On How Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference, by Laura Bertone
It was just by chance that right before leaving the States a few weeks ago,
after the Las Vegas General Semantics Conference, I came across a book
entitled "The Tipping Point' by Malcom Gladwell (Little, Brown and Company).
Some of the ideas in it proved useful for the presentation of the book I
wrote with French crisis management expert Patrick Lagadec, that has just
come out here in Spanish:"Voyage to the heart of an implosion. What is there
to learn from the Argentine experience?" (Paris: Eyrolles, 2003)
I bring this up here because I feel that some of these ideas apply for the
teaching and spreading of Generals Semantics as well.
In a nutshell, the general idea consists in this: little things can - or may
- produce big changes.
This is the unavowed conviction that sustained both Patrick and me when we
decided to carry out a series of meetings, in April 2003 in Buenos Aires, to
trigger exchanges among Argentine intellectuals and thinkers first; then
among company executives, officials and university postgrade students; then
with the military and, last but not least, with artists. Seen from abroad -
and even from inside - this may seem ridiculously insignificant. And yet… in
the midst of the worst crisis ever in already crisis-stricken Argentina, it
proved not easy to succeed in arranging for these people to meet… We managed
to do this only partially; we never succeeded in having them all come
together at one and the same meeting.
Aware of the modesty of our means, and of the modesty of possible results,
we decided to persist and go on. This must surely have been easier for me
(as Argentine-born) than for our French expert Patrick, who was more used to
European or Northen patterns of efficiency, acknowledgement and respect than
One of the first observations after the series of encounters in April was
the disproportion encountered between the levels of energy and efforts
involved and the scarcity of concrete results (no follow-up meetings
announced, no committees set up, no official acknowledgment or private
support). It was at this point that I started remembering one of Korzybski's
axioms handed down by subsequent IGS staff members, which goes (as
insistently and concisely conveyed by Bob Pula's insistent and concise
formula): "Minimum Expectations, Maximum Motivation". I realised that I had
made it mine.
Then surprise struck: as soon as Patrick returned to Paris, he invited me to
write a "joint debriefing" of what we had done, felt, thought and learned
throughout those two weeks of meetings. Surprise then struck again: only two
weeks later and with a text of only 50 pages at that point, our initial "academic"
project turned into a book contract with a well-known French publishing
house. We immediately decided to have it published in Argentina as well.
If the book was meant simply as a testimony for Europeans (and a possible
warning of what to avoid) for Argentines, it becomes an invitation as well:
an invitation to act and produce small changes (with the only certainty that
there is no certainty that the scales will, at some point, tip).
This is the basic idea and positive tone in Malcolm Gladwell's book which
helped me reformulate Patrick's and my purpose. Through examples that seem
at first sight to have little relation to our General Semantic perspective
and formulations, Gladwell reminds us, through his cases examples taken from
management, politics and educational televisión, that very small changes can
make a big difference. Is that very different from the "piecemeal approach"
that Milton Dawes has for so long fostered?
As probably many other people in the World, especially when very young, I
had dreamt of heroes and heroines capable of great deeds, as in previous
epic times. The paradox in today's world seems to be that a tremendous
amount of courage and will is needed for the "man and woman in the street"
to face those everyday challenges which do not involve epic-like events (where
there is no tournament to win or kingdom to conquest; where everything
appears ridiculously unimportant and insignificant). Given this, the
conviction that small things can make big differences has been crucial to me
since it provides fuel to my motivational tank.
When we describe General Semantics formulations, or do the exercises to
clean up the ways and means of our language use, it helps, in my opinion, to
remember this. If we accept any challenge, moving along wiht small steps
without knowing for sure what the result will be, and if we lower our
expectations and increase our personal motivation, we will manage to work
hard, feel joy and share it! And sharing the sheer joy of work done without
expecting any rewards can be important - and helpful in convincing others
that it pays to experiment with small changes within oneself.