Monday, September 19, 2011

Creating Change and the Butterfly Effect



Overwhelmed with the enormity of the task of nation-building, some of us would more readily give up than do something. The oft-repeated cry of resignation is: How can one man make a difference?

Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point wrote of The Butterfly Effect. It was also mentioned in the book The One Minute Millionaire co-written by Mark Victor Hansen and Robert Allen. It is also the subject of the movie of the same title that starred Ashton Kutcher and which explored the effects of one man's alteration of the past to the events of the present.

The Butterfly Effect phenomenon underscores the fact that little changes can lead to dramatic results. It is so-called because it likens the little changes to the flapping of a butterfy's wings. It says that even such a tiny movement as the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Shanghai can affect the weather patterns in far away Australia. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell related the story that led Edward Lorenz to the recognition of this phenomenon.


The Tipping Point is a reminder of that other phenomenon called The Hundredth Monkey, which is subject of the classic book of the same title. In the simplified story, there are 2 populations of monkeys residing in 2 distant and different islands (let's call them Island A and Island B). The story goes that scientists were studying a population of monkeys in Island A and in Island B when, in Island A, monkeys learned to wash their food in the sea discovering perhaps that their food tasted better when washed of soil and dirt. The discovery was serendipitous! It started with one monkey, then another imitated it, and another followed suit, until all the monkeys in the island had started employing the same process whereas, previously, it wasn't in their normal range of behaviors. What surprised the scientists was that when the "hundredth" monkey in Island A learned to do the same with its food, the monkeys in Island B - which is distant and had no connection or communication with the first group - somehow spontaneously learned to wash their food too.

The Hundredth Monkey is most often used to illustrate how we are all connected somehow however much we are to all appearances disconnected physically. The actions of one always affect another. This story is sometimes brought up to explain why or how, after the Philippines had the People Power Revolution as a peaceful effort to overthrow the dictatorship in 1986, other countries also seemed to follow suit in fighting their own dictators. (More recently, it happened again in African and Middle Eastern countries, albeit with the help of social media.)

The phenomena of The Hundredth Monkey, The Tipping Point and The Butterfly Effect are all inter-related. The "hundredth" monkey was the "tipping point" - the critical point where change inevitably takes place and takes over a whole system, culture or, as in the monkeys, their way of life. In a sense, the first monkey was a butterfly flapping its wings in that while it was a single act, it led to many others and created a radical change.
As illustrated in these phenomena, there is no reason to be feel one's lone or tiny efforts to create changes are in vain. Like The Butterfly Effect, we are each like a small mustard seed that holds promise to grow into a mighty tree; and our actions, each a drop in a vast ocean that creates ripples and ripples until it grows into a wave. THAT is the power we each wield.
In our journey to the top, we must first believe that every action counts and can make a big difference. As Martin Luther King said, "You must take the first step in faith. You do not need to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step."

See you at the top!

P.S. The phenomenon of The Hundredth Monkey has been revisited, and the claim of knowledge travelling from one island to another in a non-physical manner was debunked. However, the subsequent studies acknowledge that knowledge did get transmitted, from one monkey to another, and from one generation to another. In this instance, The Tipping Point phenomena and the Butterfly effect still apply.


Book Recommendations:
The Hundredth Monkey
The Tipping Point
The One Minute Millionaire

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