Words of the Wise: On Progress and Action

Progress tends to take longer than we’d like. Change is almost always incremental: it happens through a series of steps (and sometimes it’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back), in part because many people are resistant to or fearful of change. However, small steps gradually lead to larger strides. Individual actions often have a ripple effect. And small changes made by growing numbers of people can add up to a big impact. We shouldn’t let ourselves get paralyzed into inaction or apathy because we feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of a problem or we think our actions won’t make a difference.

Doing something constructive to address a problem is better than doing nothing. Wise thinkers throughout history—from Euripides to Lily Tomlin—have come to this conclusion, and they have articulated it in a variety of ways:

[UPDATE: A few more quotations were added in July and September 2012.]

“Slight not what’s near, when aiming at what’s far.” — Euripides

“Nobody made a bigger mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” — Edmund Burke

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.” — Chinese proverb [click on link to see the quotation in graphic form]

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant. — Robert Louis Stevenson

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” — Voltaire

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” — Lao Tzu

“Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.” — Jonathan Kozol

“We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.” — Marian Wright Edelman

“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.” — Edward Everett Hale<strong

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” — William James

“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.” — Arnold Glasgow

“The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world.” — James Baldwin

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

“If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.” —Bette Reese

“Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions.” — Chip Heath and Dan Heath (This statement is excerpted from their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.)

“Discontent is the first necessity of progress.” — Thomas Edison

“I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.” — Lily Tomlin

For other words of wisdom, check out the Quotations page, and please feel free to add your own favorites in the Comments section.


March 12, 2010

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: