Making decisions: Big picture vs. Tiny picture

Recently I did a small exercise: I reflected on every important decision I have made both on the personal and work front, and pin-pointed why I did it – was it because the big picture was working out for me or was it the tiny picture. And more importantly, how did those decisions turn out today.

The importance of this exercise was to help me understand what “click” means for me, because only when something clicks in my mind am I able to make decisions and move fast on them. This exercise was self-created and motivated by a scene from House M.D., where one of the characters is asking what approach should he use when deciding about whom to marry. One character in this scene justifies the big picture thinking he used – “she has the same religion, the same family background, and would be well adjusted with your family traditions to ensure children imbibe the same, etc”. I guess if it was an Indian scene, then the stars and moms must align too. Another character in the same scene debates and justifies the “tiny picture” thinking he used in making the same decision – “she makes me laugh, she understands my work, she jabbers about a million things that can be irritating but I still want to hear them”.

This got me thinking about these two frameworks of thinking. Why do some people make decisions using the big picture – brand name, the title, the social value, and yet I find some who almost always move on something when the tiny picture comes together – they find the founder or the manager inspiring to work for, or they want flexibility to pursue other things, or they just want to be part of something meaningful to them and not necessarily to others.

The tiny picture is the one that you live every moment, the one that cannot be visible on your Facebook Wall or in your social circle unless someone is literally walking in your shoes. The big picture is what your mom tells a relative about your work and your family, for a few minutes over the phone every few years.

There can be a balance between the two, but most often decisions happen because people have a bias towards one of the two pictures and usually you will see that bias in all areas of their life. We all know some people who have not moved on many decisions – stayed single and waiting for the right person, or not moved back from the US, or not yet quit that job, or not taken the exam to study further. Why are they waiting? Depending on their personality, either they’re scared to sacrifice the big picture or they’re waiting for the tiny picture to feel right.

In India social pressures and stigmas exert more influence, so you often find people who adopt big picture thinking in one domain of their life, and tiny picture thinking in another domain. And their friends are always left guessing which picture will guide their next move.

More often we see that children are great at tiny picture thinking and we adults often make a mess of it. No wonder that spirituality has always been about the tiny picture, that’s why we hear people saying – don’t let your mind grow up if you want to stay happy!

It’s hard to change how adults have cultivated their thinking patterns. If you need the support of others to make something happen at work, it’s best to align yourself with what will click for them. Good leaders hire the right people and are able to provide those motivators to make things happen.

My own experiences and experiments have shown that if you make the tiny picture click for you, the bigger one takes care of itself.

PS: I invite readers to any stories from business or life where tiny vs big picture thinking mattered. There are no right answers in these stories. It’s always about what clicks for you, for your employees, for your spouse, for your manager, etc. You need not share names, just the story.


  1. cmehendale

    Anjali – Very good point and very well written too! Indian philisophy calls it “Pindaat Brahmaanda” (sorry, but am not exactly sure how to write that in the appropriate language using Lipikaar :) ) – loosely translated as “the atom is the universe” … but that’s theoretical (or spiritual) philosophy – at a more practical level what you do everyday, the small decisions you make, the little things that make you happy, all contribute to making the big picture work (like a million microscopic jigsaw pieces only when put together right will make the puzzle complete) and it is not that easy to put them right … that’s why not everyone can do it well (or at all)…

    Looking at it another way – from the field of mathematics – the classic example for big picture thinking is this: if you have to run the 100 meter dash you will first have to complete the first 50 meters (or half the distance) and to complete 50 meters you will have to complete the first 25 (half that) and so you can go on dividing into tinier and tinier halves infinitely – which means theoretically you will never even start.

    So – btw, sorry to be rambling on – I think my point is that there must be a balance between the big and small pictures. To extend your own example, “the way her nose crinkles when she laughs” is no more or no less important than “she shares the same value system as I” …

    Finally, it is all about balance.


    P.S. When I quit my job last year, this was my thought process:

  2. Anjali

    Hey Chetan, Thank you for the kind words and the great posts on your blog. I do agree with your point. I understand that balance exists. In fact I wanted to convey that many times both pictures work out but I was really trying to identify which one makes the heart move forward, and that’s typically just one of them, based on the person. The other picture can be great but thats not what seals the deal :)

  3. Medha

    I feel the big picture became big picture as the collection of millions/billions of tiny pictures of each person in a large population put together and analyzed over the years. E.g., the big picture about matching religion, socio-economic background at the time of marriage probably came from the collective tiny pictures of a lot of people who felt that they might be able to identify themselves better with a person of same upbringing (especially before cosmopolitan social setup became a regular feature, and when customs and traditions of each culture were closely followed in the past). And I feel the big picture changes over the time too, as the more and more people’s tiny pictures change.

    But I whole-heartedly agree with — “In India social pressures and stigmas exert more influence, so you often find people who adopt big picture thinking in one domain of their life, and tiny picture thinking in another domain. And their friends are always left guessing which picture will guide their next move.” (from personal experiences). :)

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