There are a number of proverbs like this that reflect the common human experience of incrementality – i.e. of the importance of understanding the world in gradualistic terms. This particular one uses the Norse-derived dialect terms mickle (little) and muckle (great), and reflects the difficulties of saving. But here are some more examples that make the same point:
Little strokes fell great oaks.
The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
Great oaks from little acorns grow.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Change is gradual, they’re all saying, and the big things we identify with can all be analysed into smaller components. There’s no point in getting hung up on those big things and assuming they’re impossible just because they’re gradual.
Incrementality is an important principle in Middle Way Philosophy: see this video for more details. It wouldn’t need to be if it was always obvious in practice and we always remembered to think incrementally, but as the existence of all these proverbs suggests, we tend to have difficulty with this. The prevalence of teachings with strong elements of incrementality in other places, too, suggests this difficulty. In Buddhist teaching, the principles of anatta (non-substantiality) and anicca (impermanence) remind us to see the identities of people and things and their change over time incrementally, rather than as absolutes with clear boundaries. Many traditions extol the virtue of patience, and many spiritual practices (such as the mindfulness of breathing meditation) focus on incrementally changing experience rather than definite things that dramatically start and stop. Science, too, might be a route into appreciation of gradual change, particularly if you consider geological change or the evolution of organisms.
However, as with many wise recognitions found in proverbs, you can also find other proverbs apparently saying the opposite:
A miss is as good as a mile.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
You may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.
All of these proverbs focus instead on definite practical differences. Narrowly missing something (say, a target, or a train) has the same practical implications as missing it by a mile. If you’re practically committed to buying something, there may well be a case for paying as much as it’s worth, that may mean a pound rather than just a penny. The last of these three refers to the historical practice of hanging those convicted of sheep-stealing: but since the penalty for stealing a lamb was as great as that of a sheep, it would make no practical difference if you confined yourself to stealing a lamb. You may as well provide a full meal for your whole family before you swing from the scaffold.
How do we reconcile the anti-incremental proverbs with the incremental ones? Obviously the anti-incremental ones only apply in certain practical circumstances where we have a certain goal in mind (hitting the target, buying the goods, avoiding hanging). In terms of reaching that goal, it’s clear that sometimes incremental differences are irrelevant. However, if your goals are more open or might change, then increments might suddenly become relevant again. You might find that there are, after all, some lesser rewards for only just missing the target, or that the judge is actually less likely to convict you for stealing a lamb than a sheep. Even in a goal-driven, practical world, it might actually be better to hedge your bets and start thinking about increments.
The more open or ambitious our goals become, the more we are likely to have to come to terms with incrementality. You won’t be able to grow oaks, complete long journeys, write books, complete big engineering projects, or save the world from climate change, unless you can engage with the process rather than just jumping impatiently to concern with the outcome.
Concern with process and concern with goals are typically handled by the two different hemispheres of our brains, as Iain McGilchrist explains. It is the left hemisphere that is the impatient and conceptually definite hemisphere because it is goal-driven, whilst the right hemisphere can provide a process-oriented perspective beyond these goals – just as long as we are willing to listen to it rather than being obsessively dominated by goals. The proverbs of incrementality are effectively saying, in the language of the left hemisphere – “Hey, you’ll actually stand more chance of reaching those goals if you’re not too narrowly focused on them.” They’re a cue for a more effective integrated perspective in which the right and left hemispheres work together. Although a miss is as good as a mile from the left hemisphere’s point of view, it’s awareness of the many mickles from the right that make the muckles possible.
Picture: Cat ‘counting’ money, CCSA 4.0 by Continentaleurope (Wikimedia Commons)