It starts with a penny

A story of two brothers

There’s a story that Jeff Olson tells in his classic book on success “The Slight Edge” about two sons who were presented a choice of gifts by their dying father.

Both were offered either a cheque for one million dollars or, alternatively, a purse with a single penny whose value would double every day for a total of 30 days.

The first son chose the million dollars and promptly lost most of it in poor investments and overpriced financial advisors. He struggled to hang onto and live off of what he had left.

The other son thought for a while and then chose the second option: the purse with the penny that would double daily.

By the end of the 30 days, his penny had compounded into over $10 million (that is, after all, the value of $0.01 * 2^30). He had an amount 10x more than his brother had started out with and was now set for life.

When Jeff Olson would present this story at seminars, he would get people coming up to him and saying things like “Wow, that’s amazing—to think that you could start with nothing and build a fortune!”

But Jeff would emphasize: the second son didn’t start with nothing. He started with a penny. And the difference beween nothing and penny is ALL THE DIFFERENCE in the world.

Using this story in my own life

I’ve been thinking of this story a lot as I’ve undertaken a number of efforts to improve my life in recent months.

I have noticed that I have a tendency to think about the goals I set in terms of ideal scenarios.

I will imagine the perfect end-state of where I want to be—either with my financial goals, my business, my physical fitness, my social life, my daily habits—and then I will get discouraged.

In finance, I think about the maximum income I think I can hit with my business, even if I’m not anywhere near that yet.

In fitness, I think about the perfect regimen and being in perfect physical shape, even when I haven’t been to the gym in months.

In jiu-jitsu, I think about what the perfect training regimen would be, when I barely go to the dojo 2 or 3 times per week.

With time management, I think about what it would be like to have a perfect system in-place for choosing and scheduling my tasks and blocks of time, when I don’t regularly wake up with a clear to do list in-place.

In prospecting for my business, I’ll think about the number of companies I should be reaching out to per day in an ideal world, and then I’ll feel overwhelmed because my average is close to zero.

It can get rather exhausting to always compare your present situation to the ideal.

What happens when I feel the ideal is out of reach?

When I feel the ideal is out of reach, my default reaction is to do nothing. I’ll put off taking action on that goal.

My default feeling is to think “I can’t achieve that ideal, thinking about it is too painful, so I’ll do nothing instead.”

I don’t try to improve it.

My all-or-nothing thinking leads me to not even take the small actions that I can build from in the short-term.

I will thus ignore the penny that I can start doubling, thinking its worthless. But the penny is worth much more than its value today—it’s worth what it can grow into.

How I’ve been applying the concept of the penny

I’ve started making a to-do list in the mornings and working from it, and also scheduling things on my calendar on a best effort basis, rather than thinking I need to adhere to the perfect time management system.

I’ve started the Couch-to-5K running routine. Rather than trying to do the perfect gym regimen which would include dynamic stretching, weight lifting, cardio, and then static stretching, I am simply building the habit of going to the gym 3 times per week to do a light run.

I’ve started scheduling time into my calendar to reach out to even a few companies per day, rather than insisting that I can only feel good about my day if I’ve reached out to 10 or 20 companies.

With each of these things, I’ve been taking small actions that are within reach, knowing that I can improve on them over time.

Every time I go to the gym, I try to push myself just a little bit harder on the treadmill than I did the time before. I’ve started doing pull-ups as well, and try to add one more pull-up to my previous total. Sometimes, I’ll add a weight lifting exercise than I didn’t do before. Every time I get a little bit better and a little bit closer to my ideal, but I am allowing myself to get there slowly.

I am choosing to play the long game where I can build habits and benefit from compounding results.

Keep the ideal in-mind, but allow yourself baby steps to move forward

I still have an ideal day in mind, I still have a perfect gym routine in-mind, I still have a perfect time management system in mind, and I still have an ideal jiu-jitsu training routine in mind. The difference now is that I’m willing to start with baby steps—the penny—to take action and move forward.

I’ve realized that instead of waiting for the situation to be perfect to take perfect action, I’d rather take less-than-perfect action and grow from there.

In the long-run, and in the short-run, I think that I’ll get a lot more from this approach. (Note: I’m doing the same with the weekly blog posts that you see here.)

I look forward to seeing what all of these efforts grow into.


Have you had similar challenges where you’ve overlooked the penny (the action that you could build from) in favour of an all-or-nothing ideal of success? Please let me know in the comments below.