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Chaos, Kindness and Satchmo

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Random Acts of Kindness by Tony Burkinshaw

Summer 2014

Let’s kick off with a cliché.

When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.

Clichés have cropped up more than once in this section and for good reason. Clichés become clichés because they’re phrases that somehow repeatedly best capture the moment and it’s rather pleasing to find out just how much this seems to be true out there in the land of reciprocating kindnesses and ever widening smiles.

This particular cliché comes from the classic song, ‘When You’re Smiling, (The Whole World Smiles With You)’. Apparently we have that renowned trio of songwriters Clay, Fisher & Goodwin to thank for penning this great piece of musicality. Of course without Louis Armstrong’s unique voice making it famous we may never have heard of it. He even managed to keep in line with our cliché theme because it was so good he did it twice. But then of course, as all Armstrong fans will know he went and recorded it again in 1959, so actually it was so good he did it thrice.

Whatever the case, this started me thinking and lead my tangential creativity to wander (and it’s good to wonder) and nudged me in the direction of The Butterfly Effect and Chaos Theory.

So here we go: Chaos, Kindness and Satchmo. I did warn you.

Apparently there’s a species of butterfly in the Amazonian rain forests who’s sole purpose in life is to cause hurricanes in China, although I’m fairly certain that this would be geographically incorrect as they’d be typhoons. (Students of global weather patterns, please feel free to correct me at this point, if my facts have gone astray). Now what manner of super-insect evolves to affect the weather half a world away (another good lyric reference) is up for debate, but it has been embraced by lovers of Chaos Theory as a metaphorical illustration of small random events having the potential to affect global conditions.

Small random events. Interesting. Small random events have the potential to affect global conditions. Do they? I mean really? I certainly hope so because that’s the purpose of the gradually accumulating momentum of the Random Acts of Kindness movement. The clue really is in the name.

So off my mind went, charting the apparently endless possibilities of a Random Act of Kindness creating major changes somewhere else in the world. It could be anything. Anywhere. As if to confirm my spiraling thoughts, this video of an unexpected and decidedly random act of kindness arrived in my twitter feed at @RAK_UK (please feel free to join in with the 1000 plus others & follow me there). It then turned up in my mailbox and as if to make sure I definitely spotted it, the traditional weekend pub conversation mentioned it too.

I think of it as a Random Act of Catness.

A good story this may be but it didn’t satisfy. It’s still just one more event, random though it certainly is.

You see the problem with Butterflies and Hurricane-Typhoons is that it describes events that are remote from each other and only randomly connected. Now, whilst our kindnesses may be at random, their effects aren’t. One kindness can directly stimulate another, even if all it causes is a smile. There is an intimate causal connection. Smiles are contagious.

In my alter ego world of financial services where I train and coach others to learn the complex world they inhabit, I frequently come across a lack of understanding of power. Not the authoritarian, business or political kind; the mathematical kind. It’s beyond the scope of common sense and unless you’ve been trained in it, the immensity of it seems ludicrous.

Here’s an example:

In keeping with our lyrical back-referencing, take ‘Fly me to the Moon’.

So if we were going to take up this challenge, how far is the Moon? Well for a start it’s not a constant distance. The average is 384,400 kilometers but it ranges from 363,104 km to 405,696 km and is actually drifting away from us at a rate 3.8 cm a year. [Now here’s a curious fact. In order to find this out, the drifting that is, we’ve known how far away the moon is since 200 BC, they fitted some tiny reflectors on the Moon’s surface and bounce laser-light off them. Guess how big the reflectors are? 3.8 cm. Coincidence? I think not…] Anyway, lunar drifting aside, why are we looking at this? Well, you know that flimsy cheap and nasty printer paper you sometimes buy? The one that’s about 75 gsm and only just thick enough to use without ripping? It’s flimsy because it’s only a tenth of a millimeter thick.

Imagine a sheet of this paper so long that you could just keep folding it in half and then over in half again, for as many times as you wanted to. How many times would you need to fold it in half for it to become as thick as the distance from the earth to the Moon? A million? A billion? No.


It turns out that not only is 42 the answer to the ultimate question and all that Hitchhikers Guide malarkey, it’s how close the Moon is. The Moon is only 42 folds of thin paper away. That’s the power of doubling. Double it. Double it again.

Doubling 42 times turns a tenth of a millimeter into space travel.

But I don’t want to go into space. Our lyric of choice isn’t ‘Fly me to the Moon’. It’s ‘When you’re Smiling’. You see all we want is the World, the Whole World, Smiling. By comparison, this is small.

Trust me. So here’s the thing.

Smiling is contagious. We know this to be true. If you smile at someone, even a stranger, they almost always smile back.

What would happen if you smiled at someone and they decided that they should smile at someone else? More than that, what would happen if you decided to smile at two people and those two people decided the very next day that they would smile at two more people each?

That’s four new happily smiling people. And what if those four people decide the very next day that they would smile at two more people each? And then those eight new smiley people do the same?

What then?

Here’s the magic. How long would it be before every single one of the seven billion people on the planet smiled on the same day?

A month. 30 days. That’s all.

If every time someone smiled at you, you made a point of smiling at two strangers the very next day, you might just have joined in a chain reaction that will engulf the entire population of the world in smiles. Smiling makes you feel good. It’s hard to be angry or scared when you smile. Smiling makes you feel happy. Smiling boosts your immune system. Smiling makes friends out of enemies. Smiling can save the world.

And all this happens if you only smile twice. Once as you pass it on and once again on World Smiling Day, (or ‘The Big Grin’ as it will doubtless become known in the annals of history). Just imagine what would happen if you smiled at someone every day?

The entire course of human emotional history changed by a smile. Your smile.

So this is my kindness challenge.

Every day smile at someone you don’t know, maybe as you pass them in the street, get off a bus…

Every time a stranger smiles at you, the very next day make a point of smiling at two more people you don’t know.

Notice how more people seem to be smiling than before.

Maybe that butterfly was onto something after all.