The Power of Hidden Connections
The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Miracle of the Mangroves
When dusk slowly crept upon a mangrove forest lining a river deep in a jungle in Southeast Asia, a biologist far from his home in Washington State looked out over the lush, alien landscape lining the snake-infested waters. While drifting slowly in his boat, Professor Hugh Smith surely heard the calls of the nocturnal creatures uncoiling from their dens or taking flight from their nests and beginning their nightly hunts. I can envision how the water must have shimmered under the light from the stars, unspoiled by the light pollution that existed in the remote cities. What happened next on that humid day in 1935 is part of recorded academic history. Smith looked up at one of the mangrove trees, and suddenly the entire canopy glowed as if a lightning bolt had shot out from the tree instead of striking it. Then all went dark, leaving a burned image on his vision.
Then lightning, as it sometimes does, struck twice.
The entire tree glowed again, then went entirely dark again twice in three seconds.1 Then, in a reality-bending moment, all of the trees along the riverbank suddenly glowed in unison. Every tree on one side of the river for a thousand feet was flashing and going dark at exactly the same time.
Something deep inside me warms at the thought that such a patient, careful, and scientific observer, whose curiosity about the world led him so far away from his normal life in the Pacific Northwest, could be rewarded that night by such a magical moment of nature.
Once his capacity for mental reasoning returned, he realized that the trees were not, in fact, glowing; rather, they were covered with a critical number of bioluminescent lightning bugs, all illuminating at the exact same time. Upon returning home, Dr. Smith wrote up a journal article on his discovery of the synchronous lightning bugs. It seemed too good to be true, like something out of a storybook. I’m sadly unsurprised by the next part of the story. He was not believed. Biologists ridiculed his account, even calling it fabricated. Why would male fireflies glow in unison, which would only decrease their chances of distinguishing themselves to potential mates? Mathematicians were equally skeptical. How could order come from chaos in nature without a leader to direct it? And entomologists asked how millions of fireflies could see enough other fireflies to create the exact same pattern, given the limited visibility in the mangrove forest. It seemed physically, mathematically, and biologically impossible.
Yet, it wasn’t. And now, thanks to modern science, we know how and why. Turns out that this puzzling behavior actually serves an evolutionary purpose for the fireflies. As published in the prestigious journal Science, researchers Moiseff and Copeland found that when lightning bugs light up at random times, the likelihood of a female responding to a male in the deep, dark recesses of a mangrove forest is 3 percent. But when the lightning bugs light up together, the likelihood of females responding is 82 percent.2 That’s not a typo. The success rate increased by 79 percentage points when flashing as an interconnected community rather than as individuals.
Society teaches that it’s better to be the only bright light than be in a forest of bright lights. After all, isn’t that the way we think about success in our schools and companies? We want to graduate at the top of our class, get the job at the best company, and be chosen to work on the most coveted project. We want our child to be the smartest kid at school, the most popular kid on the block, the fastest kid on the team. When any resource—be it acceptance to the most prestigious university, an interview with a top-ranking company, or a spot on the best athletic team—is limited, we are taught that we have to compete in order to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the pack.
And yet, my research shows that this isn’t actually the case. The lightning bug researchers discovered that when the fireflies were able to time their pulses with one another with astonishing accuracy (to the millisecond!), it allowed them to space themselves apart perfectly, thus eliminating the need to compete. In the same way, when we help others become better, we can actually increase the available opportunities, instead of vying for them. Like the lightning bugs, once we learn to coordinate and collaborate with those around us, we all begin to shine brighter, both individually and as an ecosystem.
But pause to think for a moment. How did lightning bugs even do it? How did they all coordinate their flashing lights so perfectly, especially given their limited visibility and vision? Researchers Mirollo and Strogatz from Boston College and MIT found in the Journal of Applied Mathematics that, amazingly, the fireflies do not have to see everybody to create coordinated action; so long as no group of fireflies is completely out of sight of any other group, they can sync up with one another’s rhythms.3 In other words, it only takes a few nodes to transform the entire system.4
Our new understanding of “positive systems” teaches us that the same is true for humans. As you will discover in this book, by becoming a “positive node” in your workplace, company, or community, and helping those around you improve their creativity, their productivity, their abilities, their performance, and more, you are not only helping the group become better; you are exponentially increasing your own potential for success.
There is one final important detail to this intriguing story. Biologists who have explored these jungles now know that the glow emanating from those mangroves can be seen for miles. This means it is even easier for other fireflies to find their way to the light. So the brighter it shines, the more newcomers join and add their light. This is true just as much for humans as it is for fireflies: The more you help people find their light, the brighter you both will shine.
The Power of Others
When George Lucas originally wrote the script to the billion-dollar Star Wars franchise, the most iconic line in movie history—“May the Force be with you”—was not in it. Instead, the earliest versions read, “May the Force of Others be with you.” Why start a book on the science of potential with an arcane piece of movie history? Because as the children’s book author Roald Dahl wrote: “The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.” And because I believe that hidden in this tiny line lies both the problem undergirding our broken pursuit of potential as a society and the secret to exponentially increasing our success, well-being, and happiness.
Our society has become overly focused on the “power of one alone” versus “the power of one made stronger by others.” Of course, Hollywood glorifies individual superstars; where else are the streets literally paved with their names? But when we adopt this script in our companies and schools, focusing only on individual achievement and eliminating “others” from the equation, our true power remains hidden. But what is hidden can be revealed.
Three years ago, as I was researching the hidden connections that underlie success and human potential, I had a breakthrough. I became a father.
When my son, Leo, came into the world, he was quite literally helpless. He couldn’t even roll over by himself. But, as he got older, he became more capable. And with each new skill he picked up, like any good positive psychology researcher would, I found myself praising him, saying, “Leo, you did that all by yourself! I’m proud of you.” And after a while, Leo began parroting it back to me in a soft but proud voice: “All by myself.”
That’s when I realized: First as children, then as adults in the workplace, we are conditioned to disproportionately value things we accomplish on our own. As a father, if I stopped my praise and guidance there, my son might come to view independent achievement as the ultimate test of our mettle. But in reality it is not. There is a whole other level.
The cycle begins at a young age. At school, our kids are trained to study diligently and individually so they can best others on exams. If they seek help on projects from other students, they are chastised for cheating. They are given multiple hours of homework a night, forcing them to trade time with others for more time working in isolation. Over and over they are reminded that their future success in the workplace hinges on individual metrics, including their grades and standardized test scores. Statistically it doesn’t, but this approach to learning does do one thing: It dramatically raises their stress levels while robbing them of social connection, sleep, attention, happiness, and health. Yet, instead of questioning the system, we judge those who can’t keep up with this feeding frenzy for individual achievement. By the time students finish school they are frazzled, fragile, and lonely, only to find that the success and happiness they had been promised did not lie at the end of that rainbow.
Suddenly, those same people who tested so well individually struggle when they need to work with others to bring a product to market or get their team to hit a target. Meanwhile, the people who rise to the top are not those who try to do everything all by themselves, but, rather, those who can ask others for help and rally others to grow. Parents who support a balanced, connected approach to pursuing success for their children are rewarded for their persistence, while parents who urge individual achievement at the cost of connection find themselves unprepared for their child’s burnout or loneliness.
We spend the first twenty-two years of our life being judged and praised for our individual attributes and what we can achieve alone, when, for the rest of our life, our success is almost entirely interconnected with that of others.
Over the past decade I have worked with nearly half of the Fortune 100 companies and traveled to more than fifty countries to learn how people everywhere approach the concepts of success, happiness, and human potential. One thing I’ve found to be true almost everywhere is that the vast majority of companies, schools, and organizations measure and reward “high performance” in terms of individual metrics such as sales numbers, résumé accolades, and test scores. The problem with this approach is that it is predicated on a belief we thought science had fully confirmed: that we live in a world of “survival of the fittest.” It teaches us that success is a zero-sum game; that those with the best grades, or the most impressive résumé, or the highest point score, will be the ONLY ones to prosper. The formula is simple: Be better and smarter and more creative than everyone else, and you will be successful.
But this formula is inaccurate.
Copyright © 2018 by Shawn Achor. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.