How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.

A standard task management technique is to break a larger task into smaller, more manageable tasks.  I learned this years ago as the salami technique, a metaphor for transforming an oversized, unappetizing meat log into yummy appetizers by slicing it thinly (and pairing with cream cheese and basil).  The idea is that any task can seem overwhelming in its entirety but more tractable when broken down, just as it is easier in traffic to focus on the cars immediately about you than to tackle the entire traffic jam all at once.

While many of us eventually discover this technique, there is a subtle aspect of it that is often overlooked.  The salami technique is essentially a deconstructive method, breaking a larger task into small tasks.  However, the same method can be used in a constructive manner, building up a larger effort from smaller efforts.

Do you remember the paint by number kits you used to buy in the five and dime stores?  (Do you remember five and dime stores?  If not, check here.  My favorite as a child was called ‘Wackers’, which sounds a bit unwholesome from my adult perspective.)    Buried in the back with the leaky water pistols, Slinkys, Play-Doh canisters and toy soldiers would be a flimsy cardboard box with a small assortment of paints, a half-sized brush and a canvas with seemingly thousands of little areas lined off, each small nation state labeled with its number that matched one of the paints.  You would dab a bit of paint in its assigned place and, eventually, a painting of a horse or a ducky would miraculously appear.

The miracle, of course, was the fact that you had no more talent than a drunken chimpanzee and yet here was a work of art that you had created with your own, mostly sober hands.  Admittedly, you were no more a Rembrandt at the end of the process than when you began, and what you held in your hand was still just a ducky.  Nonetheless, you held a finished product that had been built up from a series of seemingly independent actions.

We overrate talent sometimes.  We think that you need some innate genius to be an artist, yet most of us can be taught the rudiments of drawing with time-honored methods such as using grids, turning reference photos upside down or focusing on boundaries between light and dark.  By focusing on small actions that are apparently independent of the overall goal, we can build up a finished product without even realizing it.

This idea needn’t be limited to art.  If you are in sales, you know that you need to talk to customers, be aware of your competitors and be knowledgeable about your product.  You can perform these actions independently of each other without ever doing any ‘selling’, until the day that all the elements come together in a sale.

There are, of course, talented artists, salespeople, musicians, etc.  At some point, talent trumps effort, but that point is much farther down the road than we might think, a key point in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.  Most musicians develop physical skills through exercises like scales, successful salespeople have a rudimentary knowledge of psychology and artists have to understand color theory.  If you know the elements of the job that have to be done, then go ahead and start working them, even if you don’t know how they will all come together in the end.  You’ll be that much closer to the goal and garner a wealth of accomplishments in the process.

Excuse me for now.  I’ve got to check a report of a sotted chimp doing something unsavory at the local Wackers.

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