Recently, I wrote about finding positive habits, not for our own sake but for the sake of the world around us. (If that sounds a little grandiose, you’ll find that little stuff can have a huge impact.) In any case, in the comments I tried to recall a story I had heard about somewhere, and now I finally have all the details. This story comes straight out of the pages of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.
Jerry Sternin went to Vietnam as a representative of Save the Children, and he was given six months to make a difference in the nation’s struggle with malnutrition in children. The odds were completely stacked against Sternin from the start. He had very little time, resources, or knowledge about how to solve the problem.
His first order of business was to go to the villages and meet with the mothers. Sternin observed the children and the families, taking children’s weight and measurements to establish a baseline. He then asked the mothers if they knew of children who were healthier than the others, and he found a few families whose children were consistently healthy. Since he had already studied local families’ habits, Sternin was able to focus on finding what might be different in these homes.
He found that the families with healthier children spread out the same amount of food to give their children four meals a day instead of two larger meals. He found that these mothers gave their children small amounts of shrimp, crabs, and potato-greens: foods which were not thought of as something for children.
Following this new discovery, Sternin helped the village organize time in which families from around the village could come and learn from the mothers who had healthier children. Local Vietnamese women taught women from their own village on how to keep their children from becoming malnourished. The results were immediately noticeable, and children became noticeably healthier even within the six month deadline. Even after Sternin left, children stayed healthier.
Find the Bright Spots
The story is in a section of the book entitled “Find the Bright Spots,” which very simply means “find what’s working and do a lot more of it.” In the story above, Sternin recognized the resourcefulness of Vietnamese mothers and helped further the ideas.
And in a story like this, set halfway around the world (from my location, at least), it’s easy to recognize the ingenious notion of capitalizing on what’s working in a dismal situation. But how do we apply that to our struggles? When that project at work looks like it could never change. When the house looks as if it will never be clean. When…
On and on it goes, and yet the idea is the same.
What’s already working? Can you do more of that? It may not solve everything, but can it help?
The Quote that Haunts Me
One of the key elements of Sternin’s success was that he did not attempt to announce to the villagers the way that they should behave. There were no sermons or lectures from the almighty Westerners. Instead, the relief workers focused on the natural connections between the villagers to spread the idea.
In fact, Sternin was opposed to being the one to present the solution.
“Knowledge does not change behavior.”
Sternin went on to say, “We have all encountered crazy shrinks and obese doctors and divorced marriage counselors.”
That quote really bothers me. “Knowledge does not change behavior.”
It bothers me so much because it should change our behavior. We should see the truth and have the power to bring about change in our lives because of it. We should just do what we know to be right.
And yet we don’t.
It takes something more to effect change. That something may be faith. It may be community. It may be a combination of both. Whatever it is, it takes something more.
What about You?
What are the bright spots that you’re thinking of as you read this? What do you think can change in the situations around you?