6 Ways to Use the Slight Edge in Your Classroom

Will Smith once told a story from his childhood in which his father broke down the brick wall at his business and told him and his brother to rebuild it. It took them a year, but they finished the job and learned a powerful lesson contained within a memorable metaphor. He explains, “You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfect as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day and soon you have a wall.” This story from Will Smith captures the very essence of the Slight Edge philosophy that we will discuss in this article. Applying this idea within the classroom will help students develop a strong long term sense of accomplishment that is necessary to achieve their goals.

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons by Kerri Karvetski

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons by Kerri Karvetski

In his book, The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines Into Massive Success and Happiness, Jeff Olson explains the Slight Edge philosophy, which requires a very subtle shift in mindset that moves away from focusing on results to focusing on daily actions. Furthermore, the author not only says to focus on the big actions, but more so on the small daily actions that are barely noticeable. Here are some examples of small daily actions:

  1. Waking up 15 minutes earlier every day and using that time to write your sci-fi novel
  2. Working out for 30 minutes daily
  3. Eating a chicken salad instead of chicken wings and fries
  4. Giving up one soda and drinking water or tea instead
  5. Putting 10% of your paycheck into savings every two weeks or monthly
  6. Ditching reality TV and reading 5 pages of a self-improvement book

These are all great examples of the small daily actions that, over the long run, could really change a person’s life — in this case, that of your students. It is very easy to set aside 15-20 minutes to read 5 pages of a good book. The problem is, it is also very easy not to do because its importance may be downplayed due to how small the action is. In other words, students may think that reading 5 pages a day is nothing, so it is easy to push it aside. Therein lies the difference between long-term success and short-term satisfaction.

Showing students the benefit of the slow-and-steady philosophy is a life lesson that many full grown adults have yet to grasp.

How to Use the Slight Edge in the Classroom

The Slight Edge helps students reach their long-term goals while focusing on short-term actions. First, students set their ultimate goals (1-5 years ahead). Second, students figure out the daily actions that they believe will drive them toward their ultimate goals. Third, students take action and track results. Fourth, students reflect on the results and adjust actions accordingly. Finally, students repeat this process until progress or results are achieved.

The following is a list of ways to help your students use the Slight Edge philosophy in their own lives.

1. Reading 5 Pages of a Good Book

While students are required to read textbooks and other academic texts, reading outside the classroom requirements can bring huge benefits. I have personally found potential life-changing benefits in reading self-improvement books. The book genre could be anything that students find interest in, from sci-fi novels to biographies.

The author, Jeff Olson makes it a point to emphasize the importance of having a daily reading habit. Reading 5 pages per day is so such a small thing that it is easy to dismiss the significance of it. But over the course of a year, that is 1,825 pages read, or about 10 books per year based on a 180-word per book average. That pushes students way ahead of 25% of America, who haven’t read a single book in the past year. The benefits of reading are outlined in this article.

2. Write in a personal journal

Great leaders like Marcus Aurelius and Benjamin Franklin are famous for their journals, in which they ponder life philosophies and plans. Writing in a journal is a form of meditation that helps you get rid of extraneous thoughts and focus on the present moment through the act of proverbially dumping the contents of your brain.

In addition, journaling about stressful events, whether big or small, can reduce the effect of trauma on mental and physical health.  Writing in a stream of consciousness style is also a very useful tool that students can use to figure out and “talk themselves through” their own philosophies on complex issues.

3. Save $1 per day

Whether funding an education or simply putting food on the table, savin  is an important practice. It’s crucial to start young, especially as we move towards a more entrepreneurial society. But many people fail to save, as they set goals that are far outside of what may currently be possible. This is all the more true for young students, who often work low-paid jobs around their academic schedules.

But saving doesn’t have to feel “big.” Similar to reading 5 page per day, students can start by putting aside $1 per day, watching the savings add up, and building confidence along the way. Showing students the benefits of saving (or encouraging with the use of rewards) will benefit them for life.

4. Exercise for 20 minutes every day

I have worked out for probably 3 years total and yet I’m not buff or even remotely close. Why? Because those three years were scattered over a 10-year period with no consistency that lasted over 3 months. This erratic habit meant that I did a bunch of lifting in the gym that got me no results. It is not only important to do the work, but also to do it consistently over a sustained period of time.

The benefits of exercise are clear, especially for students. Besides having a healthy body and increased levels of energy, exercising can improve concentration and ultimately grades. In addition to the direct effects of exercise, there are also hidden benefits that are a result of socializing during physical activity.

5. Add one word to the spoken vocabulary per week

The “spoken vocabulary” is made up of the words we use on a daily basis. Being able to communicate thoughts clearly is a skill that is often underappreciated, but very useful in all social situations, including work, friendships, and relationships. In fact, research by psychometrician, researcher and educator Johnson O’Connor over a 20 year period found that “vocabulary was the single best predictor of occupational success in all areas”. Just like mathematics, science, writing, or playing a sport, speaking is a skill that can be learned and developed with practice.

Having one week to sit with a certain word will allow students to absorb and become familiar with it. It also gives them a chance to try it out in their daily conversations to see if it fits how they want to express themselves.

6. Appreciate at least one thing daily

Appreciation is a valuable asset. In addition to making others feel good about themselves, appreciation is a habit that will help students internally as well. A flower can easily be just a flower, but with appreciation, a flower becomes a gentle, colorful wonder of nature that brightens up our day.

In recent years, science has become interested in the topic of happiness and the benefits of appreciation. It can lead to better health, sounder sleep, and less anxiety. Showing appreciation does not have to be a direct outward action. Some people own a gratitude journal in which they write all the things they are grateful for. While it may not seem like much, a daily practice of appreciation will help students be happier and healthier in the long run.

One Small Thing Daily

The Slight Edge philosophy of success is a great way for students to approach their goals and to tackle life in general. Let us end with a story from Jeff Olson himself:

When you were a tiny, little child, you made your way around the world on your hands and knees crawling. Everyone around you was walking and one day you got it into your head to give that a try. So, little by little, you worked on developing the skills you needed to walk. You grabbed on to something above you and pulled yourself upright. You stood up, holding on to a table or chair or big stuffed animal. Wobbly and unsure, you let go, fell down, and tried again and again, until you stood up all by yourself.

Then, you took a step. The older people you watched took one step after another: right foot, left foot, right foot, left…but you managed only one step-and you crashed. After days of side-stepping around the coffee table, awkwardly bringing one little foot out from behind the other while you held on to Mom’s or Dad’s fingers, you eventually took your.

first couple of steps…all alone…all by yourself…and (hopefully) to the cheers and applause of your family. Baby steps. One at a time. And you were walking! In the process of learning to walk, you probably spent more time failing than you did succeeding. But did you ever have the thought of quitting? Did you ever tell yourself, “I’m not cut out for walking – guess I’ll crawl for the rest of my life?”

No, of course you didn’t. So, why do you do that now? (Olson & Mann, 2013).

If two boats took off from the same pier with only a 1-degree difference in angle, over the course of the trip across the ocean, they will end up in two very different places. When we focus on doing the very small, barely noticeable actions every single day, the results will show up in the long run. We either improve or we worsen – there is no in between. When students understand and are able to internalize this idea, their lives will change dramatically.


Olson, J. & Mann, J. D. The Slight Edge. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group, 2013. Print.

1 Comment

  1. Or Winfield

    April 15, 2015 at 1:16 am

    Wow! What an inspiring article! This is the first I’m hearing about the slight edge philosophy and I love it. I personally think some of the tips here are life-changing as you said. I know from personal experience how reading just a few pages a day can make a huge difference in the language capabilities of a child. Writing a journal helps children start connecting to their feelings from a young age and therefore grow to more mature and sensitive adults. In our society we almost forgot how to save money, this is definitely something that should start at schools from a young age and should stop being so taboo.