“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” – Vincent Van Gogh

You’ve probably never wondered what a venture capitalist, a glider pilot, a singer and a Tour de France coach could have in common. It’s not a question I would normally have asked myself, either, but I like to read – lots of books, about lots and lots of different things.  And it seemed to me that I kept reading about this same concept, over and over again, in many different books about all sorts of different endeavors: a lot of little things, done well, will add up to make a huge positive difference in an outcome.

In his book, Greylock, An Adventure Capital Story, my father-in-law, William Elfers, a pioneering venture capitalist, included this on his list of basic ideas for success in business: “A lot of little things, done right, can really add up.”  It seems so simple, doesn’t it? He believed that all these seemingly mundane, little things, carefully considered, and taken together as a composite whole, would make a significant gain, sort of like “compounding actions,” on the positive side. Over time, they would make a real difference in creating a successful business venture.

My friend, George Moffat, has written two books, Winning and Winning II, which are about his experiences as a world-champion glider pilot. In his books, he says much the same thing that Bill Elfers did, which is that lots of little things, done well, can make you significant gains. As a pilot, he would make countless decisions in long races over a several-day period, all of them adding up to affect his time to the finish. Sometimes these races, which were flown over hundreds of miles, had finishes that were mere seconds apart! Every action and reaction was crucial, and there were a lot of them to consider. In a later article and lecture, he examined the cumulative effects of the time lost by doing various common race actions carelessly, compared to doing them well. He called it “Low Loss Flying.” It made the point rather effectively.

You can also think about this from a musician’s perspective. When I studied as a classical singer, I was constantly committed to reaching for new levels of competence in my art. Practicing- repeating measures of music over and over again, until you can do it better than anyone, for example — doing all the little bits and pieces as well as you can, will add up cumulatively to a significant gain in the end. I remember looking back over each academic year, and really being able to see those gains, though they weren’t immediately noticeable at the time I was working so hard on them.

And here’s another example: In 2010, a guy named Dave Brailsford was hired as the Performance Director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team). He talked about his approach to this same concept as “the aggregation of marginal gains.” He thought that if his team improved every area related to their cycling by just one percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement. When he implemented this simple strategy, his goal was for the team to win the Tour de France in five years – but they surprised everyone by accomplishing it in three!  The Japanese call this process of continual improvement “kaizen.”

I think the important notion to consider here is time. In the beginning, these little things don’t look like much. They don’t really differentiate you from the people who are not doing them. You both look pretty much the same. But over time, and taken together, they make a huge difference, and in the end, you can see that those who have planned and practiced will come out far, far ahead of those who didn’t.

So what does this have to do with sailboat racing? Well, as George described it in his book, you’d work on “winning by not losing.” Or as Dave Brailsford showed us, you’d work on winning by focusing on doing every little thing as well as you can. Use this concept to your advantage by thinking about how you can optimize your sailing performance: for every tack you make, learn to do it better than anyone else out there! The same goes for mark-roundings, or any other piece of the race you can identify. If you are doing all of these things well, it will put you in a better position to win. Sailing has a tempo, and the trick is not to skip a beat, or miss any chance to be the best. Keep your head in the game, and those seemingly small gains will result in winning races.

After I had thought I was finished with this piece, I was working on a book review of Dave Perry’s book Winning in One-Designs, and, on a whim, I re-read my favorite chapter, which is about his crewing for the legendary Paul Elvstrom.  What Dave Perry writes, at the conclusion, supports this “little things” concept so well:  “And he made real to me what I’ve always known and heard myself teach, but which I’ve never felt so strongly: the key to winning and succeeding is not only to enjoy sailing thoroughly and to study and know all the things necessary both to prepare for racing and to race well; but almost more important, to actually do every little thing that you know you should do and not to be satisfied until each one is done perfectly.”

So, what’s moral of this story?  Little things can make a big difference, and you can vastly improve your racing by taking some time to examine where your weak spots are, and then practicing them until they become strengths.  Keep chipping away at your skills, and over time, I promise you will see significant improvement.  Trust me, it really works!

In another post, I’ll talk about how I overcame my fear of gybing. . .

Photo credit: Amy Ballentine Stevens.  Used with permission.

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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