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When Does Meaningful Change Occur?

Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called, The Tipping Point. Gladwell wants to know what made Paul Revere’s ride successful.  How did Hush Puppies, sometime in the late 90’s, become high fashion?  What caused the crime rate in New York City to fall almost in half in five years and for the murder rate to drop 64.3%?  What caused an epidemic of syphilis in Baltimore in the mid 1990s?  What caused a small startup company in the mid- 1980s making athletic shoes for hard-core skateboarders to rocket into popularity and then precipitously decline?  Why have all the campaigns to discourage teenage smoking stalled dead in the water?

Gladwell is interested in the phenomenology of quickly moving events.  His theory is that many cultural trends occur like epidemics, rather than in some sort of logical fashion.  His book examines why this might be so.  How, he asks, can certain ideas become trends that affect millions of people in a short period of time.

If we can understand some of the reasons that Gladwell believes this kind of change happens in various aspects of our culture, then what are the implications for understanding the process of change in personal growth and overcoming emotional disorders?  I want to see if Gladwell’s findings offer new ideas for lawyers who feel like they are stuck in emotionally and spiritually unfulfilling lives, or feel they’re stuck in the midst of depression, or anxiety or addictive disease. If there can be an epidemic that changes rapidly the sneaker market, can there also be an epidemic of change in one’s personal life when that change is sorely needed?

On April 18, 1775, a young stable boy overheard two British officers in Boston talking about how the colonists would be taught a lesson the next afternoon.  The stable boy went to Paul Revere to relate the conversation.  This resulted in two riders setting off on horseback that night to alert the colonists about the plans of the British troops.  There were two riders, one named William Dawes and the other Paul Revere.  We know that Paul Revere’s ride made modern American history.  Nobody remembers William Dawes.

Gladwell is interested in the difference.  Gladwell describes Paul Revere as a fisherman, hunter, a card player, a theater-lover, a frequenter of pubs, a successful businessman, an active Mason and a member of several social clubs.  He quotes from Revere’s biography as follows:

“When Boston imported its first streetlights in 1774, Paul Revere was asked to serve on the committee that made the arrangement.  When the Boston market required regulation, Paul Revere was appointed its clerk.  After the revolution, in a time of epidemics, he was chosen health officer of Boston, and coroner of Suffolk County.  When a major fire ravaged the old wooden town, he helped to found the Massachusetts Mutual Fire Insurance company, and his name was first to appear on its charter of incorporation.  As poverty became a growing problem in the new republic, he called the meeting that organized the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, and was elected its first president.  When the community of Boston was shattered by the most sensational murder trial of his generation, Paul Revere was chosen foreman of the jury.”

 Revere is the poster child for what Gladwell has found to be one of three factors that seem to always be present when there is sudden and rapid change.  This first factor is the presence of a person with a peculiar kind of personality that Gladwell calls a Connector. This is a person who is not necessarily an elected official, but somebody at the grassroots level, who knows lots of people, is involved in many things that are going on, and is always received warmly and amicably.  The corollary for us from Gladwell’s research is that for a person to get well rapidly, there often needs to be a key individual involved with the lawyer who has certain kinds of talents and good information to help the lawyer change patterns in his or her life.

In the late 1960s, when Joan Cooney set out to devise an educational program for young kids, she was going against the grain of most contemporary psychological understanding.  Most of those with expertise in the education of young children felt that television was too passive, and not something that could be used as a creative tool to teach young children.  Cooney, on the other hand, wanted to do something major to counter the prevailing epidemics of poverty and illiteracy that persisted in pockets all over our country.  She called her idea, Sesame Street.

Years later, it is difficult for us to perceive what an uphill battle it was to make a successful, educational television program for young children, three to five years old.  It did not happen easily.  The reason it did happen was because the program was based not on the educational theory of the time, but on countless ongoing experiments to determine what young children actually responded to.

Certain things that quickly became taken for granted on the show, such as having puppets, Big Bird and the Grouch, walk and talk with ordinary adults on the show were what made the program work for young kids.  These little factors that made a difference are what Gladwell calls the Stickiness Factors.  His theory is that for any change to be epidemic in its proportion, it has to have certain little factors that give it traction.  These little factors are not things that come from necessarily spending large amounts of money, but are small ways of doing something that somehow fit our sensibilities as humans.

The third area that Gladwell studied was context.  He looked at a number of interesting research studies about honesty and children.  The significant finding was that it was not so much genetics, or nurture, that determined whether a child would be honest or dishonest, as it was the context in which the opportunity for being dishonest occurred. In short, he suggests that almost anybody is going to be dishonest in certain contexts and, at the other end of the spectrum, in certain others, almost everyone will be honest.  Gladwell says that our normal, instinctive impulse is to try to explain the world around us in terms of peoples’ essential attributes – he’s a better athlete, she is smarter, that person comes from a dangerous background.  Gladwell believes that in most contexts, these inherent differences of nature and nurture don’t make that much difference, rather that the context is the important thing.  He spends a lot of time talking about the reduction in crime that occurred in New York City, because the police adopted a policy of cleaning up the context — no graffiti on subways, no more intimidating squeegee men at intersections and no more vagrants on sidewalks.

So what do Gladwell’s findings suggest to us about what makes significant and rapid change possible for us as individuals?  In part, it may be helpful to recall what the Taoist see as the fundamental yin/yang effect in life.  You will recall the yin/yang symbol.  What that symbol suggests is that when one portion of it fills up and goes to an extreme then there is a counter-flow in the opposite direction toward the other extreme.  Life does not stay in some sort of static balance, but moves back and forth across a continuum.  This is often seen retrospectively in history.

For example, in art history, you can look at a particular form of art and see that over time, the form gets pushed and pushed farther and farther out to an almost outlandish extreme, at which point, there’s a sudden shift back so that the form, which has almost by its extension destroyed itself, starts again from an entirely new place.  Something like this can be seen in the recovery of certain alcoholics, who reach such a point of desperation – a “bottom”, as it is often called, that they change dramatically in a relatively short time into a new way of living and being responsible for their alcoholic condition.  The difficulty with seeing this as the best avenue for successful change is that many, if not most people, die before they reach the kind of “bottom” that can suddenly shift them into a new way of life.

What Gladwell’s theory suggests is that three factors can help a sudden shift occur, without someone having to reach a severe bottom of depression or the most deteriorated life of the street alcoholic.

Gladwell’s three factors are important for anyone to consider who is seeking to change his or her life for the better.  First, do you have that special person in your life, by whom you feel you are loved and cared for, who has special knowledge about what your issues are and the solutions for them.  This person can be a professional, somebody you pay for their services, but it does seem often that the affect of this kind of human agency is greater when what is given is free.  In recovery circles, this is often a person’s sponsor.  Many times one hears of someone talked about in terms of, “Well, that person has a good sponsor,” or “I’m not sure she has a very good sponsor.”  Implicit in these kinds of statements is an understanding that the qualities of this Connector person are extremely important to the patient’s ability to change rapidly and get well.

Are their Stickiness Factors for getting well?  The lesson of the Stickiness Factors is that whatever the problem one is trying to address, it is important to understand that very small things, if changed, may have significant impact.  Take depression for example.  If someone is getting good regular exercise, eating well and following good sleeping habits, regardless of whether they’re taking any pharmacological treatment for depression, chances are that they are going to be in a lot better position to recover sooner and quicker from their depression.  If you put them in the context of seeing a good therapist, that is include factor one, the Connector, then you really do have a good opportunity.

To give the best opportunity overall, look at Gladwell’s third factor, that is, context.  Almost any person faced with an emotional or physical disorder, does better if they’re in a group of people who share an interest in addressing that same problem.  Put the depressive person, who is getting good exercise and nutrition and seeing a therapist, in a depression support group and you have got all the factors that Gladwell suggests will cause rapid change to occur.

Twelve-step programs are not the only, but perhaps the best known, way to address illnesses by providing the kind of contextual support that is going to optimize the chance that people will remain sober and get well.

If you believe that you are stuck in an area of your life which is not going well for you, be it your work, your marriage, or your social outlets, try applying Gladwell’s three principles to the problem to see if you cannot affect rapid and lasting change.  Find a mentor in your area of concern to help you out, someone who knows how to care for other people, and someone who has the special knowledge that makes a difference.  Secondly, look for the little things that you can do in your life to improve your emotional and physical well-being.  Exercise everyday, eat a healthy breakfast and try often to engage in fun activities with people you love.  And thirdly, put yourself in the right context to be with the kind of people who are going to share your concerns and be supportive of your growth and well-being.  We can’t all be Paul Revere’s but we can be lawyers who learn from his example of how change is catalyzed and effected.

– by Don Carroll

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