Friday, May 28, 2010

The Glass Half-Full, Considered

"Don't worry about letting go of things.  Think instead about what you would like to move toward." --Communicatrix.

Changing oneself, as I've written here before, is difficult.  People resist reinvention because it means they might be disrespectful of the place or family from which they've come.  When many people think about change, they think about how difficult it will be.  Thinking about what you're going to, as Communicatrix advises, sounds great to people who actually like to change, but it's completely terrifying for those who dislike uncertainty.  But then life is very difficult in any event for those who need to know what's coming. 

The idea of making things better is usually associated with big, sweeping changes--overhauling a system or spending years on overturning a landmark Supreme Court decision.  And yet, the smallest things can make a difference.  Not just someone bravely refusing to sit at the back of the bus, but making the small but critical shift to see little stuff that's good.  Seeing the glass as half-full can fix a big problem. 

In Switch: Don't Solve Problems--Copy Success, brothers Chip and Dan Heath give us remarkable evidence that looking at small bright spots and replicating them is what can really change the world. 

They look at teachers finding one positive attribute in a "problem" kid and helping him actually gain academic ground, companies on the verge of bankruptcy that find ways back to solvency, marriages pulled back from the brink of divorce. The best story for me is one about how pragmatic optimism saved a lot of lives. In 1990, a many named Jerry Sternin went to Vietnam as part of a non-profit to help fight malnutrition.  Millions of children were at starvation levels.  Sternin could have stayed for 20 years and written position papers about the need for infrastructure--there was widespread and deep poverty and a lack of clean water throughout the country, for a start--but instead he went and visited villages and paid attention to the kids who were doing well.  The difference?  Their moms fed them four times a day instead of two, and they were eating different kinds of food: the moms added shrimp and sweet potato greens (the latter was considered low-class food) to their kids meals.  So Sternin started low-cost workshops where parents cooked together and used the same methods, and malnutrition decreased by 65 percent.  After six months.  The program eventually reached 2.2 million people in 265 villages. 

"What if we had a more positive orientation?" ask the Healths.  What if we experienced a rush of gratitude when we flipped on a light switch or turned on a tap?  Humans don't do this naturally, of course.  We look for what's wrong.  This book reminded me that looking for the bright spot doesn't mean becoming a polyanna.  Finding that bright spot and copying it can make the world a lot better. 

No comments:

Post a Comment