Picture a huge, heavy flywheel—a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine that your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible.Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. ~Jim Collins in Good to Great
In his best-seller Good to Great, business consultant Jim Collins compares the monumental effort of starting and sustaining a project or business with that of fighting against inertia to physically push-start a massive flywheel.
I'm not sure why, but in thinking about the progress I've made lately in sorting my DNA matches, Jim Collins' flywheel description came to mind. At first, pushing with all the mental fortitude my determination could muster, it seemed like the collective mass of all those matches would barely budge beyond the starting point. Progress was indeed imperceptible. All the hours of instruction from some of the most notable pioneers in genetic genealogy, all the effort trying to sort and search for clues still left me scratching my head about those thousand mystery cousins, wondering, "Who are all those people?"
And yet, now—nine years after submitting my first DNA test kit—I turn around and look at that impossible-to-move flywheel and realize it is almost moving itself forward with barely any effort on my part. Why? Along with that near-impossible yet continuous push invested at first came consistency of effort and smarter use of newer tools. Most important, the bottom line: every match once connected helps make the next connection just a little bit easier. Though we can't sense it at first, the flywheel begins, imperceptibly but exponentially, to work for us.
I sometimes like to compare the process to seeking that proverbial needle in the haystack. Instead of looking for the needle, though, I focused on sorting the hay. I sorted those collateral lines for each generation, strand by strand, into the family tree database; that was my continual, sustained push on the flywheel. Eventually, that needle came into view, and nearly sorted itself into the right slot.
Using the tools available at many of the genealogically-focused DNA testing companies streamlines this sorting process. Leaving notes on research progress, color-coding family lines, or tagging matches within the collateral lines of the family tree help show us how far we've progressed. When I scroll through my DNA matches at Ancestry.com now, those round blue icons of connection remind me of just how much progress I've made. The more of those tokens I see, the more encouraged I get; the flywheel is almost moving of its own accord now.
True, there are many who are only now just starting out. You may be one of them, staring at your thousand-plus DNA strangers and wondering, "Just who are all these people?!" Start with your closest matches and begin that sorting process: first, separating maternal from paternal side, then identifying who likely matches each of your grandparents. The more you identify, the easier it will be to spot shared matches. Click those icons to mark those matches in your tree; the increased show of color will serve to encourage you to keep at it. And like suddenly realizing that you did it—the persistent, overall accumulation of effort in getting that flywheel moving—you'll realize that what seemed like such an impossible task at first is now a far easier prospect than you'd ever dreamed.