I recently started listening to the audiobook version of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. The book begins with an examination of several major events: Including the return of Hush Puppy shoes into fashion and the outbreak of a syphilis epidemic in Baltimore. Gladwell argues something that I have always believed in strongly as a historian…context matters. Small events (which he goes on to say cause a situation to reach a tipping point) are given outsized importance if the context of the situation makes it ripe. It’s only when all of the factors come together that a small event can cause a major shift.
I’m reminded of Charles Duhigg’s How Habits Work: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. In that work, Duhigg speaks about how habits are hard to change, goes into the psychology and cognitive science of why habits exist and how they can be changed or adapted. But towards the end of the book, he devotes an entire chapter to crisis. He does this for one reason. Up until that point, he has been making it clear that changing habits requires work and active effort. But in a crisis situation, where the world is turned upside down and your survival (or the survival of your company) is at stake, changing habits is multitudes easier. For the more cynical among us, it’s the truth behind the “Never let a good crisis go to waste” way of thinking. Opportunistic yes, but still true.
Every position I have taken in my professional life has been in a crisis for the organization or the department. I took on the Curator of Collections role at the museum at a time when I was the first formally educated person to be devoted entirely to that role; one former director had gone through formal training, but she was splitting time between the Executive Director role and the Curator role and burned herself out doing neither of them effectively. When I eventually rose to the position of Executive Director, the museum was in a state of staffing and economic crisis, as well as crisis with the Board and the Community. It took over a year for me to get things calmed down, get the Board where they needed to be and begin addressing other risks to the museum’s future, let alone expand on what we were currently offering. I moved into my current position as a Software Education Specialist in an area which had seen the recent departure of three previous people. My co-worker had been moved over from another subject area, and had only been in her new position for a few months before I came in. The E-Learning was a disaster that needed complete retooling while we were still trying to learn the basic subject matter.
Each of these represent a major challenge, but I have also found that they present the best opportunity to have the greatest impact. As Gladwell discusses, I have found that small changes in these times can have a great impact. I’ve also found, as Duhigg points out, that in these times major changes are easier to make, simply because everyone is in crisis mode and is more willing to try anything to see if it sticks.
As I listen to more of The Tipping Point, I’m looking forward to drawing more conclusions and parallels between it and other works I have read and my own experiences. It is nice to receive some validation through others that what you have done and experienced in the past is indeed part of a broader truth!