‘It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little.’ (Sydney Smith)

Okay, so let’s begin by agreeing that it’s not the GREATEST of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little. Hopefully we can agree that it is A MISTAKE to do this. And we’ll see why.

But first a brief word about the author of this quotation, Sydney Smith. He was an English writer and cleric. He made a name for himself as a literary critic and wit, having founded ‘The Edinburgh Review’ in 1802. After leaving Scotland and relocating to London, he became famous as a preacher and lecturer on moral philosophy, and was widely known for his skill at turning a phrase and offering practical observations and wisdom on life. The Smith quotation for today’s post is just one of many of his insightful recorded thoughts. He died in 1845 at the age of 73.

I think it’s a common mistake to choose to do NOTHING when we can only do LITTLE. It seems hardly worth the effort if we cannot progress a significant distance toward our ultimate goal. We think, why bother? Why not just wait until we can accomplish more rather than less? Why squander ANY TIME or ANY ENERGY when we can only do a little rather than a lot?

But as Smith says, this is a mistake. I agree with him on that, and I’d like to offer 3 reasons why I do

Doing a little can break the inertia deadlock

Have you ever put off a project or chore because you felt you didn’t have time to complete it? You didn’t want to start and then have to stop before it was finished? So you resisted beginning. You would return to the task later when you could do MORE rather than only a LITTLE. This makes sense, and there’s a time when it’s the best approach. But often it’s not. Often we just end up putting off what we should do now. And what we don’t start simply gets added to the pile of the other things we haven’t started.

I had a chore I’d been putting off literally for weeks. I was constantly confronted by the fact that I hadn’t even BEGUN—much less finished. Then one day recently, mostly out of frustration, I started working on it. And to my pleasant surprise, by simply STARTING, I immediately overcame the resistance that had plagued me for weeks. It was actually a pleasant task, and I finished it embarrassingly soon.

Once I settled the question of whether it was better to do a LITTLE rather than NOTHING—I was off and running. What choosing to do a LITTLE accomplished was that it allowed me to break through the inertia deadlock. Like turning around an ocean liner, it began by STARTING. But once I accepted that doing a LITTLE was better than doing NOTHING—it was just fine. The rest took care of itself.

So, recognize the value of doing only a little. Sometimes a little is all you need to break that deadlock caused by inertia. And once the ball starts rolling down the hill, gravity takes over.

It often generates enough momentum to finish

The second reason for doing little rather than doing nothing is related to the first. The first reason is that it gets us over the procrastination hump and inertia deadlock. The second reason is that once we do a LITTLE, we find ourselves with increased enthusiasm and momentum. Enough enthusiasm and momentum to finish! Call it hitting your stride, or being in the zone, or finding the sweet spot…they all mean the same thing. That we’ve picked up momentum. And before long, the momentum is carrying us forward toward the finish. At this point it no longer feels like a chore at all. But something we find fulfillment in doing.

It can make a big difference to someone else

Not only will doing little rather than doing nothing bring personal rewards, it can make a big difference to SOMEONE ELSE! It doesn’t have to be a HUGE CONTRIBUTION to make a big difference in someone’s life. It might be relatively simple. A ride for a friend. Picking up something for a neighbor when you’re out anyway. Mowing the neighbor’s stretch of lawn that joins yours. Shoveling snow from their section of the sidewalk. Sending someone a brief note of thanks, encouragement, congratulations…or just a friendly greeting. No need to neglect doing these things because they’re LITTLE. No good reason to do NOTHING rather than a LITTLE. Sometimes a little is enough.

One of my favorite stories of the big difference that a little can make is a story told by the American anthropologist and philosopher, Loren Eiseley.

One day a man was walking along the beach
hen he noticed a boy picking things up
nd gently tossing them into the ocean.

Approaching the boy the man asked, ‘What are you doing?’
he boy replied, ‘Throwing starfish back into the ocean.
he surf is up and the tide is going out.
f I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.’

Laughing to himself, the man said, ’Son, don’t you realize there are
miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish?
ou can’t possibly make any difference!’

After listening politely, the boy bent down,
icked up another starfish, and threw it back into the ocean.
hen, smiling at the man, he said,
I made a difference to that one!’ 

Edward Everett Hale said, ‘I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.’

Let’s resist the urge to do nothing when we can only do a little. A little is often enough. It can help us break the inertia deadlock. It can provide the momentum we need after we start. And it can make a big difference to someone else. Not just to starfish.


You can receive Quotation Celebration automatically in your email inbox by clicking the FOLLOW button at the bottom of this screen and leaving your email address.

You can also find Quotation Celebration on Facebook.

Thank you for reading Quotation Celebration.

Copyright © 2017 by Samuel Rodenhizer
All Rights Reserved

2 thoughts on “‘It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little.’ (Sydney Smith)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s