Small is Beautiful

February 26th, 2013

Freddie Mercury, the larger than life lead singer for Queen, said

The bigger the better; in everything.

With all due respect to Freddie, and I have  LOT of respect for him, I’m not so sure about this one. When size is the prize, nothing is ever big enough.

The bigger is better mindset is one of the greatest myths, sold to us by people who make money out of our insatiable desires born of deep seated insecurity.

So what’s the alternative? Do you have to shrink your ambition and vision to get life back into balance?

Some things you want to be big, like courage and imagination. It’s like the saying, “Don’t shrink your dreams. Super size your courage.” So how do you find the balance between big and small things?

A teenage girl was struggling with teenage issues. Her parents wanted her to learn about life and find some inner peace, so they sent her to have the experience of a lifetime. She travelled for two days before arriving at the most amazing mansion, high atop a mountain. Legend had that it one of the wisest people to ever live owned the mansion.

She entered the mansion and found a castle full of the most amazing activity; master gardeners, craftspeople, more books than she’s ever seen before, orchestras playing in rooms filled with incredible food. She waited her turn and eventually had her interview with the wise man. She explained why she was there and said she was looking for the secret to happiness.

He said to her, “Go and walk around the house. See what you see and come back to me in two hours. Just one thing- take this spoon, put two drops of oil on it and don’t spill the oil.”

She started walking carefully around the mansion, up and down ornate staircases and through busy corridors. She kept her eyes focused on the spoon. Exhausted after two hours of intense concentration, she returned to the wise man.

“Well,” he said, “Did you enjoy what you saw?”

She said, “I saw nothing. All I did was focus on the spoon and not spilling the oil.”

“So you didn’t see the amazing Persian rugs on the wall, or the incredible gardens tended by the finest gardeners in the world, or the exotic collection of books and ancient parchments….?”

“No!” she said, “I just looked at the spoon.”

“Go again,” he said, “and this time take it all in. Then come back and see me in two hours.”

This time, she was captivated by what she saw. The art work, the view, the variety of foods. She was so entranced by what she experienced that she didn’t even notice that she had spilled the oil and put the spoon down on a table while filling her plate. After two hours, she went back and told the wise man in great detail what she’d seen.

 “But where are the drops of oil?” asked the wise man.

She realized that the spoon and the oil were gone.

“There is only one piece of advice I can give to you” said the wise men. “The secret of happiness is to experience all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”

Think big, AND stay mindful. See yourself as part of an incredible world where there is always more to experience AND focus on the small moments of joy and connection right in front of you.

Remember how large your inner capacity is for love and perseverance and creating spectacular things, AND know that often this large capacity manifests in beautifully small ways. Inner peace is the biggest thing, and it leads to happiness.

E F Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered was voted one of the 100 most influential books published since World War II. It offers some awesome ways to re-frame size and goals. While we tend to think that consumption is an end in itself, he says well-being is the end and consumption is just a means to that end. So, we should aim for maximum well-being with minimum consumption.  This is a great definition of “enough”- enough things to maximize your well-being, but no more. As soon as you have more than enough, the need to strive to maintain the lifestyle takes over from the initial goal, which is well-being. In that case, it’s the size of our insecurity that drives our lifestyle rather than the level of well-being.

In the end, the bigger is better mindset demands so much and offers so little.

Imagine getting this balance right. It requires a large sense of self to let go of the insecurities in order to appreciate the small beauty that surrounds you. The less craving there is, the more time and energy you have for activities that build your well-being.

Dare yourself to let go of your attachments to things and claim what you really want anyway. As Schumacher says in the book,

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.

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  1. Sam says:

    How would a passionate hobby fit into this?

    For instance, I am very passionate about specialty coffee. I love the process and the story present in each cup. From the people that pick the berries, process the fruit, clean and process the beans, export them, roast them, and then put them on the shelves for purchasing, I am constantly amazed. The passion, energy, and life that go into each bag is really amazing. Now, I own nice equipment for making my morning cup that really enhances my enjoyment at home and my connection to the cup – although I love sharing coffee with a friend even more. For me, it’s not about the acquisition of exciting new equipment, as much as it is about the enjoyment, connection, and passion. Obviously, within the larger scheme of my life, there are FAR more important things, but coffee (along with the world of craft beer) is an industry that I find intriguing and am passionate about.

    A part of it is the passionate people that work in these industries, but the story present in these simple pleasures are part of the enjoyment. Regardless of the fact that I have a collection of glassware, a home roaster, hand grinders, etc. What really matters to me is the enjoyment itself. I suppose the equipment/glassware are part of enhancing the enjoyment, but aren’t there for reasons of appearance. It’s really all about personal enjoyment, connection (to the moment and with others – friends and people in these industries), and the passion present.

    Am I correct in understanding this article’s message as: Don’t lose your focus of what really matters through acquisition and greed.

    For me, the world of food, beer, coffee, etc. is filled with stories, passionate people, and connection. It’s one way in which I connect to the world and with others. It is culture, it is history, and it’s pretty damn tasty as well! I can’t say that I would ever want to be viewed as better for what I choose to eat or drink, because they are decisions that I do not make with the perception of others in mind. I’m not sure if I am making sense, or where the question is in all of this, but thought I would share.

    Important to note that above all, my wife and my son-to-be (two and a half more months) are the most important things in my life – although I will need to learn to perfect a pourover cup of coffee with kettle in one hand and baby in the other 😉 

    Thanks for another thought provoking article. 

  2. Sam says:

    I get it now. Kind of missed the big point. Balance. Enjoying the world and everything in it, but not losing site of what is right there in front of you. 

    I guess that is exactly how a hobby or other passion fits into my life. It’s part of the balance. 

  3. susan scott says:

    Lovely story thank you!

  4. bertie says:

    Strange that you should mention Freddy Mercury – there was a little known pop group asked to play at one of Freddys birthday parties – they were asked if they wanted to be paid or to go to the party – they were really short of money and were having a hard time but felt that Freddy might be able to help so they took the party.

    Well, they did their stuff and joined the party – well there were two parties, an inner and an outer.  They were also disgusted to find that they had to pay for the food and drink.  After a while the great man himself came out – shook a few hands and dissapeared again.    No time for them, or any connections either.

    Disgusted they packed their gear and decided to leave – as they were trundling the last bit into the van one of the group mentioned theyd seen a gigantic birthday cake on a trolley in a corner – so they all went to have a look – pink and enormous it was – unanimously they took hold of the trolley the cake sat on and put it in the van with the rest of the gear.
    On they way home they passed an enormous old folks home – steered the van in and offered the cake – the staff were delighted.
    They got home to find a police car and several officers waiting for them – “cake, naaaah, dont know what you’re talking about,”   Freddys manager was on the phone screaming at them, same answer.

    So is there a message – sure, life is far too serious to be taken seriously – its short so make the most of it, and steer clear of those to whom money is all important. 
    As for doing things – its what life is all about – we are designed to have one overriding function, to reproduce – that is as powerful as creating – without that we are like a sailess ship.  

    You want happiness, then be creative.           

  5. Catherine says:

    There was a time in  my life when I worked really hard at doing a job I really hated.  I was financially wealthy but spiritually poverty stricken.  My world was then turned on it’s head, I became financially poor and learned about how rich my life really was.

    I now do work that I love  helping other be their full potential in the world, because I had to learn to be my full potential.  My spiritual and financial life co-exist in harmony and I have time to enjoy my family and doing the things that I love.

    Blessings in abundance


  6. Vincent says:

    Great post Ian,

    Another perspective on your post is that to hold a pulse for an authentic vision for who you are and what you do (the marvels).  Once you hold that pulse like a GPS co-ordinate ahead of you, you can concentrate in the things in front of you that you need to focus on (the drops of oil) and the combination of the authentic vision and the more detailed focus provide a rich experience for you to become who you truly are.

    Looking forward to your next post! 


  7. Anonymous says:

    Big thanks to you!

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