Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. – John F. Kennedy
I was watching Nigel Topping’s TED talk 3 Rules for a Zero Carbon World and was surprised to see him put systems thinking principles at the core of his argument about what we need to do to take action on climate change.
A key principle is the one of loops. positive loops that reinforce each other. One thing leads to another thing which leads to more of the first thing and so on, in a virtuous circle that increases whatever the first thing was doing. Negative loops work the other way and balancing loops keep things the same.
But we want positive loops when it comes to climate action – more of the things that are good for the planet and less of the things that aren’t. But how do we go about doing that?
Well, it turns out that the basic principle is pretty simple. Start by doing something – taking a stand, making a point, making a change. And then work at doing that for a while.
At first people will ignore you, and then you’ll get your first follower, and then more will join and then early adopters will notice and then the mainstream will find out about you and then, all of a sudden, the thing will be an overnight success after thirty years of working on it.
You can see this pattern with the shift to renewables, the adoption of electric cars, the increasing focus many of us have in buying sustainable products. I watched another talk on heating homes with ground source heat pumps and it seems quite feasible now in a way it might not have been even a few years ago. We see the change in the last year or so but it’s taken decades to get to this point.
What’s happened during that time is the slow march of project after project, with successful ones increasingly leading to the belief of onlookers that this is something that is worth doing, leading to more projects which leads to more belief and so on, until the whole world believes that we have to do something.
But what’s also interesting about Topping’s talk is that you have to recognise that the change you will see is exponential. In the early period, you see little result from your time and effort. And then it starts to show up, as it takes you less and less time to double your impact. This means that you shouldn’t expect to see amazing results for a while – that doesn’t mean you are failing. It just means you need to give it enough time before you give up and walk away. How many people have walked away just before they hit that point where their results were about to explode?
If you put this in terms people understand these days you should think about likes and followers on social media. You can put out content for ten years without people noticing and then suddenly you reach a tipping point and the numbers go up and up, seemingly unstoppably. Or you give you because you don’t get the quick results you wanted and never find out.
Of course it’s hard to tell the difference between something that isn’t working and never will and something that will work one day but just isn’t showing results now. You have to believe in what you are doing and be willing to spend your life doing it anyway, regardless of how things turn out to be happy with this state of affairs.
So there are two things you have to do if you want to make a success of whatever you’re working on. You have to be willing to believe that your work will lead to success and that eventually the people around you will see that and support you. And you have to be willing to wait for the length of time it’s going to take.
Belief and time – those are the ingredients you mix for success.