Gradually, Then Suddenly


I was meeting with a student for a book study of Good to Great recently, and we were talking about what Jim Collins calls “the Flywheel Effect.” Collins does an effective job of explaining how greatness begins as the hard work of pushing the wheel and getting it moving; and then as momentum builds, progress can happen quickly. There is also a “Doom Loop” that explains how this can happen in the opposite direction. Anyone who has participated or coached in sports contests has experienced the power of momentum, too. It was a good game for three quarters, and then the opponent went on a big run and hung a twenty-point loss on us or vice versa. The final score doesn’t always indicate how tightly contested something was.


As the student and I talked about this idea, I shared a quote that had stuck with me. Someone had been asked how he went bankrupt, and he replied, “Gradually, then suddenly.” Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I was able to remind myself that this exchange comes in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:


“How did you go bankrupt?”


“Two ways, gradually then suddenly.”


I bet that many adults have experienced this as their credit card debt snowballed out of control. It can be very difficult to think about how each little decision can have an effect that is multiplied. Of course, this works in the positive direction, too. Financial planners and smart investors understand the power of compounding and how an early start to saving can reap huge benefits decades later.


I have a graphic of “The Iceberg Illusion” taped to the bookcase in my office, too. What people see is “the tip f the iceberg,” of course, with ninety percent of the ice berg below the water line and out of sight. On the picture “success!” is proclaimed above the water line; but people don’t see persistence, failure, sacrifice, disappointment, good habits, hard work, and dedication– all making their contribution to the final outcome. Things always look different from the outside, and the process that is full of both triumphs and failures along the way means a lot more than the result people see. I can think of many times I didn’t get exactly the result I wanted, but the journey was worthwhile. There are other times that the result appeared to be ideal, but the process wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked.


The point is, there is a process. Our lives are a process, and I hope for most of us they are a process of growth and learning. We live our lives hour by hour and day by day (gradually) and then, in my case, suddenly, it seems, I am the old guy in the room and I am a grandpa. The old maxim that every year goes faster seems to be true to me.


As I reflect on “gradually then suddenly,” I want to live my life mindfully so that I don’t miss the significance of the moments I am experiencing. I don’t want to be surprised one day about where I am. I believe we have a good deal of control about where we end up. Even though we can’t control all of the things that happen to us and the challenges that come our way, we can exercise a lot of control over how we respond to those things and whether or not we grow.


There are a lot of great things going on in our schools right now. People are putting the time in, building momentum, and setting our district up for leaps forward. Thank you to everyone toiling in the “gradually” part of the equation. I know your work is a labor of love, and I hope you know you are contributing to great things. Suddenly, before you know it, you will have had a career. I hope for all of us it is one we look back on with fondness and with gratitude for the journey.