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Power of Incrementalism

My college ethics professor started our senior year with an antique balance scale on his desk. He placed a single toothpick in one of the trays and asked if we detected a difference. Of course, the lone toothpick had no perceptible impact – the trays appeared level. Throughout the year, he deposited additional toothpicks, one by one, to either side.  Over time, it was obvious. The scale was no longer balanced.


“I give you,” he said, “the power of incrementalism.”


The majority of us will not tip the scale in dramatic fashion. It is unlikely we will launder money or steal a car, nor will we open an orphanage or solve global warming.  With few exceptions, we will live in the middle – a perpetual mixture.


We take meals to our elderly neighbors, AND we secretly hope our friend doesn’t get the promotion. We volunteer at a food pantry, AND we gossip about our co-workers.


A toothpick here, a toothpick there.


Our lives are marked by the minor actions and words that continually inch us forward or backward. The sum of small efforts repeated day-in-and-day-out.


It isn’t the one time we yelled at our child or the one time we donated to charity. One toothpick has little effect. Rather, it’s the accumulation of micro interactions that tip the scale. It’s the mood we bring to work, our availability to others. The power of little decisions that build momentum for something bigger.


 This is life – a series of moments and choices. Some days, we’re gracious, forgiving, and generous. Others, we’re selfish, petty, and bitter. Most often, we end a day having deposited several toothpicks on each side of the scale. It is the repetitive, consistent actions we amass over time that hopefully tip us in the direction of meaningful impact.




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