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Dreaming big means getting more done

The architect Daniel Burnham is quoted as saying:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.

Burnham’s concept of “no little plans” is nothing short of the city of Chicago—a city well acquainted with grand projects (let’s not forget that time in the 1860s when entire city blocks were elevated by engineers to make room for sewers). His quote is repeated as motivation to reach for the stars, put a dent in the universe, or other astronomical metaphors for success. The melancholy “and probably will not themselves be realized,” is often omitted but contains just as much wisdom.

Making little plans in 2005

In 2005, I was the newly hired Web Designer/Developer at a small environmental advocacy organization. In devising my workplan for the coming year, I was encouraged to think big.

The original introduction.

I believe we have reached the time where the promise of the web as a tool for research, social networking, and democracy has finally been met. With the advent of XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and the subsequent push for standards adoption and compliance, applications are beginning to speak in a common language. This evolution is translating into increased partnership possibilities such as APIs for communication between entire user environments. A typical user experience could look like this:

Over breakfast, a member reads the latest headlines (via RSS) along with the New York Times and her favorite blogs. She notes an interview about new green businesses in China, which automatically downloads to her PDA/iPod/PSP. Listening to it on the bus (via a podcast) she thinks, “This is great” and visits our site from her cell phone (which renders fine, via XHTML and CSS) to see what else is there. She emails herself a link to a video where activists confront a banking executive at his favorite restaurant so she can watch it at work. She’s impressed and decides to both donate and attend an action, information that the CMS tracks and sends to our fundraising database and ASP (via an API). The event is added to her personal calendar (via vCal) in Outlook. The day of the event, if she’s opted in, she receives a text message (via SMS) reminding her to visit her local branch.

All of this translates into being a more deeply engrained part of our members’ lives, becoming a touchstone for enabling technology within the movement, and ultimately giving our issues the level of exposure they require and deserve.

My supervisor called me into his office and told me I was being ridiculous. It was revised.

Currently, the web developer/designer is a kink in the garden hose of content distribution. As a result of this bottleneck, many non-urgent changes to the web content happen on an unacceptable timeline. Even the limited implementation of the content management system thus far is transforming the web developer/designer into the sprinkler system at the end of the hose, spraying our glorious content all over the fertile lawn of the web.

Approved July 7th, 2005.

Checking progress in 2012

If we took a look at what has and hasn’t come to pass seven years later, we find that the things that were struck as impossible—

  1. Get latest news headlines delivered to you directly via feed readers (already in existence but ubiquitous by late 2005)
  2. Subscribe and receive podcasts automatically to your iPod (built into iTunes 4.9, released mid-2005)
  3. Browsing the web from your phone (Nokia’s browser incorporated WebKit in mid-2005, but ubiquitous by the iPhone in 2007)
  4. Syncing CMS actions with an online CRM (various implementations)
  5. Getting reminder notifications for calendar events (again, various implementations)

—are the ones that came the most true. Whereas the seemingly low-hanging fruit of consistent content creation, curation, and distribution remains at large. It has even required the birth of a new discipline, content strategy, to be taken seriously as a problem.

Why did the hard stuff get done and the easy stuff wither on the vine? It’s tempting to blame the innovative culture of Silicon Valley venture capitalists that prefer their investments to be profitably disruptive, but this is something that people have studied. They discovered that setting challenging goals increases performance 90% of the time versus setting attainable goals or the general goal to “do your best”.

According to their findings:

  • Dreaming big increases focus. People direct their attention to things they find challenging in ways they don’t for everyday tasks.
  • Dreaming big increases effort. Unsurprisingly, researchers found that people work faster under shorter time limits—but also that their output is scaled in direct proportion to a task’s perceived difficulty.
  • Dreaming big increases persistance. High bars for success translates to people both spending more time upfront and increases the likelihood that they check their work.
  • Dreaming big induces strategic thinking. Small tasks are simply checked off, larger ones require a “let’s think about this” moment which almost always results in more efficient and effective work.
  • Dreaming big makes us feel good. People are shown to respond more to internal motivation factors, namely feelings of achievement, independence, and self-esteem than they are to external motivations like monetary rewards.

All of which seems perfectly logical—even obvious—when presented one at a time. Taken together, they suggest that a strategy of picking small battles and racking up wins is a ultimately a losing one. It’s a shortcut to mediocrity. People work harder and get more done when they’re trying to do something difficult, as long as they believe it’s possible.

Or as Bruce Lee said:

Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.

And then he promptly beat up Chuck Norris.