Thriving in the middle: the power of small wins

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

It was Lao Tzu who coined the famous Chinese proverb that has now been immortalized in Instagram posts and coffee mugs. Now, we’re most certainly not going to argue against the founder of the philosophical Taoism and a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions.

However, we did find that aphorism incomplete. Yes, taking the first step is a big deal. In some cases, we even need to take a leap of faith to do just that. But, then what? What happens next after we take the single step? What will carry us through the finish line?

Beginning, middle, and end

These are simple questions that have a profound impact on us, Product Narrative. After all, life itself is a journey. Or, we should say life consists of multiple journeys, both figuratively and literally. A journey to get your business off the ground. Or, a journey to the beach to catch the last rays of the summer.

A journey consists of three stages: beginning, middle, and end. At the beginning, we are excited and thrilled to get started. We cannot wait to dive right in. Or, it’s possible you feel dread, depending on what you’re getting yourself into. At the end, we welcome a sense of relief, which can be accompanied by joy or a tinge of disappointment, depending on whether it went as expected.

The middle is where it gets tricky. It can be seen as the least favorite of the stages and rightfully so: this is where the goings get tough.

Hiccups and challenges

In the middle is where you’ll find hiccups and obstacles. You are halfway through and your energy is depleting fast because you are exerting a certain amount of effort and focus to reach the end. Uncertainties are your (constant) companion. The clock might seem to slow its relentless ticking. It can feel like an eternity, to put it dramatically.

All of us are in the middle of something. You might be in the middle of an important project that will give you a promotion at work. You might be in the middle of writing your thesis. Or, you might be in the middle of planning a wedding with the love of your life.

Anyone who’s been in the middle can attest that it was a trying time. Looking back, some said it wasn’t like what they had expected at the beginning. It could feel harder at times. Your patience and persistence were tested. So was your conviction. You’d get knocked down more than once, and some days you didn’t want to get back up. No wonder this is where most people fail.

Nonetheless, in the middle is also where we found the answer to our question. This is where we realized while a single step got you started, it wouldn’t get you to the finish line. The steps alone would no longer be adequate. You’d need something else; a concrete form, one that’s encouraging and help you to keep putting one foot in front of the other consistently during tough times.

Small wins

In Product Narrative, we have a tradition that unknowingly has helped us to thrive in the middle. Every Friday, after we wrap up an OKR review session, there’s one more thing we do before we shout TGIF: list down our weekly small wins.

“Goals can only take you so far. And goals — especially the big ones — can be demotivating. Small wins, on the other hand, gives you constant motivation. They help you to see progress toward your big and scary goals.” Dan Silvestre

The concept of small wins is based on the idea that progress, no matter how small, is worth celebrating. Gone are the days when we need to wait until we reach the end goal before we can start popping the champagne. In fact, the bigger the goal, the more we realize that they don’t happen overnight. Remember, Rome was not built in a day.

When you write your small wins for the first time, don’t be surprised if it feels unnatural, especially if you are still at the beginning of your journey. This happened to us. When we did this in the first month after Product Narrative was founded, it was really difficult. We felt we hadn’t achieved much. In the end, we decided to write that we are punctual for our very first meeting with a prospective client.

A few weeks later, we got into conversations with Midtrans to explore possibilities to work together. This was a win for us even though there was no confirmed deal at the time.

We could recall this was the first time we felt the power of small wins. In the beginning, we believed consistently writing small wins is an exercise to give an appreciation for the work we had done, no matter how small it was. There were times when we wrote being healthy as a win, because we survived those long hours in some week. People often neglected their health (e.g. by consuming a high level of sugar and junk food) under stress, working long hours. We consciously decided not to join the bandwagon. This was our way of acknowledging that we were well on our way to achieving our goals. Many successes can be appreciated “in the middle” on the way to reach the final goal.

A couple of small wins helped us to start 2019 right: a signed deal with Midtrans and we were also getting into conversations with OKR coaches in the US, UK, China, Brazil, and India. Fast forward a couple of months later, Glints invited us to give a talk about OKR to 70+ people. In June, we partnered with RISE to give OKR Masterclass Workshop in Bangkok, Thailand.

For us, each small win is connected with one another. We leverage one to keep us energized, perhaps just enough to reach the next mini-milestone. This keeps us from throwing in the towel. Together, they helped us to climb up the ladder.

"Acknowledging small wins sparks the reward circuitry of our brains and releases chemicals that gives us the feeling of pride, giving us the feel-good and happiness factor and makes us want to go further towards our next achievement." - Lifehack

You and I might never know how long we will be in the middle. Depending on the end goal we set, some will go through it longer than the rest. This is why having small wins is important: it reminds us of how far we’ve come.

Three of our most recent small wins did just that:

  1. Our founder was invited for an interview with Daily Social to talk about OKR and its role in helping startups to innovate;
  2. An op-ed on; one of Asia’s respected tech media platform;
  3. Tech in Asia — a media, events, and job platforms for Asia’s tech communities — planned to translate 4 (four) editions of Shared Narrative to the Indonesian language. This was published 3 weeks ago, based on our SN#15

A few days ago, when we looked at our weekly small wins, we intentionally took the time to compare it with the first one we wrote in 2018. What started as being punctual for our meeting has grown into what we are today. We high-fived: not bad at all.

This is by no means saying we have reached the end. We are still in the middle. But, these days we feel very energized, more than ever. Religiously writing weekly small wins finally pays off: it helps us not only to survive the hardships in the middle, but also to enjoy it.

Thus, if we could humbly give Lao Tzu’s famous aphorism a refresh, we’d change it to, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and a small win.


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