Story: Focus on the Growing Heap, Not the One Coin. (One of My Favorite Stories!)

For the weekly videos, I now tell a story. I’ve realized that for me, and I think for many people, a story is what holds my attention and makes a point most powerfully.

This week’s story: Focus on the growing heap, not the one coin.


Can’t see the video? Click here.

Here are the exact words of this teaching story, known as “the argument of the growing heap,” as described in the footnote in my college-era edition of Erasmus’s classic work, The Praise of Folly:

If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”

This story is one of my favorites, because it so perfectly captures a paradox that I grapple with in my own life, and which is very significant to happiness: Often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time,  a sum of those actions is very meaningful. Whether we focus on the single coin, or the growing heap, will shape our behavior.

Go here to read more about this story.

Find the archives of videos here.  More than 1.6 MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe!

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

  • Samantha

    It is so funny how you’ve captured this idea, which very much relates to everyday life. This is like when I’ve thought I wanted to make a change by using reusable bags or being more conservative with the amount of water I use on a daily basis. At that time I thought “Oh I’m just one person. What good will this do?” It does start to add up and the change eventually becomes significant. It is like what you’ve said in the past – it is what you do everyday that counts. Recently, I started running (nearly every day) and I can tell I will eventually get to that point of running faster and farther, but if I didn’t do it nearly everyday and take those small steps, I may never get to that point of getting quicker and doing lengthier runs. Excellent story and insights on life.

  • lulu240788

    I love it. It reminds me of the quote “we often overestimate how much we can accomplish in a day, and underestimate how much we can accomplish in a lifetime.” Thanks Gretchen!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That is one of my favorite sayings. . . one I would like to put into operation in more areas of my life, including just WALKING!

  • Marjorie

    I love this kind of pithy wisdom. One of my favorite quotes is E. L. Doctorow’s “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It applies to life perfectly.

  • Jeanne

    This is so true, and fits in very nicely with the whole idea of being present. Actually, everything we do every moment is going into some heap. Whether it’s the heap of our overweight body or our unfinished thesis, or whatever. I worked with a young man years ago, who would do small “unimportant” tasks with lack of care. When I had him cut some brochures on the paper cutter, he would try to jam all 30 in at once to just get it over with and the result was crooked, ratty cuts. I tried to inform him of the fact that just because he, a valuable human, was doing the job, that it was inherently important. His attitude was “when they give me something important to do, I’ll do a good job.” Of course, no one was going to give him anything truly important to do, since he presented himself as a person who did shoddy work. He was putting his coins on the growing heap of a bad reputation instead of the heap of a good reputation.

  • As newlyweds, we took a class on finances. The advice that stuck was so simple that it sounds silly: “Spend less than you earn and do it over the long run.”

    Focusing on the growing account, the shrinking waistline, as opposed to thinking “just this once won’t hurt” is KEY. It is in the same family as eating an elephant one bite at a time, but who wants to focus on a shrinking elephant? 😎

    Thanks for distilling it into this pithy sentence: “Focus on the growing heap.” This is the way I am able to stay on schedule to complete 230 pencil drawings in 2013 for an upcoming book.

  • Jody

    I love the scripture that says, “out of small and simple things proceedeth that which is great…”

  • Matt

    This narrative dovetails nicely with a visual time tracking practice suggested by Seth Roberts that he calls ‘magic dots’:

  • Pingback: The Growing Heap | How I Saved Money Today (and other stuff I think about)()

  • NewcastleDailyPhoto

    I’m so glad I clicked through. I didn’t get what you were saying until I watched the video. I kind of hate the message but love it more, at the same time 🙂

  • Some lucky coin can really change fate.