Note: I started writing this six months ago until I became distracted by a tasty looking squirrel. I am no longer feeling either curmudgeonly or pedantic, but I am feeling like my blog hasn’t been updated in WAY too long. So here goes.
A few days ago I stumbled across a motivational page for marketers which contained an aphorism. Since reading it, I have discovered that this aphorism has become lodged in my subconscious. And not lodged in my subconscious like a an acorn taking root in loamy, fertile soil, either. It’s more like having a chunk of stinky french cheese wedged into your sinus cavity just out of reach of your fingers. Here is the phrase:
Enough molehills is all you need to have a mountain.
Because I am feeling both curmudgeonly AND pedantic, let us review this simple premise on both its literal and figurative levels, in that order.
To begin with, the idea of actually making a mountain out of molehills isn’t really a new one; the ancient Britons did it 4,500 years ago. Silbury Hill covers about 5 acres, contains a quarter million cubic meters of chalk, soil, and gravel, and is estimated to have required more than 15 million person-hours of labor to complete (roughly equivalent to the entire population of Bellingham, WA working together for one year, with weekends off but without any holidays). And yet the finished result looks a great deal like a glacier may have developed intestinal cramps and stopped at the side of the road to empty its bowels.
Part of the problem is that molehills are made of dirt. And dirt, unlike concrete blocks, bricks, or even loose rocks, does not lend itself to stacking. It simply doesn’t stay where you put it. There’s a reason why sandcastles are so popular but mudcastles are so very not. There is also a reason why the pyramids are revered as icons of human accomplishment and Silbury Hill is in danger of being compared to glacier poo.
The author is not, of course, encouraging people to trundle a quarter million cubic yards of molehills into a central area over the course of many decades. His point is simple, gratifying in its apparent practicality, and rational in its optimism — at least, it is at first glance. The premise is that a great many small things, carried out diligently over a sufficiently long period of time, must inevitably produce something great. You don’t need a grand plan and you don’t need luck; you just need the determination to do many, many small things with faith that they will eventually congeal into a large one. Unfortunately, this metaphor doesn’t hold up figuratively either. The power of positive thinking may add a few months or years to your life, but it won’t raise your IQ or make your investments flourish. All the little things must gel together; they must cohere long enough for the structure to rise.
I acknowledge Mr. Godin’s wise adherence to a policy of consistent execution, a necessity for anything — careers, relationships, homes, pyramids — to be built. But please use bricks, not dirt. Trust me, it’ll work out better and your aphorism will be in less danger of shredding by a curmudgeonly fellow like myself.