Last week I participated in a panel in London, chaired by Daniel Pinchbeck, author of Breaking Open the Head and other bestselling books, to launch his new book How Soon is Now?
The panel focused on what failing systems in our society need to change (the economic model, globalization, energy, the media, you name it), and why we are in a unique moment in our modern history, with Donald Trump a kind of wrecking ball whose job essentially is to hurry the entire process along.
After the discussion, which produced many good big-systems models of change, a few people approached me and said, ‘But what can I do?’
What can I do?
And that is the central issue at the moment. All of us feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness as we witness the wrecking ball of evolutionary change in action. What on earth can one small person do?
I think about that question a great deal. And the answer I repeatedly return to is that the one tiny change that you make within your own life is powerful enough to create a cascade of change everywhere else.
Take, for instance, Nipun Mehta, a former a high-strung, high-octane prodigy being paid a six-figure salary to work as a programmer in Silicon Valley. Like many of the other successful young Turks in the Bay Area around San Francisco, he was riding the wave of the vast potential of the Internet.
In the middle of 1999, Mehta began to have an uneasy sense about the get-rich-quick culture around him and felt as though he were drowning in a sea of greed.
Although he would have liked to shift the current American culture of greed and materialism, what he could manage, he realized, was to change that culture within himself.
Mom feeds the multitudes
As an experiment to test the inherent trust that develops between people who are generous with each other, Mehta came up with ‘Wednesdays.’ Every Wednesday, Mehta persuaded his mother Harshida to open the family home in Santa Clara to strangers.
The attendees came from all walks of life; millionaires sit next to the homeless. Nevertheless, all are given a chance at the microphone, after Mehta reads a passage each week to start the discussion.
“When generosity is the basic social capital, you see things from a broader perspective,” says Mehta. “You come from a different place of openness. You’re more likely to see multiple views. It deepens trust. The cup of gratitude overflows, and turns into action in so many ways.”
At this writing Harshida has fed more than 25,000, with forty to sixty new people arriving each week.
Thus far, there have been no major difficulties, disagreements or theft. The only argument concerns who will do the dishes and who can leave the most lavish gift. One Wednesday attendee left a shoe rack with space for 100 pairs so that the Wednesday visitors, who always enter the house in stockinged feet, would have a place to leave their shoes.
Mehta keeps tweaking the experiment. Most recently, he created an “open source” library of his mother’s living room bookshelf after filling it with a thousand books and announcing that people can take or leave books whenever they want. The system is operated completely on trust, with no sign-out system.
The shelves are now crammed with many more books than Mehta started with.
Mehta throws out fresh challenges to each new Wednesday group. Reach out to the neighbor who has irritated or ignored you. Write them a card, take dessert over, haul their garbage to the dump. Have your children play with theirs.
Don’t think in terms of big donations, but just the smallest things that you can do in the here and now.
Changing a culture, one Coke at a time
Touched by Mehta’s message, Marie, an employee of a software company, had an epiphany one day at her company’s vending machine. She decided that every time she came for her afternoon Coke, she’d leave money in the machine for the next person, with a note and a card: Your can of Coke has been paid for. Takes this card and pay it forward.
From the moment Marie began her campaign, frantic emails began circulating around the office in an attempt to pinpoint the identity of the company’s secret Santa. A Neighborhood Watch scheme was set up with two or three employees on constant lookout.
At this point, Marie decided that it was time to up her game. She moved to another floor, where she surreptitiously left a daily supply of donuts. “For months everyone was talking about it,” says Mehta. “It completely changed the dinner conversation.”
And eventually, by holding a mirror to the company, it completely changed the culture of the company.
Starting a cascade of good will
Nicholas Christakis, the sociologist and network specialist, recently discovered a pay-it-forward phenomenon in social networks. The participants were randomly assigned to play a series of games with different strangers. This enabled Christakis and his partner, James Fowler, to draw up networks of interactions, so that they could explore exactly how the behaviour spreads from person to person along the network.
They discovered a scientific demonstration that giving creates a contagion of giving, a network of “pay-it-forward” altruism.
The actions of participants affected the future interactions of other people along the network. “If Tom is kind to Harry, Harry will be kind to Susan, Susan will be kind to Jane, and Jane will be kind to Peter,” writes Christakis.
All it took was one act of kindness and generosity to spread through up to three degrees along the network.
So for every act of kindness or generosity you do for a friend, he or she pays it forward to their friends and their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ friends. Christakis has proved that Mehta’s instincts were correct: kindness and generosity create a cascade of cooperative behaviour, even in the most hardened of hearts.
So what can you do to change the world? It’s so simple, it’s so basic, it’s all been written about on Hallmark cards.
Do something for someone else, for no good reason. It can truly change your world.