Work on the Big Picture

In Advice to Rocket Scientists, I talk about two bricklayers who are asked by a young boy what they are doing. The first bricklayer is annoyed at the question and says, "Can't you see? I'm laying bricks." The second says with a gleam in his eye, "I'm building a cathedral!"

The first bricklayer was a little-picture person. All he could see was the tedious job of laying one brick at a time. The second bricklayer was a big-picture person. He envisioned a beautiful cathedral in all its glory and he reveled in his task to help create it.

Find your big picture and it will give your task perspective and joy. The big picture focuses your mind and subconscious on a larger purpose. It gives meaning to all the little tasks you must tend to in order to achieve your goal.

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tse said that "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." If we could ask him where he was going, he'd probably describe a distant land of great enchantment. If we could ask him how he expected to get there, he'd demonstrate silently by taking another step. Keep your big picture in mind when solving your problems. The big picture will help you take the next step—it will give you direction.

Albert Einstein was always looking for the most general theory to explain how the universe operates. He explained the mysterious constancy of the speed of light by his special theory of relativity. In this case "special" meant restricted. Later, he removed the restriction and came up with his general theory of relativity, which explained how gravity works. Einstein then tackled the most difficult problem of all: to develop a unified field theory to explain not only gravity but all the forces in the universe.

Einstein spent only a few years developing his special theory, a decade for his general theory, and the rest of his life searching for a unified theory. Einstein was a big-picture person. He was not interested in how a particular atom vibrates—he wanted to understand the entire universe. His big picture gave him direction throughout his scientific life. Not all scientists think Einstein was right. But today, many are working on the "theory of everything." Einstein's big picture continues to inspire new generations.

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