While most of us only encounter terrorism and oppression when reading the news, an Afghan woman named Hamida Gulistani has to deal with these things firsthand, every day of her life. That’s because Hamida is leading the charge for equality in her home country–she’s become the face of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

In a male-dominated, Taliban-infested country, Hamida is one of the few individuals who not only has the credibility to speak up for women, but also has the willingness to do so. She holds an elected office in the government, appears regularly on national television, and works actively with the US State Department. So how did she become the de facto leader for women’s rights in Afghanistan? She started by helping just one woman.

In 2005, Hamida worked as a nurse in a medical clinic in the city of Ghazni. One particular day Hamida treated a woman with scars and bruising all over her body. While the patient first claimed that the bruises were from an accident, Hamida soon learned that the woman had been abused by her husband. So Hamida took action. Since the police were likely to ignore the issue altogether, Hamida contacted local media outlets to have the abused woman share her story. Once the story was in the spotlight, other people took notice, and the husband was reprimanded–he was forced to apologize to his wife and eventually spent six months in jail.

After helping just one woman, Hamida received an avalanche of requests from other women in similar circumstances. She began helping them one by one, to the point that she could no longer work at the medical clinic because she was so busy responding to phone calls requesting her help. She gave up her job to become a full-time advocate for women’s rights. Now she’s a true hero of civil liberties in Afghanistan, all because she started by helping one woman.

The Origins of Extraordinary

When you think of the thousands of women that Hamida Gulistani has helped, along with the cultural shift she’s leading, it’s difficult to see how you or I could ever have that type of impact in the world. But when you look at Hamida’s origins, her story is much more relatable. While working as a nurse, she saw an opportunity to help one woman. Next, she was willing to try a simple idea to involve the local media in the story. Then, she just kept doing her best to help the other women that came along. At the time, she wasn’t an internationally recognized civil rights leader; she made an impact by answering one phone call at a time.

If you want to do extraordinary things, begin with the ordinary. Follow Hamida’s example: first, focus on a simple goal; and second, keep the momentum.

The Great Ones Start Small

The basic principles of Hamida’s success are founded in scientific research: look no further than the endless supply of research studies on goal setting. So, what type of goals are most effective? Small ones. Here’s the experiment that proved it.

In the late 90s, a psychology professor from the University of Toronto gathered a group of students and asked them to play a game. This is what he told them:

Imagine you work for a toy company and you earn money based on the number of toys that you create and sell. You’ll work for ten days, and each day you’ll purchase supplies and/or sell the toys that you make. Since the prices of supplies and toys will change daily, you’ll need to manage your resources carefully to make the most possible money.

The game was designed to be difficult, and the professor assigned one group of students to play it without any additional guidance. For a second group, he gave a specific goal of how much money each person should earn by the end of the ten days. Finally, with a third group, the professor gave a goal of how much money the students should earn for EACH of the ten days in the game; he also told them how much they should earn at the end of ten days.

It’s not hard to guess which group of students performed the best. With daily proximal goals to focus on, the third group easily outperformed the others. By breaking down a complex game into ten small parts, the students were able to achieve small successes that added up to big success in the game as a whole.

The study teaches a simple principle–to accomplish big things, set small proximal goals that will help you work toward your larger goal.

Making the Leap

You might say that Newton’s First Law of Motion applies to life as well as physics: an object in motion tends to stay in motion. One action leads to more action. To put it another way, you don’t have to jump out of a plane all at once–just take the first step. For Hamida Gulistani, it began with helping one woman. Afterwards, she didn’t even need to go looking for other women to help; they came to her. One action led to another, and Hamida did her best to keep up with the momentum.

This principle of momentum can be applied to both large and small things that you want to accomplish in life, as illustrated by what I call “the cleaning principle.” Here’s an example of the cleaning principle: if I rinse off just one plate and put it in the dishwasher, a magical burst of ultra positive cleaning momentum almost always leads me to clean the whole kitchen. I start with a simple task of cleaning one plate, and the feeling of accomplishment gives me energy to reach further and do more. I’m definitely not a clean freak, but often an easy chore will help me take on the bigger projects that I really need to get done.

And of course, this momentum applies on a large scale as well. Each task that we accomplish allows us to increase our skills and expertise so that we’re better prepared (and more willing) to tackle the next task. An object in motion stays in motion.

Most of us will spend our lives in admiration of individuals like Hamida Gulistani, who stares in the face of terrorism in her home country, gives hope to thousands of helpless victims, and risks her life for the benefit of humanity. But we shouldn’t be afraid to join Hamida, either, by taking one small step at a time and trying to keep up with the momentum that follows.

Sign up for a free copy of my upcoming e-book, “9 Ways to Motivate Yourself Using Psychology and Technology.”

Special thanks to a recent episode of This American Life, “Got Your Back,” which was used as a resource in learning about Hamida Gulistani.

Max Ogles

Hi, I'm Max Ogles. I'm a behavior designer, entrepreneur, and writer focused on psychology, technology, and business. Read My Full Bio