When I was a teenager, my dad told me a story about his grandfather. According to my dad’s story, when my great-grandfather, John, was a boy coming of age, probably right around the age I was when my father was telling me this story, he lived on a farm with his parents. One day, one of their cows had a baby calf, and my great-great-grandfather called his son out to the barn. He said, “Son, I want you to put this calf on your shoulders and lift it.”
After a puzzled look at his father, John proceeded to put the calf on his shoulders and lift it up. “Good.” his father said. “Now, when you wake up every morning before you do anything else, I want you to come back out to the barn, put this calf on your shoulders, and lift it just like you did here today. Before you go to sleep each night, I want you to come out to the barn and do the same. No matter what else you do each day, I expect you to lift this calf every morning and every night.”
While John thought this was a strange thing to ask, his father had a certain way of commanding respect, so every morning and every evening he faithfully walked out to the barn, put the calf on his shoulders, and lifted it. Having worked on the farm throughout his childhood, John was quite fit, and lifting this calf was an easy task for him.
Several weeks went by, with John faithfully lifting the calf every morning and every evening. One day, though, John was spending time with friends late into the evening and arrived home later than usual. It had been a long day already, and lifting the calf was such an easy task, he decided that skipping it this evening would be no problem. What did it matter, anyway? It’s not like lifting this calf served any purpose. It was just some silly thing his father had asked him to do.
The next morning, as expected, John was able to lift the calf just as easily as before, and his father was none the wiser that he had skipped the task the evening prior. Emboldened by this, he began to skip the task more regularly. Sometimes he would skip the morning lift if he felt in a hurry or tired, and sometimes he would skip the evening lift after a long, hard day. Occasionally, he would skip an entire day.
After several weeks of this, John went out to the barn one morning to lift the calf. He positioned himself as he normally did, began the lift, and met unexpected resistance. He pushed with all of his strength, but the calf would not budge. He adjusted his position, tried again, but could not lift the calf off the ground. Frustrated, he continued to try for nearly an hour to pick up the calf, but his efforts were in vain.
As John thought through the situation, panic began to set in. He couldn’t understand what had happened. He had been able to lift the calf so easily before, what had changed? As he was thinking through the situation, he realized it had been a few days since the last time he had lifted the calf. He knew that he would have to face his father and tell him what had happened.
John went to his father, ashamed, and broke down in tears as he told his father the truth: “I lifted the calf so easily. I didn’t understand why you wanted me to do it every day. Eventually, I started skipping it from time to time. I didn’t think it would matter… But now I can’t lift the calf anymore.”
My great-great-grandfather looked into John’s eyes and said: “Boy, look over at the field by the barn. That’s not a calf anymore, it’s a damn cow. It was growing with you, so you weren’t able to see the transition. If you faithfully lift the calf every day, it’ll never feel like you have to lift a cow.”
My dad presented that story to me as fact. A “true” story passed down from my great-grandfather to his son, and from my grandfather to my dad, and from my dad to me. At the time my dad was telling me this, I was beginning to have real responsibilities for the first time in my life. I was helping out as an auctioneer’s assistant at our local auction house on the weekends. It wasn’t a real “formal” job, but it allowed me to make ~$25 on a Saturday night. I was also signed up to play on my high school football team, having never played football before. He was teaching me the value of consistent and reliable effort.
I intuitively knew that even if you did pick the calf up twice a day every day, it would eventually get too large to lift anyway, but I guess it seemed plausible enough for me to internalize the lesson wrapped within the story, even if I thought the story itself was a bit farfetched. Years later, I was reading about ancient Greek history when I stumbled across Milo of Croton’s story. He was a highly decorated 6th-century BC wrestler and military leader. Among the many tales of his nearly superhuman strength was that he once carried a four-year-old bull on his shoulders. He was said to have been able to do this by lifting and carrying a newborn calf daily from childhood as it grew to maturity.
At some point, the story of Milo of Croton had been adapted and personalized by someone in my family to teach a lesson. I’m actually not sure if it’s a story my grandfather was told and then passed down to my dad, or if it started with my dad. Either way, for whatever reason, as the lesson applied to my professional responsibilities, it really landed with me. From that very first job as an auctioneer’s assistant to my first day on the football field to a day in the office last week, I’ve made it a point to take my responsibilities very seriously and try to do the little things right at all times.
I once told an abridged version of my dad’s calf story during a job interview as a way to demonstrate my willingness to “lift the calf” for the company every day. Going into that interview, I don’t think I had given conscious consideration to that story in well over 10 years, but one of the questions I was asked triggered a memory of that conversation with my dad in my early teenage years, and it came flowing out as if he had told me the story yesterday. I got the job.
If you’re like me, you’ve caught yourself daydreaming about what life would be like if certain aspects of your world were different. I wish I were more physically fit. I hope I get that promotion. If only I had more money. I really hope I win the Powerball. It’s natural to think about those “What if?” scenarios, and it’s hard not to be envious of others sometimes. In most cases, though, highly successful people got there through being incredibly consistent and paying attention to the seemingly unimportant daily details.
If it seems like someone is always getting lucky breaks, it probably means they’re regularly putting themselves in advantageous positions and doing the little things consistently. That person you know who seems to have lost a ton of weight very quickly has probably been battling cravings, counting calories, and getting their heart rate up every day for months. At some point, though, there’s a breakthrough. Maybe they battle through a plateau they’ve been stuck at for weeks or they buy a new set of clothes that emphasizes the work that’s been happening. You hadn’t noticed the gradual transformation as it was happening each day, until one day you did.
“Gradually, then suddenly.”– Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
When he says “Gradually, then suddenly.”, Hemingway is talking about how someone went bankrupt. This concept very succinctly describes how almost everything happens, though. People typically become obese, find themselves in crippling debt, get stuck in failed relationships, and other equally unpleasant things gradually over an extended period of time. It doesn’t feel that way while it’s happening, though. Stopping for fast food here and there, deciding to buy a little more today than you planned to because you’ve got the available limit on your credit card, and that little passive-aggressive remark you made because you were displeased about something but didn’t want to actually talk about it all seem minor and inconsequential when they happen. And as a one-off, isolated incident, they probably are. Nobody is perfect, and nearly everything is okay in moderation.
These behaviors start to feel normal if you let them. They become habits. Now you’ve developed a routine. Monday nights you get Arby’s on the way home. You’ve gotten so many compliments on your new shoes… So what if they were expensive? That’s why you have credit. You’ll pay it back eventually. Those passive-aggressive comments are starting to be less passive and more aggressive. Or maybe you just avoid each other altogether. This gradual buildup was happening for weeks… months… years even… And then suddenly, you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see. You step on the scale and you’ve gained 50 pounds. Your credit card gets declined because that $15,000 limit is maxed out and they won’t give you a limit increase because your debt-to-income ratio is too high. Your significant other is staying with their friend for a while.
There’s good news, though! This concept works in reverse for the good stuff too. You just have to have the discipline to do the gradual work to get the “sudden” result. It is important to develop an effective process for achieving your desired results and faithfully stick to that process. To lose weight, you must have a calorie deficit. In other words, your body must burn more calories than it consumes. There are lots of strategies for losing weight, and it’s important to tailor your own strategy to yourself so that you’ll be able to stick to it, but at the end of the day, you must have a calorie deficit to lose weight. To get out of debt and build wealth, your income must be greater than your outgo. You must bring in more money than you spend. There are lots of ways to generate income, and again, it’s important to choose a strategy that is suitable to you as an individual, but if you spend more than you bring in, you will continue to become more and more in debt. All relationships (romantic or otherwise) have invisible emotional “accounts” in which positive interactions (compliments, favors, etc.) are deposits and negative interactions (insults, being inconsiderate, etc.) are withdrawals. If you withdraw more than you deposit, the relationship is doomed to fail.
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.”– James Clear, Atomic Habits
In psychology, there is a concept called “Locus of Control” that deals with how strongly people believe they have control over the situations and experiences that impact their lives. A person with an internal locus of control believes that they determine their own fate, while someone with an external locus of control believes that someone or something else will control their destiny. After being passed over for a promotion at work, someone with an internal locus of control would spend some time reflecting on what they might have done better to position themselves properly to be the right choice for the job or be better prepared for the interview. They will use this setback as a catalyst for self-improvement, and will become stronger because of what they learned from the experience. Someone with an external locus of control will feel that they were treated unfairly. Rather than using the experience to improve, they will typically make matters worse by approaching work with a bad attitude, putting in less effort, and being less committed to quality work. They allow one unfavorable moment to snowball into a self-perpetuating negative cycle, all while never realizing they have the power to change things in their favor.
To begin making positive changes, you must first identify that there are things that need to change and spend some time reflecting on the lifestyle choices you’ve made that have led you to where you are. From there, you must set clear goals and outline a clear plan to achieve those goals. A good plan should have a very clearly defined objective or objectives, it should be simple and clear, but comprehensive, and it should have specific actionable items that can be validated so that you can be held accountable (by yourself or an accountability partner).
Let’s say you’ve had your eye on a promotion at work. You want to be absolutely sure you’re ready when the opening presents itself, so that you’re a shoe-in for the job. Most people will fantasize about being in the position and having the added authority, responsibility, pay, and glamour that comes with the title. They’ll daydream about their new business cards and getting to brag about their promotion at the next family get-together. Then they won’t do anything to make those dreams a reality. Getting lost in these thoughts gives us a sense that we are special, and that we deserve the manifestation of these dreams. You’re aware of this pitfall, though. You’re going to work to understand what is required for you to get this promotion, and then you’re going to do the work necessary to make it happen.
Your plan might look something like this: I’m going to observe someone who currently does this job and learn from them. I’ll identify opportunities for improvement and build a plan to close the gaps once I am in position. During the interview, I’ll talk about all the things I’m great at and provide some predictions about how certain metrics will improve based on my plan.
None of the things in that plan are inherently bad, and it’s more preparation than most people will do, but there are some glaring issues with it as well. Many aspects of the above are very vague and will be hard to track and hold yourself accountable to. It is also completely self-serving. You’ll find that helping others gets you a lot further a lot faster than only focusing on getting yours.
How does this sound instead? Tomorrow, I will contact my direct manager, the hiring manager, and the person who is currently in the role that I am aiming to be in one day. I will inform them of my desire to work toward being in this role and ask for advice on specific things I can do to help prepare myself for that role. I’ll make a list of the things that they suggest, ask for clarification as needed, and immediately start working to do the things they’ve suggested. Once per month (adjust the frequency as needed based on the complexity of tasks and the expected timeframe for possible job opening) I will follow up with each of these people to give them an update on my progress, seek feedback, and ask additional questions. As I see opportunities that I can have a direct, positive impact on, I will immediately act. I will keep records of the things I’ve done and the impact they’ve had on the business.
In the second plan, we’ve got some specific things to do, along with timeframes in which we are committing to doing them. We are also taking action now, rather than waiting until we are in the position to potentially take action. This gives us the opportunity during the interview to talk about what we’ve already been doing and the impact it has had rather than just what we plan to do. Another benefit here is that you are materially helping the team, which will make the people around you better. You’ll have more support from your peers as you apply for the job because they’ll know you’ve earned it. Additionally, if you help enough, maybe you get the person that is currently occupying the position promoted. If that happens, it’s a win-win situation because the position becomes available sooner for you, and you’ll have a powerful ally who will absolutely support you as their replacement because you’ve helped them get ahead as well. IMPORTANT NOTE: Before considering taking on any sort of stretch assignments or extra workload as you seek a promotion, you should always ensure that you have mastered your current role and continue to exceed expectations in that role as you do the other work. You won’t even get a shot at the interview if you consistently underperform in your current position! Know your own limits and don’t take on more than you can handle.
Everything I’ve mentioned above is learned behavior. You can choose to build good habits and eliminate bad ones. You can choose to have an internal locus of control rather than an external one. You can choose to take time to reflect on your actions and create a plan to reach your goals. You can choose to lift the calf every single day, even on the days when you don’t really feel like it. If you do, you’ll never feel like you’re lifting a cow. You’re the only person who can make this choice, though.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more on these subjects, I strongly recommend:
Atomic Habits by James Clear – Easy-to-read book that is full of practical advice on how to build great habits and eliminate bad ones.
The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego Is the Enemy, and Stillness Is the Key by Ryan Holiday – A terrific trio of books that will help you break down your own mental barriers and be the best version of yourself.
The Art of Learning by Joshua Waitzkin – A fascinating book about optimizing performance and knowing how to avoid unsustainable bursts of productivity or inspiration followed by long, unproductive periods of burnout.
Start With Why by Simon Sinek – A great book to help you identify the core of who you are and why you do what you do, which will help tremendously in setting the right goals for the right reasons.
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