The all-around wisdom of “Think Big, Start Small, Act Now”

I do not remember much else from the book.

A few years ago, I read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded, which pushed forth the idea of a green revolution that could jump-start the American economy. The book received middling reviews, including this beauty of a line from Slate reviewer Gregg Easterbrook: “There are so many buzz phrases in Thomas Friedman’s new book that it practically vibrates in your hand.”

These days, long after having read the book, I have retained only one of its buzz phrases — and it has nothing to do with green energy.

It has everything to do with life and how to get the most from it.

The phrase comes from not Friedman but one of his interview subjects: Barnabas Suebu, the governor of the Indonesian province of Papua. (I should confess, I did not remember his name either until Googling his quote just now.) Talking about his efforts to effect change on his province, Suebu espouses the following philosophical gem:


That statement has stuck with me.

It is a simple and logical idea, really. With whatever you want to achieve in life, you should aim high and remove any false ceilings. But you should also acknowledge that any path to “big” involves starting “small” — taking a series of steps to move you gradually closer to your end goal. And even those steps begin with some kind of action, so why wait to begin?

It is a variation of the old expression, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you don’t succeed you will land among the stars.”

For journalists and storytellers, I find the phrase especially relevant, even vital.

If you are not careful, the news business can send you flying. It can have you filling numerous roles without ever getting the chance to think about your own long-term hopes and expectations. Journalism is a beautiful field in which so much can be accomplished; journalists should never shortchange themselves, or their individual capacities to make an impact.

This is where “thinking big” becomes so important. Simply allowing oneself to do so is a giant step, and the big goals seem less daunting when broken down into small, manageable steps. Every newsroom possesses opportunities galore; I have never worked in one, especially in smaller markets, that failed to allow its journalists a variety of pathways to develop. Small-market stations particularly, due to budget and staffing shortages, need their employees to be dynamic and versatile.

All of that makes it easy to “act now”.

To be sure, the Suebu philosophy — particularly its first sentence — requires a certain degree of caution. Thinking big is great and should be encouraged, but young journalists especially need to be wary of chasing a larger goal when those goals can transform over time. Lives change, the field changes, and so do a person’s abilities and interests. I try to re-examine my larger goals every few years, making adjustments along the way based on my own growth and priorities.

But by that point, I have found, I have achieved enough of the “start small” goals to feel a sense of accomplishment, while occasionally hitting some of the big ones, too.

And it inspires me to “act now” and get the chain started all over again.

Big goals so often seem like distant dreams. This prevents people from seriously trying to reach them. But look at how successful companies already use the Suebu idea: with three-year plans that begin with one-year plans, and with a series of long-term and short-term goals.

The logic is beautiful … and so is the urgency, which comes through in the second, far less quoted half of Suebu’s gem.

“Think big, start small, act now,” he said, “before everything becomes too late.”

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Leave a comment below or e-mail Matt at


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