Force and Motion

Tonight, I had the honor of seeing Malcolm Gladwell at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, MN, being interviewed by Kerri Miller of Minnesota Public Radio (below is the picture of Malcolm and I as he signed my copy of his book).


It was an amazing experience that I was able to share with my friends/co-workers. The topic was his new book David and Goliath (a great TED talk about the book can be found here). One of the topics discussed in his book is the interaction of environment and challenge and how that interaction impacts long term outcomes for people. One relationship he specifically discusses is dyslexia and entrepreneurship. He has found through interviews and research that a number of entrepreneurs have dyslexia and he postulates that this success is the result of how these individuals had to innovate and adapt due to their dyslexia.

As it pertains to the environmental factors, this got me thinking about physics, which is another one of my interests. Newton’s third law of motion specifies that, “When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.” As I was riding home with some of the people I attended with, I came to the conclusion that the bigger the challenge we face, the bigger the outcome for us, good or bad. Gladwell, in his story, talks about how, although dyslexia might be overrepresented in entrepreneurs, not all people with dyslexia have that positive outcome. In fact, many also end up in prison. This is what I’m talking about. An extreme challenge ending in extreme outcomes. Now, that’s not to say those are the only outcomes people with dyslexia have; obviously, that’s not the case. But, it is an interesting idea to ponder.

So, what does this mean for us as individuals and our environment? Although many say it’s the small stuff that matters, the bigger challenges we face in life may be the ones that help shape the paths in our lives the most and our environment is a huge factor in which direction that path will take. In addition to Gladwell, I’m also reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown (here is a great TED Blog on her book). I wrote a lot about Brown in my other blog post on mindfulness. I think the topic has merit in this discussion too and I believe our environment – upbringing, the people around us, how we treat each other, etc. – is directly related to it. In Daring Greatly, Brown talks an awful lot about how shame and resistance to vulnerability shape our lives. I think people who face the biggest challenges, but who also have a sense of “worthiness” (as Brown calls it) are probably some of our most successful people. The topic of failure (of which I also have written about) is also important here. If we are unwilling to take risks because we are afraid of failing (related to shame and worthiness AND our environment), we are less likely to be willing to face challenges and, with the ones we do face, we are unlikely to successfully navigate them (e.g. less likely to deal with them, acknowledge them, or ask for support in getting through them).

What I really like about both Gladwell and Brown is that they tell stories first and then back them up with their research. The numbers serve to add credibility to their stories, but the main drivers to get people to see the world differently and change their behavior are the stories. We see statistics all the time; particularly in education. But logic does not always motivate people. In February of 2013, Alex Laskey gave a TED Talk on how behavioral science can inform how to motivate people to decrease energy use. What I took from this talk is that changing behavior for most people does not happen through logic (saving money) or even morality (saving the environment). Instead, what changes behavior for people is what their neighbors do, particularly when this leaves an individual “outside the norm”. That is, in their experiment, the only tactic that led to people decreasing their energy usage was telling them that their neighbors used less. We tend to react in the way that puts us in harmony with our environment.

So, how can we positively influence our environment so that challenge results in positive outcomes? If we want to change our world, we have to do it through telling stories and influencing culture. Taking it back to Newton, the force that will motivate people to change is the stories we tell about others and how they connect to those stories. How they connect is largely influenced by the environment in which they live, so understanding their culture and which stories are the right ones to tell is critical. At the end of the day, the human race is exactly that: human. The numbers can tell us the topics we need to discuss, but they will not motivate people to change.

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