Change The World (Part 2) - How You Can Make A Difference

Change The World (Part 2) - How You Can Make A Difference

This is part 2 of 3. You can read part 1 and part 3 .

Do The Math

We all know the term "going viral." Somehow, magically, it seems, an idea will suddenly be everywhere. We realize that people are involved in spreading these ideas but, often, we don't understand how. The reason for this is our human nature. We're built to work with small numbers that grow in a modest, almost linear fashion. Think tribe sized numbers. Our brains just don't understand exponential growth. Allow me to tell you a little story.

The great Indian king was so pleased by the new game of chess that he summoned its inventor and offered, "A great reward for such a great accomplishment." The wise inventor, being also a wise mathematician and scholar of human nature, replied with due modesty, "Lord, I am but a humble servant of yours. I ask only for one grain of rice to be placed on the first square of my chessboard, two on the second, four on the third, and so on, each square doubling the one before." The king quickly agreed to this simple request.

Soon, the chessboard was full, then the table, then storerooms, eventually the king realized that even the whole city would not be large enough to contain his gift and his entire kingdom could not grow enough rice to satisfy his commitment.

The king, as kings are wont to do, decided the best solution to this problem was to behead his wise inventor. Perhaps this is the origin of the phrase "too smart by half." By the way, the amount of rice would equal 1000 years of global rice production at 2010 levels.

In our evolutionary past, which still defines who we are today, exponential growth didn't matter. Nothing we observed closely grew exponentially. A forest of thousands of trees was just the woods, a few new trees came, a few went. Herds of hundreds of game animals didn't suddenly become millions of animals. Our village had perhaps 200 people in it. When there were a few too many for the land to support some left to found a new tribe. We didn't need to understand numbers like 264 or even 103. We evolved to work in moderate non-exponential numbers up to a few hundred. It was all we needed. That was then, this is now. Evolution moves slowly. It isn't going to keep up with population growth or the internet. Give us poor humans another few hundred millennia. Then, maybe, just maybe, we'll get it.

The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. – Albert Bartlett

Understanding the exponential function is the key to your ability to get your message out. The internet is your medium. Exponents are your method.

Exponents explain what going viral is all about. They also make it possible for us limited human beings to work with a number like 7x109 (that's 7 billion) even if we can't really grasp it fully.

People To The Power

Transmitting your idea does not require that you tell everyone you wish to communicate with directly. That's the ancient non-exponential way. Nor do you want to get a few helpers, a few disciples, to spread your message. A publisher with distributors and chains of book stores, while still a viable aid, won't get your message where you want it to go. What you need is a little help from your friends. And from their friends. And from the friends of their friends. This is the exponential function at work. This is you going viral.

Graph of exponential growth of powers of 10 shows the amazing effects of exponents.

The 'hockey stick' graph of exponential growth.

Taking this example (and perfect friends - I know my friends are all perfect and have told all their friends about WisdomWebsite, right?) if you have only 10 friends, they each have 10 friends you don't know, and those friends-of-friends each have 10 additional friends, then when each person shares your idea with their friends that is 1,000 people. 10 x 10 x 10. 103. Friends3.

The next increment is, of course, 10,000. Then 100,000. A million. Friends6. That's assuming everyone only has additional 10 friends you don't know. I'm not all that social and I know far more people than that. You probably do, too.

I'll Have Bacon On That Idea, Kevin Bacon That Is

You are probably familiar with the theory that everyone on Earth is separated from everyone else by no more than 6 steps, or degrees. The idea was popularized by the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game in which you are required to connect the actor Kevin Bacon to any other actor in 6 degrees or less of common film roles. Apparently this isn't all that hard to do. Going beyond Kevin's fine acting career, this six-degrees-of-separation theory has been tested with studies suggesting global connectivity between any two people is 6.6 degrees. You and the Pope, you and the King of Thailand, you and that woman in Africa you saw on the National Geographic channel. Even you and Kevin Bacon are probably separated by an average of less than seven other people. Seven degrees is the minimum exponential power to which you need to raise your idea to get your idea out there for everyone to consider. Let's call it Everyone-You-Know7.

In reality, not everyone will tell everyone of your idea, no matter how incredibly wonderful it is. The real world is more uneven than that. Still, by understanding the power of exponents you can get your idea out there. The key lies in the rate of exponential growth. In my example above, I used a growth rate, or base, of 10. The base defines the power of each exponent. For example, 103 = 10x10x10 = 1000. Any exponential growth rate, any base, greater than 1 is growth. 1.1 is better than nothing, 2 is much better than 1.1, 10 better than 2.

Let's tie the base and the exponent together to understand our best-case example, 6.6 degrees of separation. To touch all 7 billion people on the planet in 6.6 cycles (the exponent) our rate of growth rate (base) must be 31.022838. That's 31.0228386.6 = 7,000,000,000.

Some of you will have put together the ideas of number of people we each know with the base (growth rate). What the numbers tell you is that, on average, your acquaintances know about 31 people you don't.

I know I'm going to catch hell from you mathematicians over this description of exponential functions so, in the interest of completeness and accuracy, you can read more about exponential growth here. Enjoy.

Become The Ocean That You Are

Let's say a friend of yours has a great message and they ask you to send it on to your friends. It's a message you agree with, something you believe is useful and good for others to know. What happens if you don't send it on. Nothing, right? After all, you only have a few dozen friends and acquaintances. It doesn't matter. You're just a drop in the ocean. We all feel like this drop in the ocean. I feel it right now, writing this article. Who will read it? Will it matter? Will you send it to your friends? They, to theirs? It can feel overwhelming and impossible to matter in this world. You don't matter. Or do you?

It all comes back to our fundamental lack of understanding the exponential function. How one drop both does not matter and matters entirely. If everyone does nothing, then nothing gets done.

I am but a raindrop
For lack of raindrops was the ocean lost.
I am but a grain of sand
For lack of grains of sand was the beach lost.
I am the drop
I am the ocean
I am the grain
I am the beach
I will be the wave
that moves the ocean
that shapes the beach

I matter. And you matter. We, all of us, together, are the ocean. We must each do the easy work of the drop - to share our wisdom with our drop-friends and ask them to do the same. That is all. Nothing more, no drama. Just play your role as the drop and, together, we have an ocean. We exponentially increase our power, individually, and collectively, by doing our part and asking our friends to do theirs. Each of us is the ocean in its entirety and drop by drop. When we act together we can make some waves.

That's all for now. Read the conclusion in

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  1. [...] SeparationYou are probably familiar with the idea that everyone is separated from everyone else by six other people. That's worldwide. In a population the size of the United States, it's estimated at closer to 3 [...]

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