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The Little Things... Are the Big Things

| “How much focus do you give to what you’re practising right now? How present are you when you do the boring, small things? That’s what differentiates the professional from the amateur.”

I recently asked the Ivy League Challenge student Luke—a 17-year-old world-record holder for most burpees in a minute—how he became the best in the world at doing burpees.

His answer? "I realized that the little things are the big things."

In music, in athletics, in academics, in relationships, and in all other areas of life, those who become outstanding learn to make the little things the big things.

It isn't how many minutes you spend reading your textbook that matters, so much as how aware you are of what you are reading and how it fits in with the bigger picture.

The concert is important to both the amateur and the professional, but the daily practice time is treasured by only the professional.


  • How emphasizing the little things can make all the difference in middle school, high school, and beyond
  • Why you should be doing those little, common sense things to enhance the quality of your life
  • What I learned as a high-performance coach working with professional musicians, athletes, Olympians, and business owners
  • A powerful belief that my many of my classmates at Harvard apply in their lives
  • One little thing that I ask my students to do to improve their days

     And so much more.


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– Steve Gardner, Founder

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Welcome back to season two of Ivy League Prep. Academy podcast equips you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back. As many of my long-term listeners know already, I have a student who is a world record holder; although he's young and still in high school, the 17-year-old named luke has already broken the Guinness book of world records for most burpees in a minute. He followed that up a few months later in a fundraising effort, but with what I consider to be an even more impressive feat. When he did more than 3,500 burpees in just under 10 hours, he raised a ton of money to help children with disabilities and students in impoverished areas of china. It's just an amazing story. I love telling it, but that's not what this podcast is about. When I asked this amazing teenager, how did you do it? How did you break the world record? How in the world at age 17? Are you the best in the world at this athletic achievement? He said; I realized that the little things are the big things now; that really made me smile because he was a participant in the very first Ivy League elite camp ever.

And during that camp, I taught that lesson, I told the students that we often take for granted the little things, and we don't realize how important they are; as a result, common sense becomes uncommon. People stop doing the little common sense things that make a huge difference in the quality and effectiveness of their lives.

But recently, on this podcast, we have really emphasized the mindset that sets an ivy league to admit apart. The kinds of things that Ivy League admits and other successful people and successful students believe that most people just don't recognize or they just don't believe.

And this is a really big one that the little things are the big things.

Before I was an educator, I actually worked as a high-performance coach. I helped adults work through limiting beliefs and work through fears that they had about themselves. Many of these adults that I worked with were actually professional musicians or athletes, or Olympians. They were business owners. I wanna take an example from the musicians. You might think that the recital is more important than the daily practice.

But in working with these musicians, it's clear that it's not both the professional and the amateur musicians work very hard for their performance. They prepare very diligently. But the professional knows that the little things are the big things. So they put a lot more focus, a lot more energy into the daily practice. How much focus do you give the scale that you are practicing right now? How present are you? How focused are you when you do the boring, small things? That is what differentiates a professional from an amateur in anything, not just music. Over time, you have a compound effect where you focus on the little tiny skills and even the skills within the skills. So being able to play a scale seems like a tiny skill inside the much bigger skill of being able to play an instrument fluently and beautifully. But even inside that tiny skill of the scale are the tiny micro-skills that go into making that skill effective. And those are the little things that actually are the big things.

Take, for example, three average students; let's pretend, just for this example, that their triplets have identical DNA or nearly identical DNA; they all have roughly the same body size, the same age, the same pretty much everything.

But at 1 . 1 of these three will call her twin number one. Decides to make a tiny change in her life. She realized that she wasn't getting the kind of quality sleep that she wanted. So she decided to just change the last half hour before she went to bed instead of scrolling through social media every night as she used to right before bed. She decided to turn her phone to airplane mode and put it in a drawer away from her bed for the last half hour before she went to sleep. Instead, she would write in her journal; she would read something for pleasure or for, fun, or personal development and just substitute one activity for another. Twin number two continued doing exactly what they had been doing the whole time. They scroll through social media, but fortunately, all three of these twins are smart enough to realize that they need an external reminder that they have been surfing for too long.

After 1/2 hour, the alarm went off, and their app closed down because they set a timer for it, so 30 minutes before bed, no harm, no foul, no big deal, and they would turn off their phone after the 30 minutes and close their eyes and go to bed.

The third twin, number three, decided that their tiny little change was to remove that 30-minute filter. They felt like 30 minutes came and went so quickly, and they were never quite tired by the time the 30 minutes were up. They just removed it so that they could continue scrolling for a few extra minutes after that 30 minutes. Then they would go to bed once they were feeling more tired; a week after this tiny change was made, you might not be able to recognize any noticeable difference between these three people.

From the outside, it might appear as if those tiny changes had made no difference in their lives. But those three twins would be feeling significantly differently. Twin number one would be feeling much better. Every single day, she would feel a little bit more confident as she woke up a little bit better rested because her eyes had not been viewing a bright screen right before bed. She probably was slipping into sleep quite a bit faster than twins two and three. And she was probably waking up feeling renewed and refreshed, having journaled right before bed or read something positive. She was waking up with a little bit more confidence, quite a bit better rest, feeling better about herself and her body, and ready to tackle the day better. So her day was genuinely improved. Meanwhile, twins number two and three. We're probably arriving at school, seeing their friends and smiling and pretending to feel exactly the same as twin number one. But they probably weren't quite feeling as good. After a week, twins two and three were probably still kind of sleep deprived when they got to school, a little bit tired, a little bit less focused, and still able to manage their day, still able to smile at friends, and get work done.

But certainly not with the same kind of confidence or the same kind of enjoyment as twin number one. But after a few months, three months, and then six months, the differences would become dramatic. Even on the outside, people would begin to wonder why is twin number one performing so much better than twins two and three. And why is twin number three really falling off a cliff? Because over time, twin number two would continue to feel a little bit sleep deprived and continue forcing herself to wake up in the morning, continued doing the best she could with less than ideal physical circumstances.

But twin number three had shut off the filter so that she was spending more and more time every night scrolling through social media. She would begin to feel the effects of real sleep deprivation because mine doesn't really keep track of time when it's being stimulated over and over and over again by the dopamine hits that we receive.

When we're scrolling through social media, her eyes, the ones that are viewing a bright screen, would delay the melatonin release from the brain so that she wouldn't feel as sleepy nearly as early. Because of that, she'd be staying awake later and later and later every night. And in the morning, feeling just miserable as she has to force herself to wake up, hitting the snooze button as often as she can, showing up late to school, sometimes without breakfast because she didn't have time because she desperately needed to sleep.

And her body forced the issue, starting every single morning in this frantic and frustrated state, which is going to lead to much less confidence, and a lot less enjoyment of school, in general. She's gonna have a harder time focusing on the things that matter. She's not going to notice friends who need her support or need a smile, or just need her to listen. She's certainly going to miss assignments or misunderstand directions in school, which is going to affect her ability to perform. Her grades are going to suffer. And within a few months, the cumulative effects, the compound effect of that tiny choice, is going to make a major difference in these three people's lives.

Another message that I've shared pretty frequently on this podcast is this idea that when I was at Harvard, I looked around at my classmates, and these are people who truly believed that they would be successful with or without Harvard university. They didn't feel like Harvard was the critical key to them becoming successful or feeling worthy.

That's one of the big reasons why they were attracted to a university like Harvard. You see when you are so secure in your ability to positively impact your community. When you're secure in your ability to solve problems in your emotional development and your emotional intelligence, when you have high self-efficacy, and you're willing to take risks and learn and grow and explore when you can solve problems in your community and make an impact in your community that you don't need Harvard to be successful. That's when Harvard is no longer a big deal. Ironically, that's exactly when Harvard wants you. When the little things become the big things, they are little things. Clayton Christianson is the author of how will your life be Measure and several other books, but he was a Harvard professor at Harvard business school. I never took a class from him, but I have many friends who did. He was incredibly inspirational to his students. In reading his book, I've discovered that he truly believes that the little things are the big things and that, ironically, it's easier to be 100 % committed to the little things.

Then it is to be 99 % committed to the little things. If, on occasion, you make exceptions to your standards for one reason or another, then every time you have an opportunity to change your standard or sacrifice that standard, you'll be tempted to think it through versus the approach that you always respect your standards and your commitments 100 %.

So there's never any conversation. Here's a little thing that I ask. Every single one of all of the participants who has ever been in any cohort of the ivy league challenge that I ask all of them to do. They commit to what's called the ivy league health challenge. And one of those commitments is to change the first 3 minutes of your day. I recently read a study that said that about 91 % of Americans who are old enough to have a smartphone begin their morning by checking their phones. They look at email, and they look at social media.

Now, for about 50 different reasons, that's a bad idea. Just physiologically, physically, emotionally, and mentally there. It's a bad idea. But rather than just say, let's not do that. Let me give you the actual challenge that I give to my ivy league challenge students. Every single morning, when you first wake up, you roll out of bed, and your feet hit the floor. Right? Before you stand up, allow your feet to touch the floor and make that a trigger for you. The trigger says my feet have hit the floor; time to start breathing deeply; put your hand on your chest or put your hands on your knees, but begin to breathe deeply as you're breathing deeply. Think about what you're excited about for the day; what are you looking forward to today? What might trip you up today? And how can you bring your best self? Or how can you be best prepared to handle those challenges that you're going to face today? This entire exercise of breathing deeply and thinking positively, and then creating your day should take about 90 seconds.

Once you finish those 90 seconds of deep breathing and positive thinking and design thinking, stand up and stretch for about 90 seconds; just stretch out your hips, your waist, and your legs for just a few seconds, a minute and a half, and then began your morning routine. You'll be amazed at how much the extra oxygen into your body, the positive thinking, and the extra blood flow from the stretching will positively impact your morning.

And the effects, according to my students, last well into the afternoon. Amazing, you'll be enabled and empowered to bring your best self, your best energy, physically and emotionally. To the day, it's a little thing. But if you can commit to making that little thing a big thing every single morning, without exception, you start your day with 3 minutes of effective, life-giving exercises. Pretty soon, you'll experience the compound effects of that habit, like the professional musician who focuses on the little things until they become natural and normal.

And then that natural, normal habit routine continues to reinforce itself without the professional's focus. Then the professional can focus on other little things until they become habits. And over time, the compound effect of doing these very healthy activities and focusing on the little things until they become habits is that you become someone that others want to be around. You become the role model for everyone around you; you become the problem solver; you become the kind of person that people ask; how do you do it? And it all begins with the realization that the little things are the big things. So I know it's a little thing. Make it a big thing, change your mornings, the first 90 seconds, breathe deeply, think positively, create your day, and then stretch out your body for another 90 seconds before you move on and begin your day. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other tiny habits that you could adopt.

That will help improve your day and just allow you to be more effective and more positive and more confident and more everything. But you begin with one little thing, commit today to change your mornings and change your entire life.

Music for this episode came from. We hereby declare p I'm Steve Gardner; if you like what you heard, please subscribe and share with a friend. Thanks for listening.