Swallowing a Frog

Once, someone told me that if I need to swallow a bunch of big, fat and ugly frogs, the best way to do it is to start with the largest one first.
I agree with that approach, although I would first chop it into very small pieces so that at the moment I start eating, I would not even notice that a bad-tasting frog was there in the first place.

You have probably heard the following quotes before:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” *1
— Chinese philosopher Laozi (c 604 BC – c 531 BC)


“Build your castle one brick at a time.”

or the following two:

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
“When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.” *2
— United States Army general - Creighton Abrams

All the above are metaphors on how to tackle difficult projects or tasks. But recently, I read another one that jokingly starts with the politically correct command, “Stop Eating the Elephant” *3, opposing what was previously said. The basic concept of the post is that we use the wrong metaphor, and that our projects are rarely things we disassemble but instead are things we grow. So, instead of eating the elephant, we should start growing our elephant by feeding it one small meal at a time.

Speaking of which, even this metaphor is wrong. Interestingly enough, because our brain uses images for the most part; we like to tell colorful stories in order to remember things and morals that are important to us easier. Therefore, we use metaphors to imprint something in our brains. The shorter and more colorful the metaphor, the more likely it will be remembered, but therein lies the issue; metaphors depend on our cognitive context. We all have different cognitive contexts, so to each person, the same metaphor can have a different meaning or even be completely wrong.

Difficult tasks and projects, except if your project is not involved in growing a real, full-size living being, are usually the products of design and imagination.

Regardless of what your project is – book, hardware, software, song, painting or something else – it will rarely come as a finished thing. Usually, it will be a vague representation of what you need to do.

Living beings already have everything inside them; they have the seed of hardware and also physical “software” in the form of DNA, that will tell each part where to go and how to grow and assemble.

In our case, for our projects, we are the ones who are creating that DNA and also executing the process, and most of the time we do not know, or rather, we cannot predict or envision what the end product will look like. You can start with one melody for the song but at the end, you may discover a much better fit if you replace the fifth, eighth and fourteenth cord. Equivalently, for our baby elephant, that would mean a replacement of the hip, trunk and the left ear, and that does not sounds like an example of very good parenting, especially if we do it as frequently as our clients require from us.

For every difficult problem we have to solve, there are two parts; the first is knowledge and the other is action or realization.

Our knowledge is indeed like that baby elephant, and it will grow if you feed it regularly with appropriate food. That is because we already have a seed of knowledge; we all have hardware that was already there at the time of our birth.

On the other hand, realization is a sequential process, and although you can have a blueprint, you will draw that blueprint one stroke at a time. When you start assembling things, you will do them one action at a time. Parts can change with time, and a project can grow and become more complex. Regardless of how difficult the things look like on the blueprint, focusing on small parts will relieve you of the psychological pressure, and you will eventually get things done.

Even more importantly, your happiness level will grow during the entire process, as completing every small task will have a meaning of achievement; a small success that will be added up to a bigger pile.

I have written about how important it is to have small, achievable goals and that science has psychological studies to support that claim in one of the previous posts.

And if you need a metaphor, take this as your picture mnemonic:

Baby elephant (your knowledge) is assembling or taking apart a robot (your project or problem), with the books (things you need to learn) and plan (vision you are trying to complete) alongside. Whatever it does, if done in small steps, baby elephant will be happy during the process and at its end.

Notes & References: