Without detail, the world would seldom be able to function. Detail ties everything together, from our day to day schedules to the most intricate machines and international trade deals. Understanding the subtleties makes you an expert in any given system. Applying rigorous planning (think everything from countless lists to time blocking and editorial calendars) to your life engenders organisation and productivity. Sometimes, while tapping away on my phone or swiping my contactless Visa, I am stopped by the realisation of just how complex familiar mechanisms are below the surface.
When I was younger, my grandma taught me to ‘think about detail’, using fashion and writing as an example: your choice headwear or a sheeny bracelet can turn a bland outfit luxurious. Similarly, a spelling mistake can undermine the credibility of your argument. These lessons stuck around because as I grew older and older, I found further examples of where details matter. Understanding something beyond a surface-level overview in education creates a valuable learning experience and facilitates information retention. Good essay writing, in turn, requires you scrutinise the details of your topic (in the form of objective evidence, facts, statistics) before assembling a thesis or argument. In other words, you must avoid cherry-picking evidence for a preconceived idea and focus on where the facts actually lead.
The beauty of details lies in how they melt at the edges and into each other, forming an outward picture which hides the technicalities underneath. However, when we think about such technicalities, don’t we do it, either consciously or subconsciously, with the intention of producing a specific, final result which is enshrined within our minds? For example, through your choice of accessories or jewellery, you produce a distinctive style without any missing components, and by meticulously editing your writing – a resulting piece which flows and engages. Even the extraction of viewpoint from evidence in academia follows deeper principles, an admiration of unbiased research. Thinking bigger, therefore, is not a negligence of detail but an understanding of why these details exist in the first place.
Moreover, looking at the bigger picture allows us to understand many things in greater depth. That’s why commentators, public debates and books focus on broad political, social and cultural trends, on what current affairs symbolise within the framework of issues burdening our world. In order to suggest remedies for such problems, we must retreat from the immediate news and clickbait-y headlines to consider what they mean as pieces of a puzzle: what does the mere existence of clickbait say about our culture? Why are hoards of people drawn to particular ideas, even if an alternative is logically sound? Are the challenges we face unique, or congruent with previous historical developments and patterns? We have agonised over such questions (as well as deeper, philosophical ones concerning the human condition in its entirety) for millennia because thinking in abstract terms transgresses misleading appearances, for these either conceal or fall into a larger, overarching truth. Of course, solutions to problems must be detailed to facilitate implementation and effectiveness, but solutions prove feeble without a concise understanding of the issue at hand.
Taking a look at history, we see this principle everywhere. I believe the subject is characterised by a constant intersection of detail – the study of specific people, events, time periods – with thinking about how themes and ideas reoccur across many centuries. For example, instead of blaming individuals for famous events, we think of the societies and trends which produced them, and the extent to which a single individual has the capacity to alter complex, often ingrained circumstances in the first place. We search for patterns within multiple timeframes to understand why and when historical actors have the propensity to behave in a certain manner, we break historical periods into themes because forming compelling analysis of the fragments (e.g., a catalytic event or the behaviour of a particular class) must take into account their political, social, economic backdrop. We look for continuity and change, for exceptionalism, for discrepancies between the new world and the old. This is, once again, done to recognise what factors have caused history to swerve in a particular direction on more than one occasion, and learn from past experiences. Nineteenth century statesmen, after all, operated on a stage and faced day-to-day issues far removed from our own, but shared certain values and human characteristics which are still relevant in our time.
Such a principle of thinking bigger, outside politics and economics and history, can be applied to our daily lives. It can be applied, firstly, to understand why we succeed or fail, and promote the likelihood of the former. Maybe, to you, procrastination feels impossible to conquer. You struggle to finish your tasks in a timely manner, deploying various self-help strategies just to see your goals move further and further away, like an elusive horizon. Maybe establishing meaningful relationships and connecting with people in your life forms an intractable strain. Surface level analysis gives you the satisfaction of arriving at quick fix solutions that alleviate symptoms. However, the underlying cause remains intact. Scrambling around to mend your problems, you arrive at the same dead end: what’s the point of a government bailing out a conglomerate without fixing the macroeconomic structures which brought about the collapse in the first place, which threaten every other company with the same fate?
Thinking bigger requires a dispassionate, objective evaluation of your life. Picture yourself as an outsider, or a helicopter loitering overhead to understand how the landscape ties together. A change in public opinion and attitudes, or an upheaval in societal structures cause avalanches of related political events. Adverse management and questionable values harm businesses on a daily basis. In like fashion, you’ll often find that your problems, whether significant or trivial, share a common cause: something inconspicuous and by clashing with your ingrained beliefs and perception of yourself, difficult to admit. Thinking bigger, in a sense, is a cure for denial. Newspaper headlines and isolated incidents are shocking because they force us to think bigger, force us to question the cultural and/or political values of which they are representative. Similarly, individual setbacks in your life often communicate a masked barrier to self-improvement.
I’ll provide an example. Let’s say you consistently fall short of completing your to-do list. An immediate explanation points to procrastination and dubious time management skills. But then you must question why you procrastinate, what makes you vulnerable to countless distractions in the first place. Is it because, fearing stagnation, you set unachievable goals? Or maybe perfectionism, a common cause of postponing tasks, weighs you down. If so, you must once again ask why you’re drawn to faultlessness. In essence, you must keep asking why until you arrive at a convincing diagnosis. Another example is my friend’s struggle with an eating disorder, which exceeds substandard productivity in seriousness, but nonetheless illustrates my point. Doctors continually insisted ‘the media’ and ‘peer pressure’ triggered her difficulties. These things being a component of, as opposed to the whole underlying cause which made her susceptible to external influence rendered therapy fruitless for many months until she, through honest self evaluation, discovered the latter on her own: loneliness and dismal confidence.
Thinking bigger can also be applied in a forward-looking manner, when searching for solutions, and can present a cure in itself for issues such as stifled motivation. Knowing what you stand for, understanding precisely what you want to achieve within a given time scale compares favourably with waking up, going through the motions and repeating without an end in sight. The latter evokes self-doubt and a general feeling of aimlessness. At other times, you have a precise and transparent goal but become overwhelmed by details on a regular basis, perhaps questioning why you must bother with the details in the first place. When this happens, step back to look where your overarching objective shines bright and clear beyond your immediate grievances. Evaluate whether a given activity which soaks up an abundance of time and energy aligns with where you want to be in five or ten years’ time. By training yourself to think within a broader timeframe, you’ll become attentive to where you invest your minutes and reduce stress by extracting worthwhile activities from a cloud of distractions. In other words, to-do lists may be important, but so is understanding why you make such lists in the first place.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: treasure the detail, but don’t forget the bigger picture. When you read the news, spot common themes across the articles and question why things happen the way they do. Cherish the power of ideas. Read widely, and value authors who use intricate case studies and evidence to illuminate far-reaching concepts. In the pursuit of your goals, reflect frequently and honestly, never loosing sight of the person you are at a fundamental level and how you wish for this person to develop. In our world, the big and the small are of an equal importance, which is why we must fear neither in order to progress both as individuals and as societies.