The Courage of the First Domino

You’ve probably heard of the domino effect. The phrase is generally used to describe a chain reaction, a cumulative effect created when one event or action leads to other events or actions down the line. Many times, the effects that we see are unexpected. We had no idea that one decision, action, word, opportunity, or habit would lead to something like that.

For a highly intelligent exploration into the impact the domino effect can have on our behaviors, check out this post from James Clear (link)

Recently, I learned about another, more interesting application for the domino effect. Gary Keller and Jay Papasan offer insight on this phenomenon in their book, The One Thing.

In 1983, Lorne Whitehead wrote in the American Journal of Physics that he’d discovered that domino falls could not only topple many things, they could also topple bigger things. He described how a single domino is capable of bringing down another domino that is actually 50 percent larger. Do you see the implication? Not only can one knock over others, but also others that are successively larger…

Here is the effect in action: (Scroll to 2:57 to skip to the fall)

According to Keller and Papasan, if this were carried out on a larger scale, the 18th domino would be similar in height to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the 23rd domino taller than the Eiffel Tower, the 31st domino higher than Mount Everest, and the 57th domino would nearly bridge the gap between the earth and the moon (The One Thing).

That all sounds pretty neat, and the application is probably pretty clear. Our small steps have a greater impact than we realize, and often, all it takes is a commitment to a small goal, plan, or action, to get things rolling in our favor. The phrase, “It’s all downhill from here” is often connected to a negative connotation, say, after you turn 40, and everyone acts like your life is over because you are “over the hill”. After something bad happens, we often assume that many other bad things are on the way and out of our control.

I prefer the positive reflection of the idea, “downhill”. Many times, once we get the idea, the goal, or the plan moving; after we do the work to push the ball up the hill, then we see fruits of our labor that had previously been unknown. Then, the domino effect kicks in, and we are able to move with greater speed, or strength, or ingenuity than we had earlier thought possible. I

As children, imagining that we can move leads to crawling. Crawling leads to standing. Standing leads to falling, and then us realizing that we can get back up. Soon after, we are walking (with more falling and getting back up). Eventually, we are running, and then doing all sorts of increasingly difficult activities, that we now don’t think twice about.

Most times, it takes some courage to start. I don’t know that it takes great courage, just some courage. Remember, we aren’t trying to bridge the gap between here and the moon, we are just trying to flick that first domino. While we like to blame fear, mostly of failure, I think there is often a different type of fear at work.

What people are afraid of isn’t failure.

It’s blame. Criticism. We choose not to

be remarkable because we’re worried

about criticism…we’re worried, deep down,

that someone will hate it and call us on it.

-Set Godin, Tribes

I think we do the same thing with courage that we do with a lot of other things. We underestimate both its’ power and our ability to grab hold of it. We treat courage as if it belongs only to the four-star general, the Navy Seal, the game winning star, or the outspoken agents of change. But it’s not. Maybe some people are born with extraordinary amounts of courage, but I suspect they’ve built it all over time, starting small, and working towards the moon.

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.

-C.S. Lewis

We don’t need world changing courage. We just need a little bit. A smidge. A tish. A dash. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, and a smidge of courage can do the same thing for that first domino. Here’s hoping you can muster a smidge of courage for whatever it is you have been thinking about, planning on, or hoping for. Here’s hoping that you won’t allow a fear of criticism, blame, or judgment get in your way of trying.

I’m pulling for you,




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Bryan Hendley

Coach, Teacher, Author, Encourager. - I write words of encouragement focused on personal growth, parenting, and leadership.