The life-changing power of small things

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series The life-changing power of small things

 On May 21, James Citrin, the author of The Career Playbook who is also the leader and CEO Practice at Spencer Stuart delivered the Wesleyan University Phi Beta Kappa Commencement Address. This post has been adapted and condensed from that speech by the man himself and reproduced here without any alterations whatsoever.

Cooperstown, New York is famous for one thing: the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is the pinnacle of success in the sport and being inducted into The Hall is the dream of every kid playing little league and every major leaguer as well.

But, of course, it is extraordinarily difficult to get in.

There are only 312 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. To be inducted, as a hitter, you have to bat an average of .302. That means for every at-bat, over the course of a season, you will get a hit 30% of the time. But here’s the thing: The average major leaguer bats .271, which means that for every at-bat, they will get a hit 27% of the time. Over the course of a season of 162 games, the difference between being in the middle of the pack and the best of the best is just 18 hits per year, or one more hit every 17 games! The hall of fame studied, practiced, and worked overtime to get that smallest of advantages to getting just one extra hit every 17 games. And the results are immortality.

The key lesson of the Baseball Hall of Fame is to find the small but significant ways to achieve incremental improvements and apply them consistently over time.

I’ve come to discover that such small things when applied consistently and over long periods of time, can change your life. Small things, applied consistently and over long periods of time, also lead to massive success. Also, they can help you achieve health and happiness. And indeed, they can help you change the world.

Here are some concrete ways to do just that.

Saving and compound interest

Let’s start with a topic that is not particularly polite to talk about. Money. It seems crass to talk about money in this august setting when we are here to celebrate your intellectual and academic achievements. Money isn’t only delicate to talk about here and now. Even in a job interview, it’s tricky to talk honestly about it, because most employers want to hire people who are driven to be a part of their organization for more noble reasons. And that’s fine.

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But let’s face it. Money is important, to one degree or another. If you have student loans to repay, if you would like to travel internationally, live in a good home in a nice community with good schools, it’s important. If you want to support causes that you care about, it’s important. And, of course, if you want to make big donations to Wesleyan one day, it’s imperative!


Money is also an example where it pays to understand the power of small things. The first small thing is an insight, so obvious that it is easy to overlook. That is, if you want to make a lot of money, the single best way to do that is to go into a field that pays well.

To quote New York Times columnist Ben Stein, “Over the years, I have seen it. Smart men and women in finance and corporate law always grow rich, or at least well-to-do. Incredibly smart men and women in short-story writing, or anthropology, or acting rarely do.” This is effective advice, especially if your interests, skills, and values align with those areas of business – like finance, banking, engineering, consulting, or biotech – that generate high profitability and therefore enable organizations in those fields to pay well.

But what if you are drawn to other, more creative or mission-driven work, like short-story writing, anthropology, or acting, not to mention public service, international development, or academia? Here is where the power of small things can come to the rescue again.

That is the arithmetic of saving, investing and compounding, over time. And there is no time to waste. If you save just a few percentage points of what you earn every month and invest it, even with single digit returns, over time that will grow to become a lot of money, thanks to the power of compounding. Let’s say you develop the discipline of saving $300 per month (preceding restaurants and bars for a while perhaps).

That’s 6% of your salary if you’re earning $60,000 a year. And let’s say you invest it at a 5% rate of return. Over 25 years this will grow to become $175,000. Nice. But if you can find a way to invest in a 10% return and wait just another ten years, then that is your easiest and most surefire way to become a millionaire. That $300 a month becomes $1,028,000.

So money is an area where there is the life-changing power of small things. Let’s take a look at another. Fitness.





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