Make Smaller Circles

In The Art of Learning Josh Waitzkin has a chapter called “Making Smaller Circles.” These three simple words have profound implication on the learning process and on rapid skill growth.

Making smaller circles fits with my experience of learning in several different ways. First, I’ve been making a habit of examining the small steps necessary to make big changes. The smaller the steps the easier it is to create lasting change.

I also make a habit, personally and professionally, of asking questions. In my friends’ and clients’ answers I see another example of circling. Hundreds of times, while describing an obstacle, I have heard someone say “I feel like I’m just going in circles.” And in a way, they are. Last week a friend described his romantic difficulties and then complained that he was just circling around the same issues of a year ago. In fact, he was struggling with romance a year ago, too.


Enjoy Making Smaller Circles (Photo: Procsilas)

When I heard that comment though or when I am trying (and sometimes failing) to take small steps towards my goals, I prefer to think that we are all making smaller circles.

We all have at least loosely defined goals: handstands, romantic happiness, more money, whatever. We all want something more. And the more clearly each and every small step between our current state and the final goal is defined, the easier it is to improve and succeed.

We live in an era where results were expected yesterday. In the words of Anne Lamott we aren’t encouraged to take it “Bird by Bird.” We want results – or need them – right now.

Thus the analogy of making smaller circles. We are all moving, all the time. In the best case scenario we are moving clearly and directly towards the end goal. More often, we are circling. When we have a vague goal in mind we often make spirals roughly in the direction of whatever it is we seek.

So here’s my advice: enjoy making smaller circles. There are few shapes more enchanting than the golden spiral, which does inevitably lead the the center. Enjoy the process of moving around your goal, of seeing it from all sides. When you feel like you are covering the same ground for the umpteenth time celebrate movement, consider whether you are closer than the last time, and keep going forward.

Keep making smaller circles.