An old idiom from the early nineteenth century somehow phrased a bit differently in modern-day language tells us that “the devil is in the details.”
It’s interesting to note the quote was attributed to several noted individuals going back over a hundred years, the earliest mention of it provided by Gustaf Flaubert who wrote “The good God is in the detail”.¹
Generally, the modern-day idiom refers to something which at first glance seems rather simplistic until you pull the covers off and discover it’s a lot more complicated than you first thought it was.
So, now I understand how we went from God to Beelzebub.
I’m jus’ sayin’.
As Humans, we often count the ants, those tiny little details, and forget about the elephants walking by, the big picture.
Why is that?
I think a lot of it has to do with what we’ve been taught growing up as we hurtle through life at warp speed. Another age-old idiom about eating those elephants. You know the one I’m talking about, right? You’re going to make me say, aren’t you? Okay, fine.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
If you pause from all that noshing for just a bit, you’ll begin to understand it’s pretty much how we live our lives, one mundane, rather ordinary, detail at a time.
For some of the more adept among our midsts, it’s juggling a bazillion details in the air at one time.
We get up every morning, take care of our children, or our furbabies, get the kids ready for school, go to work, grind our noses on the stone, run errands, yadda, yadda, yadda, blah, blah, blah.
All these just barely manageable details seem to go on forever. Wash, rinse, repeat. And we often become so immersed in taking care of all the details we don’t stop to look at the big picture. The “why the heck am I doing this” big picture.
Why in the heck are we doing this?
Well, some may say considering the very unpleasant alternative of being a corpse, living life in this manner is far better, and I, for one, most certainly agree.
But with a caveat. We all need to stop counting the ants from time to time and focus on the elephants whether or not they’re sitting in the room with us or they’re slowly traipsing past us.
The big picture, in my humble opinion, is the end game.
It’s the number of specific goals or outcomes in your life you wish to accomplish. It’s the elephants lumbering by while we’re all counting and desperately attempting to manage the ants. Remember, I said specific goals, not necessarily all the details it takes to reach each goal.
It could be becoming a multi-millionaire before you hit forty.
Missed out on that one.
Or it could be becoming a writer.
Okay, hit that one.
Maybe an opera star, rockstar or movie star.
Nope, nope and nope.
Although a lot of folks have continuously reminded me it’s not the destination (elephant) it’s the journey (ant) we should all be concentrating on, I’m here to tell you, that just ain’t how I want to roll.
I want to set my sights on a specific destination, and then enjoy the journey I take as I attempt to get there.
Wanting to be a fireman, policeman, superhero, and PT boat captain when I was eight years old doesn’t count.
As my thoughts matured, I’ve discovered for me, I desired three major elephants in my life and only three.
Perhaps it’s because I actually understand my limitations. Because I get easily distracted and can neither focus on too many ants nor elephants I long ago chose to limit my expectations.
Not necessarily lower them, just limit them.
My three big pictures in my life were to marry a wonderful woman — check — have wonderful and healthy children — check — and make a living with my writing — uh, my pen is still hovering over the paper on this one.
With each of these big pictures came the usual litany of tiny ants I had to continually count and manage. One thing I realized early on was if I spent too much time focusing on all the minutia of tiny details, I quickly lost sight of the big picture associated with them.
And I often ended up having to start over.
I can’t even recall the number of times I had to start over because I got lost in the details of trying to be a good husband, a better father, and a consistent and flourishing writer.
However, please understand there are only so many times life is going to let you push the reset button.
And you’ll quickly discover as I did, sometimes you just have to hunker down with that big picture of yours and quite a few times add even more details to that pile of ants scurrying around to get anywhere close to achieving what you want.
Life is a harsh taskmaster, and none of these goals we set for ourselves are going to come to us gift wrapped with a bow on top, and complete with a fault-free instruction manual.
All of us will have elephants we need to identify and keep track of as they lumber along.
With each of those elephants will come a host of tiny little detail ants running around we’ll have to count and manage over and over and over.
As you blast through life managing all the little details which are supposed to get you closer to your goals, you need to stop every now and then and inspect those elephants walking along to see how they’re doing.
One of them may need to be fed and watered more than the others.
Thank You For Reading
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© P.G. Barnett, 2020. All Rights Reserved.
¹ Titelman, Gregory, Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings, Random House Reference, March 5, 1996