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Celebrate small wins


It is time to say goodbye to a difficult decade that began with the tragedy of 9/11 and the rise in terrorism and closed with the Great Recession and polarized political perspectives. In order to survive, many industries are searching for a new business model in this unstable economy. The number of unemployed workers has increased, and people aged 50-plus have been hit hard. Organizations are remaking industries, and people are trying to reinvent themselves through “recareering.”

For many, these are grim times. Things have not gone as many expected 10 years ago. It is hard to be optimistic and positive when many people are angry, frustrated and discouraged. Now is the time to be resilient and resourceful. It is time to celebrate the small wins.

Karl Weick, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, coined the phrase “small wins” as a way of reframing the scale of social problems. According to Weick, when we “recast larger problems into smaller, less arousing problems, people can identify a series of controllable opportunities of modest size that produce visible results that can be gathered into solutions.” Weick attributes the success of Alcoholics Anonymous to the fact that people are not asked to abstain for the rest of their lives, but rather to stay sober for a day at a time or even an hour.

When I share this concept in classes and workshops, I first ask people to name what would be a “big win” for them. People typically respond by saying things such as: marriage, graduation, having children or their favorite sports team winning a Super Bowl or World Series. Then I ask them, “How often do these big wins happen?” The usual answer is, “Not very often.” So if we live for big wins, we often live with disappointment. Celebrating small wins keeps us positive and hopeful.

I can’t talk about small wins without mentioning the movie “Groundhog Day.” Bill Murray’s character asks a question for which there is no one right answer: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was the same and nothing mattered?” I use this question to start a conversation about the meaning of life and one’s individual view of it. In the movie, Murray goes through various stages of feeling trapped, depressed and desperate because there is no tomorrow.

Retired Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman summarized the movie best by saying that finally Murray arrives at the “not-so-profound-but-still-pretty-rare realization that he can change his world by changing himself.”

Instead of feeling stuck, now is the time to look for small wins. Think about including these qualities in 2011: curiosity, hope, optimism and creativity. Life is about making the best of what we have and celebrating these wins over and over again.

Jann Freed (FreedJ@central.edu) holds the Mark and Kay De Cook Endowed Chair in Leadership and Character Development at Central College in Pella.

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