As many of you know, I have had a very interesting year health-wise (medullary thyroid cancer, surgery, many life changes including reinventing the way I eat/exercise, food as "health", etc..). I am a reflective person, but have found that I am much more so now. I enjoy letting ideas and concepts bang around in my head a bit longer because I want to discover their meaning and potential.
Over the last couple of weeks I have been pondering tipping points (hat tip to Malcolm Gladwell's awesome book by the same name). My reflection on this topic is mostly self-absorbed and related to my health. That said, I have also considered how human tipping points affect how we manage, lead, and create momentum in our workplaces.
I have read and heard many times that my type of cancer grows very slowly until it doesn't (most people, myself included, are diagnosed after it has spread to lymph nodes and is considered incurable). And because of this most people live for decades after diagnosis and often die from other causes. This is great news and gives me encouraging odds.
And yet, the idea that it "grows very slowly until is doesn't" has been tough to get out of my mind. What the doctors mean by this is that at some point - a tipping point - the volume and spread of the cancer becomes such at the trajectory of the disease changes and is hard to reverse. And apparently the difference in disease progression and likely outcomes are stark. Very slow to very fast - very good to very bad.
Before I worry you dear readers (because this is not my intent), I want you to know that I have no reason to believe that I am anywhere near the tipping point. I am enjoying life, living more healthfully, reinventing my work, and plan to experience a fun retirement in 15 years if only I can save a bit more money in my 401K.
It's the road TOWARD the tipping point that interests me right now. I wonder how much each individual action or decision might/could/does impact my trajectory and how much power I have to slow my body's march toward the tipping point. As a firm believer in the butterfly effect and someone who has seen that this applies to health, I believe (and the science concurs) that each tiny action reverberates.
I will be the first to admit that I was flapping my butterfly wings in the wrong direction - speeding up my journey to the tipping point - for many years. I let excessive travel, poor diet, and life as a road warrior consultant get in the way of exercising regularly and good sleep habits. If you imagine my disease progression as a trip from Seattle to Key West, by car from Seattle to Dallas, and then on supersonic jet from Dallas to Key West (Dallas being the tipping point), I wonder if my years of living less healthfully caused me to speed at 80MPH toward Dallas and wonder how far I have gone. Where am I now? Am I two states away? In northern Texas? Did I catch myself early enough to slow things down in Portland? Can I slam on the breaks and go 5MPH instead of 80?
Here is a specific example. I am taking several supplements (fish oil, curcumin, mushroom, resveratrol, black raspberry, skullcap, etc) that seem to help directly or indirectly reduce cancer growth (not of my cancer, mind you, my cancer is too rare to have been studied). Am I taking enough of each to be therapeutic? What if I am taking two pills less than the right dose? Most studies don't provide cut and dry answers about how much is enough and it would be a shame if two more pills a day would have done something different.
I have cut sugar out of my diet because sugar feeds cancer tumors. I wonder, however, how strict I need to be. Will one chocolate cake bender/celebration fuel growth? Will a week at a conference eating processed turkey deli sandwiches affect my overall trajectory? What if I eat broccoli with my cake - will this make a difference? I know some folks with my disease who eat cruciferous veggies at EVERY meal. Should I be doing this?
I will never likely know the answers to any of these questions (quarterly blood tests will tell me some information about overall speed of progression). And perhaps this is the point of this post and my inquiry into tipping points. It is hard to understand them except when looking back. But we know that these forces occur and are in play in all aspects of life. So what can we do?
I am slowly but resolvedly coming to the conclusion that we will be well served to err on the side of doing too much to achieve our goals. My goal is to slow my disease progression down to the point that this disease does not affect my potential for a full and healthy life. I do not know, and cannot know, the affect of the changes I am making but I can be pretty sure that each change has the potential to have an affect and that some changes will offer additive affects. Going "BIG" and making more beneficial changes does not appear to have a downside (except that eating junk food and being lazy can feel fun at the time - but this short term reward has lost its lustre with me).
When I think about stories about how everyday people generate breakthrough results against great odds, I recall that there is often an element of going big and persevering - of seeming obsessed with the journey toward their goal. We remark, "wow, they really worked hard!"
I will return to the topic of our workplaces, now. There are beneficial tipping points and detrimental ones. If your workplace culture is heading in a direction that you are not happy with, you might need to go big and throw a lot of positive butterfly flaps at it. If you want to start progression toward a new and positive tipping point, you will need to employ dozens of catalyzers to create momentum and get to the place where you will describe "it started slowly and then it hit."
Small actions can generate big results. And many, many, many small actions can impact the outcome even more.
As leaders, our most important skill and practice may well be dogged and focused determinism. A compulsion to unlearn bad habits and take on new practices - so much so that watching you tires casual observers.
As is the case with most major life changes, my health challenges have taught me how important it is to influence the progression toward tipping points with passion, energy, and accountability. And it has taught me that we may need to do this in the absence of good data. We may not know which actions will work best or what combination will have additive effects. And we will need to decide and get going.
There is a kind of peace that comes from being fully in alignment with a goal. When I have good days - eat the best foods, exercise a lot, manage stress, sleep, remember my pills, enjoy people - I feel at peace knowing that if I can slow down the journey to Dallas (and ultimately Key West), I have done it that today.
We can feel that same sense of peace at work. When we do all we can to be positive and powerful forces for change and for people, we can fuel our organization's march toward the tipping points we seek and away from those we do not. I wish you more peace and less fear.
Life - work - life - work. What works, works everywhere.