You’ve likely heard the term “think big” bandied about by your managers or mentors.
10x it! Think outside the box! The sky’s the limit!
I know the first time I heard these terms I nodded my head enthusiastically while thinking, “I have absolutely no idea what these words mean practically. And there seems to be an awful lot of vague ‘jazz-hands’ going on”
And if you’re anything like me then you might have had the same thoughts.
If that’s the case, then you’re in luck. Below, I’ll help you understand what thinking big is, why it’s important to unlock your greatness, and, most importantly, how to start doing it right now.
What Does Thinking Big Actually Mean?
I connect thinking big to being more ambitious for yourself and the world.
In terms of personal growth, you’re thinking bigger about who you are, what’s possible for you, and who you might become.
Right now, there’s a present you and a future you, and you’re always learning and growing as you converge on your future self. Thinking big means considering the person you’re becoming and the person you want to be beyond who you are today.
Then there’s thinking big for the world. This is asking yourself, to quote the wonderful Jacqueline Novogratz “Am I doing work that gives more to the world than it takes?”
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that thinking big is a whole host of things – thinking deeper, thinking braver, thinking wider, thinking faster.
It calls you to challenge the status quo, disrupt your comfortable sense of self and imagine what’s possible so that you can live a brilliant, fulfilling, and rewarding life.
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10 Ways to Start Thinking Bigger Right Now
You may have heard the phrase, “Think big, start small”, and that’s definitely true. Thinking big will lead you to create what I like to call worthy goals – projects that matter to you and the world and push you to grow. It’s a topic that I cover in detail in my book How to Begin.
I define a worthy goal as one that is thrilling, important, and daunting. Another way of thinking about it is a goal that is endlessly exciting, bigger than yourself, and scary to think about in its possibility.
To think big means traversing into the territory of daunting, where you will find growth, meaning, and fulfillment. Be aware that this takes time, effort, and a whole lot of failures.
But daunting is where the learning happens. It’s where you exit your comfort zone and begin to thrive. It’s where your ideas begin to inflate. It’s where you start to think big.
Here are 10 ways to get there:
1. Be Curious
Thinking big starts with embracing curiosity.
Start by noticing the status quo. Understand who you are now, what interests you, and what kind of learning gets you excited.
It can be helpful to hone in on your genius work – the stuff that you can do best, which not many other people can do. Being curious and imaginative about what you can achieve is a surefire way to think big.
I also want to caution that, sometimes, less is more. Thinking big doesn’t always need to mean additions – it can be subtractions too.
I always like to think about the habits that are holding me back. What bad habits do I need to let go of so that I can step into the future me?
These ideas deserve just as much attention as anything new. By simplifying our habits and behaviors, we can focus on what we care about, and devote more time to what matters most.
2. Burst Your Bubble
Increasingly, we live in a world that reinforces what we already know and what we already think. The way social media and algorithms work, we get served up the stuff the system thinks we want to see – all day long.
Reader, this isn’t good. In fact, it’s the opposite of good. By being inundated with the same stuff all the time, we unwittingly seal ourselves into an echo chamber.
We hear all the stuff that we already know, and this reinforces what we already think. This actually shrinks our thinking – we begin to think smaller as a consequence.
A way to counter this is to actively curate what you read to discover stuff you might not otherwise come across.
There’s a parable from the Greek poet Archilochus that goes: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
While the hedgehog has a singular fantastic idea that can be applied to everything, the fox routinely thinks up new ideas depending on the situation.
In our world – to make better decisions, better estimates, and better guesses – being a fox is best. Learn as much as you can, and find ways of knowing many different things.
In practice, this means seeking out other narratives, voices, and perspectives. It means challenging your own thinking and trying to understand viewpoints that you’re uncomfortable with. In fact, it might mean exposing yourself to viewpoints that downright offend you.
But thinking bigger means sometimes getting offended. It means enriching your mind by changing it. And you can’t change your mind if you’re only exposed to things you agree with.
3. Do More Great Work
In my book Do More Great Work, I separate work into three different types:
- Bad work is mind-numbing, soul-sucking, life-sucking.
- Good work is solid, productive, and important – but it’s not particularly thrilling or exciting.
- Great work is meaningful, sets your soul alight, and helps contribute to a noticeable change in the world.
I think that part of thinking big is understanding that life is short. Because of the brief period between cradle and grave, I want to spend as much time as possible doing great work.
This work stretches you and inspires you. It sits at that crossroads between excitement and anxiety, the sweaty-palm feeling of taking on something that really matters and that you know will call you to be your best.
Now, I get it. There’s always more good work to do, which can get in the way of doing great work. When you get to the heart of that issue, it’s really a question of looking at what you’re saying yes to and what you’re saying no to.
This means getting clarity on what matters to you and uncovering the opportunities for great work in your life. It means fostering courage. It means cultivating resilience – progressing forward even when things get uncomfortable.
Start your great work even though it’s easier and more comfortable to stick with doing good work.
4. Know What You Stand For
Thinking bigger is only possible with self-knowledge. You’ll want to take the time to understand who you are now and what your patterns, values, and commitments are before you set out.
Now, I often hear people talk about values. But values that are vague, ambiguous, or generic aren’t helpful.
Think of it this way. You have almost certainly declared an intention to do something that involves thinking big before. It might have shown up, along with a glass of champagne, at midnight on December 31… And commonly enough, not every time, but likely the majority of times, you made little or no progress on it.
But here’s the thing. Reluctance and hesitation are inevitable consequences of daring to think bigger. When that doubt strikes, being able to tap into that essence of you at your best is grounding, reassuring, and empowering.
In my book, Do More Great Work, I work through a range of exercises that are designed to help you uncover your values and boost your resolve. They not only help you clarify your values but swat any self-doubts so that you can stay motivated to achieve your goals.
5. Surround Yourself With Big Thinkers
Here’s something I learned the hard way when writing The Coaching Habit – you need help to do great work.
I used to have a very strong streak of the stoic, self-contained, uber-responsible, don’t-ask-for-help attitude that even years of writing articles about why it’s good to ask for help couldn’t cure.
But, actually, building out an outstanding team of designers, researchers, and editors helped me get across the finish line – and as a result, The Coaching Habit became a bestseller.
As the saying goes, you’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. So if you want to think big and make a difference, surround yourself with people who are trying to do the same.
6. Understand What Needs to Be True
I picked up a really helpful question from Roger Martin, a wonderful author, management thinker, and strategy advisor: “What needs to be true for me [for this to happen]?”
What I love about this question is that it’s not a yes or no boring question. Whatever your “this” is, the question challenges you to imagine the future. It gives you permission to create possibilities and generate options.
By starting at the endpoint with bemusement and curiosity, you can then work backward, taking small, manageable steps to incorporate big-picture thinking into your life.
7. Get Real About Risk
People tend to think of risks in one of two ways. They either stick their head in the sand, hoping for the best, or they catastrophize and become paralyzed with worry.
They imagine a series of unfolding disasters – getting fired, which leads to a divorce, which leads to being kicked out of the house, and ultimately living on the street.
In reality, the likelihood of these things happening is pretty small.
That’s not meant to be dismissive about risk. Rather, I want you to get real about it. Ask yourself – what’s really at risk here? If this doesn’t work, what’s likely to happen genuinely?
In How To Begin, one of the things I discuss is the fact that every choice has prizes and punishments. It’s your job to weigh the prizes and punishments of not chasing greatness and of achieving it.
I find that these five questions help to do exactly that:
- Does this move me closer to what matters or further away?
- Is this avoiding the real issue, or is it addressing it?
- Does this allow the best version of myself to emerge?
- Do the prizes of this choice outweigh the punishments?
- Is love at the center of this?
8. Learn to Fail
The power of understanding risk is that you begin to understand that it’s both inevitable and it’s okay to fail. And some of the time, it’s useful.
But how you respond is everything.
I greatly admire the US military’s after-action review, which perfectly employs a growth mindset to analyze what went worked and what went wrong.
After every mission, they club together and ask a series of questions:
- First, “What was supposed to happen… what did happen… and why the gap?”
- Then, “What worked… and what didn’t work?”
- And finally, “What would you do differently next time?”
It’s a way of turning failures into learning moments, creating space for reflection so you grow from every experience.
As Samuel Beckett succinctly put it: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
9. Realize That You Can Control the Process, Not the Outcome
At the time of writing this, I’m in the middle of a book launch. I’m trying to think big.
I’m trying to think ambitiously. I’m trying to do a few things really well, rather than a thousand things not very well.
And I know that I can’t control the outcome of any of it. All I can do is do the best I can, invest in the process, keep going and have resilience. I can control my levels of consistency and persistence, but the outcome is out of my hands.
Knowing that the outcome is out of your control is liberating. Commit to focusing on the process, doing as best as you can, and realizing that the outcome will either work or it won’t, and that’s okay. All you can do is keep learning and improving.
10. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
Thinking big means stepping to the edge of what’s familiar and comfortable, but that can be pretty daunting.
Maybe your life right now is pretty comfortable. You’ve got status, authority, privilege, familiarity, and control.
But I’ll bet you also have a load of hidden vulnerabilities and insecurities too. More importantly, you also have a whole heap of unrealized potential.
Science repeatedly tells us that happiness rarely comes from money or fame or status, even if you’re lucky enough to have any of those; it comes from a life well lived. A life where you don’t let fear or past scars or made-up BS get in the way of thinking big, exploring your edges, and having adventures.
So, even though your comfort zone feels, well, comfortable, remember that unlocking your greatness comes by working on the hard stuff. If you’re comfortable, you’re playing small. If you’re a little daunted, excited, and nervous, you’re at the learning edge. You’re thinking big.
Life is fleeting. What will you do with yours that really matters?
Thinking big is about growing into your future self, and making a positive impact on the world and others around you.