The Incremental Method

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour

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David showing me some technique

I have these secret projects. Maybe you do, too. One lately has absorbed me on my daily walks through the woods here. About a half-mile in on one of my circuits there’s a stretch of deep mud you can’t quite skirt–a spring rises there when the weather is wet. So a few years ago I started placing stones in the mud. There are plenty of stones around, just not many flat ones, and most way too heavy. But over time, at the rate of a stone or two a month, I’ve managed a pathway. The trouble is, as summer wears on, the mud dries up and I forget my project. This spring was very wet, and the mud seemed deeper then ever. You have to step by memory as the stones have been sucked under and out of sight. I was proud of how far I’d come, but realized that one more flat rock was needed, just one, to get me that last step through the mud before the path is dry again.

I’d used all the flat stones within a hundred yards. And I can’t be carrying stones around with this neck. So I just stepped in the mud all spring, no worse than ankle deep…

At the top of the next hill, though, something challenged my complacency: the perfect rock. It was flat, round, about the size of a Frisbee, lots of iron content, kind of a rusty-red shaly looking thing, sitting up on a pile of its fellows, the only one light enough for me to even pick up. But it wasn’t like I was going to carry it all the way back to the mud spot. I just can’t carry things that heavy. And so it rested.

Until a few weeks ago, when I remembered my old boss Mr. C, an electrician I worked for college summers, very eccentric guy, British, trained as an engineer, not a bad guy but massively cheap. We’d go to all-you-can-eat buffets at this awesome Chinese restaurant and he’d just keep ordering shrimp for hours, blowing off work, till they’d bring just one shrimp out at a time in tongs and drop it on his plate with elaborate disgust. He’d say, “May I point out that your offer clearly states I may eat all I am able?” (Later they appended the sign: All you can eat in ONE HOUR.) I was still a teen and a hard worker and could eat egg rolls till they were coming out my eyes. We indulged at least once a week, usually on Fridays.

Anyway, I thought of Mr. C. because he was very proud of himself one day when he’d had to get both his car and his electrician’s van home from the repair shop on an afternoon when I wasn’t available. He simply got in the van, drove a hundred yards, then walked back to his car, drove two hundred yards, then back to the van, and back to the car, and so on till he was home. I pointed out that he’d walked all the way home. He claimed his method was still more efficient than if he’d driven the van home, walked back, then driven the car home. We argued that for weeks, months, plotted it on graphs.

But back to the flat rock.

I kept eyeing it as I passed, one shoe muddy to the top, kept resisting the trip back to the mud hole with it. Because of the peculiar nature of my neck injury, I just can’t carry something that heavy that far. But, peculiarity again, I could throw it. And so one fine day I hefted the thing, weighed it in my hands, considered the ancient Greeks, considered Mr. C., considered the Scottish and their games, held the thing as you might a shot-put, and heaved it back the way I’d come. A solid three yards, and not too neck-stressful, at least not for one throw, which is all I attempted.

Next day, I threw it back towards the mud again, another three yards, only about 200 yards to go.

Three weeks later, this morning, in fact, I’m still chucking, getting in condition, too, working my way up to four full yards per throw, and more than seventy yards into my project.

I hope by the time the fall rains come to have a stepping stone in place.

This, by the way, is also how novels get written and how careers get built, a little progress at a time, mostly backwards.

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