In 2006, I was living in New York City and going to yoga a lot. I was going through a hard time, so yoga class served as a refuge, exercise, and social connection.
One day, as I walked out of class, I saw a stack of books for sale by the cash register. The handwritten sign next to the stack said the book was a memoir by one of the yoga studio’s attendees. I figured the book was terrible, obviously just displayed because the author went to yoga at the studio. But I bought it anyway because my life doldrums were such that going to an actual bookstore or library wasn’t happening. As the cashier ran my credit card, she mentioned that the next day, the author was doing a reading and Q&A at the studio. Since I’d be at yoga anyway, I decided to go.
The following evening, the author huddled with three other yoga rats in a corner of the studio and fielded sparse questions from the group, allowing a lot of awkward silences. She read a bit from the book. But with such a tiny group, the reading didn’t last long. I felt a little bit sorry for the author, who was trying to sell a book three people at a time.
Eventually, I read the book and loved it. And it turned out that the embarrassingly small reading was led by the author Elizabeth Gilbert. The book, of course, was Eat, Pray, Love. (If you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 10 years: the book sold 10 million copies and Liz Gilbert is famous, speaking to crowds of thousands and on TV Shows like Oprah.)
I think about this little book reading a lot.
I think about how Elizabeth Gilbert must have done lots and lots and lots of tiny, awkward book readings. She must have done them in yoga studios and bookstores and church halls. As she did them, each tiny book reading added to the last one and the more she did, the more the size of the readings grew. In other words, I probably met Elizabeth Gilbert at the very beginning of her book’s “snowball effect.”
But here’s the thing. When we say “the snowball effect”, we don’t picture a snowball that starts with awkward 3-person book readings, night after night. We picture the part where you go from a 20-person event to a 40-person event and grow from there. We think only about the end of a snowball’s journey when its size and speed quickly compound and the snowball is big and fast and growing quickly. We forget the beginning of the snowball’s journey when the snowball is bumping along in fits and starts; a few snowflakes come together, then hit a rock and separate again; the snowball gets bigger then breaks. Eventually, it gets bigger and bigger, faster and faster -- but the beginning part, the slow part, is long.
In our work with over 250 makers, the reality of their business growth has ALWAYS been a long time of bumping along with just a little growth at a time, followed by (what looks to the outside world like) overnight success. Our most successful makers have gone from 20 stockists to 120 stockists, but they went from 20 to 21, to 22, back to 20, up to 22… and grew in that small, uneven way for months and months. Eventually, the pace picks up and you go from 70 stockists to 90 stockists in a single month… but that stage of the snowball effect takes time to get to. And it takes sustained effort, tolerance of discomfort, bearing of uncertainty, patience, and good humor in the face of awkward 3-person events.
However you are feeling today in your work, I hope that you’ll remember Elizabeth Gilbert and the snowball effect. If you feel elated about recent sales and successes, remember to return to work tomorrow and next year to grow and evolve your business, since no snowball becomes large through a single event. It is the process of rolling and growing momentum that sustains it. On the other hand, if you are disappointed, exhausted, and frustrated today, remember that the largest snowball starts with a long period of almost imperceptible growth, but that the growth comes eventually.
Most days, I can’t remember any of this, and I move through the day in a frantic combination of self-judgment and impatience. But on the days when I just do the work, gently and consistently, without such obsession about how quickly the results arrive, I feel peaceful and the work goes better.
So if it helps, as you go about your day, your year, and your work, remember that before Oprah and before the 10 million copies, Elizabeth Gilbert’s snowball was made of many tiny, awkward book readings. And remember that your snowball is on its way, too.
To be of use
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.