Two days ago, I watched a video in which YouTuber Ali Abdaal interviewed his friend, Ben Francis, about starting and running a business. Ben is the founder of Gymshark, one of the leading gym-wear brands in the UK, and internationally.
His business is valued at over 1 billion pounds, but what fascinates me most is an anecdote Ben shared at early in the interview. As he wanted to be involved in fitness, Ben started drop-shipping supplements via Shopify.
This was back in 2012, and he’d had some prior experience with the fitness community and website building. Nonetheless, it took him a few months to get his first sale. The margins on the sale weren’t great, but Ben was dancing round his bedroom like it was the best day of his life.
As you can see, that small win meant so much more to him than the 2-pound profit he made through the sale.
And what’s fascinating is that we can see the same pattern in our life, where the satisfaction we get from a small accomplishment is much higher than its real value. For example, when I started my geography website back in October 2015, I was super excited every time someone viewed a page.
It felt special to get that first comment, and I was overjoyed when the site had its first e-mails subscriber. Now, the website gets well over 50,000 visitors each year, something I never imagined when I registered for my free WordPress account.
But the incredible traction that I get does not fill me with the same sense of pride and accomplishment as those first few pageviews.
Let’s find out!
We’ll look at the psychology of small wins, the hedonic treadmill and the thrill of unexpected success.
The psychology of small wins
When we see the first sign of success in the outside would, we can be pretty sure that a big internal shift has occurred. For each small milestone that we reach, like that first sale, that first viewer or that first job, we’ve had to overcome doubts and limiting beliefs and build the systems that make success possible.
Maybe it’s that we’ve had to muster up the courage to appear on camera when we created our first-ever online course, or that we’ve spent countless hours doing wall push-ups before finally managing to complete a real one.
For each new mindset and habit that we’ve had to adopt, any accomplishment is like a confirmation that our hard work is starting to pay off.
It shows us that the hours spent at the gym weren’t worthless and that sticking with new routines, even when it’s tough, does pay off in the long run.
Therefore, in fact, research from Harvard Business Review has found that seeing our own progress, and feeling like we’ve accomplished something makes us happy. And to our mind, the biggest progress may well be to go from “nothing” to “something”, no matter how small that something is.
The hedonic treadmill
The hedonic treadmill is an idea that comes up frequently in the happiness literature, and it basically means that we tend to return to a baseline level of happiness after new positive or negative events in our life.
This means that even if you win the lottery, inherit a large sum of money, and the live the rest of your life in gorgeous luxury, over time, you can expect to default to roughly the same level of happiness as you have today.
This happens because your new wealth stops being so new after a few months, and it becomes your new normal – your threshold of comparison has shifted.
Now, you may wonder how the hedonic treadmill relates to small wins vs. big wins. But when you think about it, it’s quite simple: a small win can lead to a big temporary peak in happiness because the bar you’ve set, or your default reference point, is really low.
For Ben Francis, for example, the reference point was doing something in fitness with a website transacts. With his first sale Ben accomplished just that and he was so happy that he danced around his bedroom.
The next few sales still felt special to Ben, but over time, he selling supplements through his website would become his ‘new normal’, and each sale no longer evoked the same emotional response.
The thrill of unexpected success
For each goal or project, we’re happy when our expectations are met or even overfulfilled. Take Ben, who was jumping joyously round his bedroom at the first sale.
But often … what contributes to the biggest joy is the fact that our faith in ourself was so low, that a small win is not just exciting, but also gives our self-confidence a boost.
For example, I recently launched a video course on goal-setting, because I thought it would be fun to learn about video creation and editing, and seeing if I could monetise my skills while helping others seemed like a cool idea.
I hope to to get a first pay slip for the SkillShare course, even if it is just 1 dollar. This means I need to get 30 minutes of watch time on the class – something I never thought I would accomplish.
It came as a total surprise when three students enrolled in the course in September. without any promotion. Of course, I’m elated to get a pay slip in the coming weeks. But what makes this 10x more satisfying is that I doubted my ability to make money with my own projects, and this accomplishment no matter how small, has just blown all of that doubt out of the window.
I now feel much more confident that I can use my skills to earn not just 1 dollar, but maybe 50 or 100 dollars online each month.
In summary, I would say that small wins bring the biggest joy because they come unexpectedly, make our progress visible, and help us overcome limiting beliefs and reimagine our possibilities in ways we never dared to dream before.