It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.
-- Muhammad Ali

I'm very fascinated by this quote, so I'm looking for expressions/idioms that are roughly equivalent to it. The one I'm looking for would be shorter and can be easily used in conversation.

  • I think it is already pretty compact. I actually know someone who cites this all the time the way it is. (Bonus it's not restricted to English and can be easily used in international context.) – Helmar Aug 9 '16 at 15:11

I believe this quote1 can be paraphrased as

It's the little things that wear you down.

Somewhat to my surprise, this phrase (and the similar It's the little things that trip you up) doesn't appear in common lists of idioms, but the set phrase is fairly common, and I find it in Google Books back to 1971.

A typical usage would be

It needn’t be a catastrophe that knocks you off your feet while you’re chasing your expat dream – often it’s the little things that wear you down gradually. (Expat Focus online article)

Or this blog post, titled "It's the Little Things that Wear You Down", about the large impact of getting rid of small household irritants.

This phrase is sometimes associated directly with the quote you reference (and Ali):

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1It's probably worth noting that Muhammad Ali did not actually coin the original line; it has been around for at least a hundred years, although the original irritant in the shoe was a grain of sand. See Quote Investigator for more on the quote's origins.

Edited to add that "It's the little things..." can have many different endings, e.g. It's the little things that get you down, It's the little things that really get me, It's the little things that will drive you crazy, etc. It's sometimes also used as an exhortation: Don't let the little things get to you and so forth.


This has a somewhat overlapping meaning:

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.

-- Friedrich Nietzsche

I've seen it rendered in more everyday language like this:

Give a man a why, and he can bear almost any how.

  • Hello, @Dangph. Here is my confusion: + I think Muhammad's quote refer the situation like: Imagine I'm an ambitious guy who really want to be master in English as a second language so I build a very big plan to make my dream comes true and it requires alot of hard working , however, the big plan dont make me tired/exhaust at all, in fact , the pebble in my shoe that is the boring regular disciplines I have to do everyday such as writing, reading really were me out. + In my humble opinion, I think the one you suggest is something : Oh Wow! you have a passion so Nothing is impossible. – anhvu1210 Aug 9 '16 at 11:47
  • I think another Muhammad's quote: " I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion." is the one relate to above quote. Am I misunderstood at certain points ? Please let me know. – anhvu1210 Aug 9 '16 at 11:50
  • Do you mean something like, "Don't sweat the small stuff." ? – dangph Aug 9 '16 at 12:00
  • Kind of, but the "small stuff" is not important in "Don't sweat the small stuff" , I'm looking for the annoyed, small things and have strong influences to determine whether one gets success or not. – anhvu1210 Aug 9 '16 at 13:48
  • @AnhVũ, what about these?: To suffer the death of a thousand cuts or to be nibbled to death by ducks. – dangph Aug 9 '16 at 14:18

Interpretations of this above have focussed on "small" versus "big", eg that "It's the little things that get you down".

It could alternatively be read as "future" vs "present", ie "Don't worry about the future, deal with the things around you in the present". The mountains are ahead, ie in the future, and have no immediate effect on us. However, the pebble does effect us. It could be a call to action to remove the pebble.

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