Seven Steps to Heaven

Published on May 19, 2014 by Eric Weld

OR, The Miles Davis Approach to Business

As a longtime jazz pianist, and former trumpet player, I’m a devout Miles Davis fan. Miles was one of the most innovative, creative musicians of all time, and belongs among the Mozarts and Stravinskys in music history annals.

stepstoheavenIn the early 1960s, Miles was in his stride, cranking out classic album after classic album and jazz standard after standard. One of his greatest compositions is a tune called Seven Steps to Heaven, from his 1963 album of the same title. If you don’t know it, check out a recording on YouTube. It has Miles’ exquisite simplicity combined with his subtle whimsy, alluring melody and driving rhythm. Coupled with the improvisation of Miles and band members George Coleman on tenor sax and Herbie Hancock on piano, plus the powerhouse rhythm section of Tony Williams, drums, and Ron Carter, bass, the tune is one of his all-time greats.

Okay, now that I got my homage to Miles Davis out of the way, the real reason I bring up Miles and Seven Steps to Heaven is to point out that I use his tune as an analogy in setting goals—in business and personally.


I don’t know if he meant it this way, but Seven Steps to Heaven is a perfect concept for goal-setting. Of course, any big (or medium-sized) goal has to be approached in steps. That is, you have to establish footholds along the way toward the ultimate finish line. That applies whether you’re climbing a rock face, running a marathon, writing a novel or building a business.

Every goal consists of multiple smaller goals. But how do you go about breaking it down into manageable chunks? That’s where Miles’ song comes in: In seven steps, with Heaven standing for the ultimate goal, the completion, the fruition, the finish line, publication, the peak, success.

For this analogy to work, it doesn’t matter what you call the end line, nor even if you believe in an actual heaven. It’s just a concept. History is riddled with similar adages:

  • The longest journey begins with a single step.
  • Or one I used to tell my kids: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Still, I prefer Miles, just because he’s Miles and has made such an impression on so many people, me included. So for the sake of illustration, and in honor of Miles, here are my Seven Steps to Heaven.

  1. A First Long Look. Whatever big goal you have in mind to pursue, take a moment before you begin and step back to take it all in. Close your eyes and picture the project in its entirety. Be aware of the big, final achievement while taking in the path to get there. Don’t worry about how you will get there in this step. Just take it all in.
  2. Set an Ultimate Deadline. This is important. Decide when you want to reach that ultimate goal. Mark it on the calendar. Picture the moment. Add in details: what will the weather be like then? How will your life change for the better?
  3. Set a Timeline with Smaller Goals. Break down the larger goal into bite-size chunks, scheduled out regularly along a timeline toward the ultimate deadline. If your large goal is to run a marathon, you’ll want to set smaller goals along the way, like running 8 miles, then 12, then 15, etc. If you’re building a business, you might designate the income you want to achieve as the ultimate goal, then break it down into smaller monthly revenues in order to reach the big goal.
  4. Apply Short Deadlines. For each of those smaller goals, or footholds, give it a deadline. If your Heaven is one year away, for example, break down the smaller footholds into monthly intervals, or even weekly deadlines, so that you are regularly achieving victories. Be sure to mark these shorter deadlines on the calendar as well. You might even obtain a separate calendar just for this project.
  5. Reward Yourself Along the Way. Every time you meet a small goal, be sure to acknowledge that achievement in some small way. Perhaps it’s a day off of running. Or a nice glass of wine every time you finish another chapter in your novel. Small rewards are a way of incentivizing achievement of the next goal. In the back of your mind, your brain knows there will be a payoff.
  6. Step Back for a Broad View Occasionally. All along the way of achieving your large goal, you’ll want to repeat Step 1 on occasion: taking it all in, assessing how far you’ve come, and readjusting goals as necessary. Look, we all know, life doesn’t always go the way we chart it out. Be realistic. When things come up that disrupt your momentum, deal with them, then get back on the path toward your goal. And rather than kill yourself to get back on the timeline, simply move back the goals slightly, in accordance with the disruption. The important thing is not to cause stress and create a situation for failure; but rather to stay on the path toward your goal, and to stay positively moving forward.
  7. Celebrate! You’ve completed a marathon! Or wrote your novel! Or built your business into a self-sustaining entity, helping others and generating a solid income for yourself! Time to celebrate. When you reach your ultimate goal, be sure to set aside a day or an evening (or a vacation!) and pat yourself on the back. Surround yourself with friends and loved ones and let them know you have done what you set out to do. Enjoy. You deserve it.

And don’t forget to accompany your celebration with Seven Steps to Heaven. In memory of Miles.

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