Small Steps Build Confidence

November 2nd, 2010 by LaRae Quy
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Temple of the Cross.
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Several small steps in the right direction are better than giant leaps that take us nowhere—or worse, cause us to fall backward.

I worked counterintelligence (CI) and espionage cases for 20 years. As an FBI agent, my job was to not only identify the foreign spies operating inside the U.S., but also find ways to recruit them to work for our government. Recruitment was a slow process because most of them were loyal to their own governments and had no desire to jeopardize their careers—and pensions—by defecting or becoming double agents.

Work Up to Bigger Things

As a counterintelligence agent, the idea behind a recruitment pitch was to nudge the target—or spy—toward my goal so slowly that they were unaware of the process. This is impossible unless it’s done in a series of small steps. One of the most effective ways I found to do this was by surrounding my target with undercover agents and human sources (humint) for the purpose of discovering the values, goals, and true character of the individual. Once this was uncovered, the recruitment process would turn its focus on helping the target find ways to achieve his or her goal or dream.

I had to urge to play with photographing water...
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A slow, steady drip of possibility and hope was all that was usually needed to prepare a spy for an approach by an FBI agent. It had to be the right hope, however, and this took time to dig out. Recruitment is a series of small steps, over a period of time, which allows the FBI agent to work up to the bigger questions.

A Seduction

Recruiting spies is very similar to wooing a lover; it begins with a series of small seductions. Each success produces confidence because we have a better understanding of how to accomplish the ultimate goal. This is true with any situation. The most effective and reliable way to create success is to start with the small steps that produce both confidence in ourselves and a better understanding of how to get where we want to go.

Whether you’re recruiting a spy or laying down the framework for achieving your goals, here are ways to start small and work up to the bigger stuff:

1) Small questions

Small questions are not threatening. By contract, big questions remind us how daunting our task is. Our mouth goes dry and we can shut down. When this happens, our brain experiences a fear that is called fight-or-flight response. We can get our minds around small questions and come back with good, solid answers. They don’t leave us feeling inadequate and unable to move forward.


Tilt the odds by asking small questions of yourself—and others—and reduce the fear that produces stress.

2) Small answers

Small answers break down resistance. This is a well-known persuasion technique that has been used by salespeople and negotiators for centuries. If we say yes to something small, we’re more likely to say yes to something even bigger later on. This works well if we like the idea of accomplishing a goal but resist the necessary changes to make it happen. Small answers produce new habits that will continue to grow in strength.


Break down your areas of struggle by saying yes to a small request.

3) Small goals

Small steps are concrete. Mountains are climbed by one step at a time, not by giant leaps. We are less likely to feel out of control if we can locate the smaller problems within the larger situation. Acknowledge the small accomplishments and savor them before moving on to the next.


Break down your task into a series of small, measurable actions.

Take Away

“It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward and stumble back.” Old Chinese Proverb

What will be your first small step? What is one small thing that is special about you? What is one small step toward reaching your goal?

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