The Big Stuff
In the early 20th century, astronomers spent a fair amount of time and energy trying to understand how big and old the universe was. This seemingly basic question stumped everyone from Edwin Hubble to Albert Einstein. When calculating a theory of general relativity, he had to throw in a made-up constant because his equation wouldn’t work.
The equation didn’t work because it would suggest that the universe should be collapsing in on itself; the forces of mass, energy, and gravity just didn’t work on a cosmic scale like they did on our planet.
The common wisdom of the time was that the universe was very stable, so Einstein threw in the variable he needed to force the equation to level out that way.
Investigating this problem, Edwin Hubble (the namesake of the recently-outshined Hubble telescope) used long exposure photography to capture the movement of the stars. We knew how stars rotated around the earth but had no reliable way of telling how they may be moving in distance to the earth until this technique was developed.
If standard convention was correct, Hubble would see no movement in the stars’ distance. If Einstein’s math was right, they would see a “blue shift,” evidence of stars moving closer together. Hubble saw a “red shift” in every star in the sky. The stars were moving farther away. The universe was expanding, and the farther the stars were from the earth, the faster they moved even farther away.
From every mathematical calculation anyone had come up with at this point, this made absolutely no sense. What about gravity? Where was the energy for this movement coming from? How could the universe rapidly expand, flinging itself into greater space, with no apparent source?
Astronomers were (forgive me) starstruck by the scale of the problem they were facing. They had fundamentally misunderstood the very shape of the universe. The laws of physics, relativity, and gravity all failed them. What should they do? Where do they even begin to look next?
The Small Stuff
The beginnings of the answer to this very big question came from the very smallest of places. The mid-late 20th century became scientifically dominated by a period of research into atomic and particle physics. The more scientists dug into the very smallest of things, the more they realized the building blocks of our world behave in a way that is, in a massive understatement, unintuitive.
Particle physicists found that electrons could move from one space to another without traveling the distance between, that certain fundamental characteristics of particles were mathematically impossible to know, and that, by the rule of quantum mechanics, if you throw a ball against a wall enough times, it will, eventually, travel right through it without disturbing either. Energy and mass could pop into existence and disappear just as quickly.
And there it was. The answer to some of the big stuff. Quantum mechanics, superstring theory, theories of parallel universes, some of the most sci-fi, enormous-scale thought experiments to ever be taken on by the human mind to explain the very structure of the universe (including its rapidly expanding size) came not from looking at the big stuff but looking at the small stuff. The really small stuff. The problem wasn’t as big or unsolvable as it seemed. They just needed to start small.
Our Big Stuff
On a walk with my husband the other day, I told him about my anxieties about a big project I was about to take on, which had pretty big expectations. I had never done something big like this before, and I wasn’t sure I could do it.
This is an anxiety we at Ministry Incubators hear from innovators a lot: that this new idea or project is more significant than anything these leaders had taken on before, that they are starstruck by the scale of their Big Thing.
When I told my husband about my worries, he assured me it would be fine. That the big stuff is just a bunch of the small stuff. The same steps that led to success in the small stuff would just as predictably plot success in the big stuff too. The big stuff is the small stuff.
At Ministry Incubators, when we take on often-overwhelmed project leaders, they sometimes think we will offer them a new set of rules to pull off their project. But our coaching usually involves sabbath, balcony time (strategic planning), consistency, and accountability. The same daily and weekly skills that it takes leaders to be successful are the ones that will help them take on their biggest dreams. If you want the big stuff to succeed, the answer you need is most likely already in the small stuff around you.
So what can we learn from Einstein and Hubble and quantum mechanics? Focus on the small stuff, and don’t let the scale of the task you face overwhelm you. Just like to our particle physicist friends, this may seem unintuitive – shouldn’t big projects require specialist training, extra hard work, and fancy planning software? But we can learn what they learned, that the answers we were looking for were already baked into our everyday lives. The big stuff is the small stuff. We can leave the rest of the questions to the scientists.