Some two and a half millennia ago, in what is now Southern Italy, there lived a legendary wrestler by the name of Milo of Croton.
A six-time Olympic Champion, Milo’s career spanned 24 years, during which he was undoubtedly the best wrestler of his generation. He is said to have been able to carry a bull on his shoulders and to have burst a band about his brow by simply inflating the veins on his temples.
Little by Little, a Little Becomes a Lot
It is said that Milo of Croton built his incredible strength through a simple, yet clever strategy:
One day Milo decided to lift a newborn calf and carry it on his shoulders. The next day, he returned and did the same…
A calf grows at a pace of around 2.5 pounds every day, meaning that the task would become increasingly more difficult. Milo continued carrying the calf on his shoulders over the next four years until he was no longer lifting a calf, but a young bull.
In a world obsessed with instant gratification, defined by its hatred of the specific suffering of patience and the principles of small incremental improvements, this story serves as a simple reminder that little by little, a little always becomes a lot.
Don’t Try to Lift a 2,300 Pound Bull on Your First Day
We struggle with reaching our goals because we overestimate what we can do during a single day and underestimate the progress we can make over long periods of time.
Rather than setting small realistic goals on a daily basis, the framework that allows us to build the habits required for success, and ambitious long-term goals, we try to lift the world on our shoulders from day one.
Of course, we break our backs.
We fail because we try to fly without even first building our wings. We fail because we try to run before we even learn how to crawl.
I know this because this is what I often try to do, with dire consequences. Working out for the first time, I felt sore to the point of wanting to quit. When I started my podcast, I’d spend all my time creating content, at the expense of all other things.
A couple of weeks later, I was heartbroken because there was no noticeable progress.
Milo’s strategy can be deployed in almost all areas of life, as we develop skills, scale a business up, or try to build an audience on a social media platform.
How To Apply This
In order to apply this to all areas of our lives, we must first understand a few concepts:
1. Keep your feet on the ground with your first goal.
You don’t go to the gym for the first time trying to dead-lift 500 pounds. You start with a weight that doesn’t exert you to the point of wanting to give up.
This first goal is meant to feed the ego, not bruise it.
Start with setting goals and habits that are easy for you. The idea is that you should be able to ask for more if you feel like it.
If your goal is to get in shape, setting a goal to run on the treadmill for only fifteen minutes means that you might feel inclined to run for a few more minutes after that.
Don’t try to run a half-marathon. Use your first goal as a starting point.
2. Don’t compare your initial situation to your end goal
There’s only one reason why this simple mental model often fails to inspire people to take proper action in their lives: they are often inclined to compare their first efforts to their end goals.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, comparison is the thief of joy.
When we do this so early on in the game of progress, we effectively manage to sabotage our vision for the future, and what was supposed to inspire us ends up acting as a stop sign.
3. Stay consistent.
Milo’s strategy wouldn’t have worked very well if he only picked up the calf when he felt like it.
What made him progress was the fact that he showed up every single day.
That’s why on the path to becoming consistent, it’s best to start with a goal so small, something that it’s so easy to do that it doesn’t require any motivation at all, and then do it and do it and do it until you build the courage to set more ambitious goals.
As an example, as a beginner blogger, aiming to publish a new blog post every day is going to require tremendous amounts of discipline and willpower, which will soon deplete you of your desire to even get the job done, while publishing just one article every week will be a far more manageable task.
4. Progress is subtle.
Most people give up because there’s no noticeable progress. In fact, this is the main reason we often think of others as having or enjoying “overnight success” or “luck.”
Progress is an almost invisible progress as we develop the habits required to consistently build our skills and inner fortitude.
5. Slowly increase the challenge.
Every day, Milo’s calf grew just a little bit, and yet, these gains also required that his own muscles develop for him to be able to handle the weight.
If you increase the difficulty of the tasks you perform or set higher daily goals, it mostly goes unnoticed.
It’s quite obvious, but most people don’t do that.
The trick, however, is to find a bit of a balance. The increase should be slightly challenging, otherwise you will become bored, and you won’t progress.
Where Can You Deploy This?
We can use this mental model to adjust to the often unrealistic expectations we build up, while focusing on the inner fortitude required to consistently do the work.
Whether we’re talking about investing small amounts of money every month or consistently working out, this mental model enables us to better understand the power of compounding and its effect on our future selves.
Whether we’re talking about losing weight, building a business, developing a secondary source of income, or growing your audience on YouTube, little by little always becomes a lot.
By focusing your energy on small incremental improvements, you can build enough momentum to start acting out of habit.
If your daily goals are reasonable, then this shouldn’t put a strain on your energy levels or motivation.
Little by little. Start small. Think big. Aim for consistency and small daily improvements.
That’s how you end up holding the world on your shoulders, without even noticing how you managed it.