definitely won’t read it if you don’t own it. And what does it fucking matter in the end if you turn out to be wrong? It doesn’t.

People don’t get this because, partly, they don’t really want the things they say they want. They want to be the person who has certain things rather than actually do it. But even some of that comes from ignorance: these people don’t know how to do things, they don’t know how straight forward it is. Figure out what you want to do and then break it down from there. Take little steps. Then you are there. And the beauty of it all is that the risks are rarely very high. You decide not to go to China? Now you have a pile of money to spend on something else. Not so horrible is it?

NOTE: I’m going to be on Chase Jarvis Live today (June 27th) at 11am PST. Tune in and ask questions. Would love to hear from you all. 

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

38 responses to Take Little Steps

  1. The great thing about your simple approach is it strips away all the excuses you give yourself.

    I’ve spent most of my life just like your friend who wants to go to China. Right now I have literally zero commitments and all sorts of vague dreams about the places I want to go or the things I want to do.

    But here I still am, writing the dreams down, reading the books and the blogs.. but not doing anything. There’s also a nice contrast you raise between “easy” and “simple”. The simplest approach is often the hardest, but it’s the one that gets results.

  2. What you said about people not really wanting the things they say is true. Another problem, though, is fear of failure. To take the travelling example, the reason someone might not go to China despite saying they want to is because they’re afraid of all the unknowns. Is China the right place to go? What if I run out of money? What if I don’t enjoy it? What if I can’t get a job when I get back? Focusing on the negatives like this keeps people firmly rooted in place, when they could be (and should be) focusing on the positive what-ifs (what if I have a great time, what if I love the country so much I decide to stay, what if travelling gives me a newfound clarity on my life back home, blah blah blah). Fear of failure is, in my opinion, one of the biggest causes of unhappiness and underachievement in the western world.

    As someone who travels a lot (I’m in Thailand as I write this), my advice to people who are thinking about travelling but fretting over the details is always: stop fucking worrying about getting everything exactly right and just buy a plane ticket. You can work the rest out as you go along.

    On an unrelated note, I really recommend ‘The Charge’ by Brendan Burchard. It’s a great book, which according to this post means you’re going to own it.

  3. I like the distinction between easy vs. simple. Never thought of it that way.

  4. I’m a strength coach and writer, and I find all the stuff you said about it being simple, but not easy to be so true in my profession. I often get a lot of people wanting to build their physique, get strong and big

    But there’s just one problem – no commitment.

    They talk, and talk and talk, plan and plan some more but nothing happens.

    A previous nutrition client of mine is a weightlifter and strength coach as well. He has something he says to all of his new clients and it’s so good that I’m beginning to share with all of my newcomers.

    “The most important thing you can do is keep going, and realize that your results, on any one day, are irrelevant. There will be ups and there will be downs. Consistently getting under the bar is what we want, so ignore the daily results.

    Detach your ego from the outcome of any one particular day – the only thing that matters is that you showed up. Daily results are irrelevant in the long run – it is the accumulation of your efforts and habits over time that determine what you get out of any diet or training program”

  5. This is fun.

    The difference between what I’m doing now and before was that before I’d have an absurd and fragile business plan that would require a high wire orchestration and a perfect day. There were so many points of failure…if one of them fell apart, I’d do nothing.

    I don’t really have a business plan now, I just get business, do what makes sense, and seek to pitch in where we have time and skill and there’s a reasonable chance of a return.

  6. Interesting post. I’m like you for the most part, of course just do it, and do it right away. That being said, there is a definite class aspect to that as well though. You have to have the funds to buy the books, or to take the trip, or the ability to take the vacation time, and etc. But when there isn’t actual barriers… Plus some people sit around saying they want to do something but didn’t have time – if they cut out the time they talked about wanting to do it, they would have had the time 😉

    • The book is a great example though. Books are not only cheap, there’s whole places where they let you borrow them for free. If you can’t commit to get a book in your hands even though you say you want one, it has nothing to do with money or class. You’re the problem, you know?

      • And this is why I protest my idiot mayor trying to cut our library 🙂 Books are indeed the best example to prove the point that there are no barriers but yourself, you’re right!

  7. I just finished The War of Art and I noticed that the concept of Resistance doesn’t just apply to art. It’s everywhere. Even the simplest choices like “I should be nicer to my mother,” fall apart after awhile for most people.

    I forget who said “how you do anything is how you do everything,” but I think they have it right. I would be willing to bet that your friend who wants to go to China has other things in life that he “really wants to do,” but he never does and never will do.

  8. Hello.

    Thanks for your post Ryan.

    The post seems to have provoked responses from readers who identify with either the do’er or the ‘excuser’.

    How about the ‘unknower’, a person who will bite the bullet and throw caution to the wind and manifest their goals when they are decided upon a particular thing, but who for whatever reason doesn’t have a particular goal, or purpose?

    Any thoughts, suggestions would be extremely appreciated.

  9. A few years ago (ok, maybe more like a decade) I read an interview with Will Smith and he said something similar: “Find out where you want to go, and work backwards on the steps to get there. Then start at the beginning”. He’s actually given out quite a few gems over the years (look it up).

    That being said, I’ve applied this way of thinking to quite a few things over the years and if you ‘show up everyday’ you will see results. Reading this made me realize that I’ve literally paralyzed myself with negative thinking over the last few years because I’m constantly starting at the end.

    • Thanks Chris.

      For my information are you able to say what it is you did/accomplished in the application of Will’s advise?

      • One was about finding a good relationship, and being pro-active in seeking out the traits I wanted (instead of just accepting whatever crossed my path). I envisioned what the characteristics of a ‘perfect’ mate would be, formed that into a hierarchy, immediately disqualified those who didn’t make the cut and also tuned my own behavior to make myself more attractive to that ideal.

        Yeah, it sounds pretty cold, but after watching a few friends embrace bad relationships I realized that guys aren’t really conditioned to treat this aspect of their lives in the same way they approach their careers (or even buying a car) and most end up miserable because of it. The reality is that a lot of them just roll the dice on what is arguably the most important life decision one can make.

        There’s obviously more to it (now that I read it this sounds like an eHarmony commercial) but the outcome of this was that I’ve been in a healthy relationship for ten years now (we honestly function better than most of the married couples we hang out with) and our interests are constantly evolving together instead of that bullshit push/pull behavior that develops after a few years. We’re also planning out the next ten together..

  10. Ryan,

    You’re clearly a genius. Looking forward to your book, especially how it’s been recommended by Robert Greene.
    I’ve not even got the book yet but you’re already on my list of people i’d like to hire if I ever got a television deal.


  11. Ryan, I appreciate how your clear description of the method for making things happen (simply doing them) puts an individual in a place where they want to be (or think they can be).

    Your work and recommendations give me a better sense of clarity on who I to listen to, where I spend my time, and what I projects I pursue. Much thanks -George

  12. So little applause to get up in the morning at the time you said you would (in your own mind). So little back slapping to not eating the bad that you said was bad the night before.

    I is an other.

    Post well done. Jarvis interview was well done as well.

    Thank you.

  13. Oh, and get on Joe Rogan. Lots of people that listen to him are in the marketing arena. Comedians could also use your work.

  14. I liked this post. It reminded me of a story I heard or read somewhere. I can’t find it on the net, so I’ll paraphrase: a group of travelers seeking enlightenment went to the Himalayas, and happened on an old woman that spoke dozens of languages, had written many wise books, etc. When they remarked on her achievements and her hard work, she replied that the hard part wasn’t endeavoring to do what she had done, but making the initial decision to do so.

  15. Do not go on Joe Rogan. It would be a disaster.

      • Because intellectually speaking you’re way out of Joe Rogan’s league. It’s definitely not my intention to insult Rogan, but your time would certainly be better spent elsewhere. I mean if you feel up for it, by all means go ahead, but expect a lot of digressions into talk of pot, ancient civilizations, mixed martial arts, etc. Let’s just say it’s not the most focused/organized podcast out there.

        • Please dude, Joe Rogan is not only fucking smart but his show is maybe one of THE most popular shows for that demographic period. If he wanted to have me, I’d do it in two seconds.

          • I love the Joe Rogan podcast. Sure I turn it off sometimes because he isn’t talking about things that interest me… but sometimes I’m deeply inspired and captivated by Joe and his guests. I’d love to see you on his show Ryan. Send him a tweet (i’ll send him one now to get you on there.)

  16. I could be wrong since I obviously don’t know what you’re like in person, but it seems like it would be another Hamilton Morris episode waiting to happen.

  17. I think it would be a good fit for you to go on the Adam Carolla podcast. He started his podcast when he got fired from radio in 2009. Then some other station offered him a multi-million multi-year guaranteed contract but he refused because he preferred his pirate ship (=podcast).

    His “Celebrity Apprentice cooked the show…Fuck NBC, Fuck Celebrity Apprentice, Fuck Buick…I don’t give a shit cause I got a pirate ship…We don’t need them anymore, it’s a new paradigm”-rant is a good example of how media is changing.


    Plus he understands that making your boss look good is the path to success – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbR4N_Y4Uko

    Tim Ferriss was on the show last year – http://www.voicebase.com/voice_file/public_detail/55126

  18. You’re right on the money here and I’m with you.

    I wanted to learn to surf and I moved to Australia and started surfing. One year later, I got spit out the back of a barrel (hard to do surfing trick) in Indonesia. I wanted to muster cattle on horseback, 3 monts later I was scared shitless riding a horse and moving cattle. It’s been like this for a lot of things.

    The key to doing cool things, is doing them. Easy-peasy-japanesey.

    Thanks for all your writing mate.


  19. I see Ryan’s contempt for:

    “I’m thinking about traveling to China.”

    “Oh I heard that book was good and I’m thinking about buying it.”

    Then I read:


    “I’ve learned recently that its better to tell people that I might do something or that maybe I will be going to this. You get better feedback this way.” -Ryan Holiday


    Then I read at the end of the “Maybe and Might” article:

    “What this means presenting externally the signs of ambivalence, while beneath, know firmly what you intend to do and how you intend to do it. Because, with the exception of special circumstances, people who seem sure of themselves and their future are threatening. On the outside, be like everyone else: indolent and unsure and drifting. On the inside: none of these things.” -Ryan Holiday


    I kind of answered my own unasked question regarding a discrepancy.

    But now I recall:

    “Timidity is dangerous: Better to enter with boldness. Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity. Everyone admires the bold; no one honors the timid.” -Robert Greene (Law 28: Enter Action with Boldness)

    It seems all agree that one should be bold within, but my question regards appearing bold.

    Is it a choice between being viewed with contempt but untargeted and being admired but targeted? Is it a case-by-case decision?

    What should one choose around acquaintances and coworkers?
    What about employers?
    Close friends?
    (I’d assume “just be yourself” with the last category.)

    Thank you for your time,
    An impressionable youth

  20. We live in a immediate satisfaction culture. People forget about the how simple it just to do it. Don’t think about saving money, put $25 away a month if your broke. Its $25 and work your way up from there. It doesn’t have to be a great big leap, just a step. I’m glad you mention the books that are good. My library grows and grows. I read a lot, and add more books to my library monthly. Since I have buy books at a rate faster than I can read them, it may take me 3 or 4 months to get to it, but its there when I’m ready to do so.

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