Why positive change begins with small, deliberate steps
A few months ago I listened to retired Ohio State Highway Patrol Captain Bob Welsh discuss the phenomenon known as “the butterfly effect.” The butterfly effect in essence posits that when a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, the ripple effect can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. Our actions, however small they may seem at the time, can likewise have far-reaching consequences.
Bob has a way of captivating audiences with his storytelling abilities, and on this day he told the story of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who was instrumental in defending the Union flank during the bloody Battle of Gettysburg. As the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments repeatedly charged Little Round Top Hill with the intent of breaching the flank, Colonel Chamberlain and his hardy band of Maine soldiers bravely withstood the onslaught. However, they ultimately ran out of ammunition after another charge and retreat from the Alabama soldiers.
In the calm between that last retreat and the next advance he knew was coming, Colonel Chamberlain gave the command, “Fix bayonets!” His men did so, and went on the offensive by charging down the hill and surprising, then overwhelming, the confederate soldiers. Bob remarked that this one decision had a ripple effect that can be felt even today if we pause to ponder it.
Chamberlain’s successful defense of Little Round Top enabled the Union to with the Battle of Gettysburg. Had he failed to defend the flank, the Union likely would have lost Gettysburg.
Many historians believe that the battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the war. If the south had won at Gettysburg, they likely would have won the war.
If the Confederacy had won the Civil War, the United States would have ceased to exist. America as we know it today would probably look more like modern-day Europe, with many small nation-states rather than one united country.
About 90 years after Chamberlain’s charge, Adolf Hitler embarked on a war to conquer the nations of the earth. He met relatively little resistance in subduing a divided Europe. The world’s saving grace was a country large enough and powerful enough to fight a war on two major fronts to defeat both Germany and Japan. If the United States were divided—as likely would have been the case given a different outcome at Gettysburg—what would our world look like today?
And all this because of one man’s decision to “Fix bayonets!”
Small Decision, Big Results
So what does this have to do with you and me? I have been fascinated recently with the idea that small things lead to great things. Small decisions, however insignificant they may seem at the time, can literally change history.
As Mother Teresa remarked, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
A few weeks ago, my oldest son asked me to jump on the trampoline. We bought it over a year ago, and I had yet to place foot on it. On this evening, I didn’t really want to jump on the trampoline. But I made one small decision to do it. That small decision led to other things, and the whole family ended up lying on the trampoline looking into the night sky and having a great conversation that brought us closer together.
As we went back into the house that night, the son that asked me to jump on the trampoline gave me a heartfelt hug and said, “That was a really great time. Thanks.”
As a father, that is a huge payoff. I had no idea that when I made that one small decision, I would be rewarded so immensely only an hour later. If I had said no, I would have missed out on a great experience.
So let’s do the small things and see what happens.
Make that small decision to put your phone down and go on a walk with your kids.
Make that small decision to put on your gym clothes. You’re much more likely to work out if you just start small. If you only have 15 minutes to exercise, that’s good enough for today.
And before leaving the gym, do one more rep.
Make that small decision to call a loved one with whom you haven’t spoken in a while. All you have to do is press the call button and then see what happens.
Listen a little more than you talk.
Ask one more question on a traffic stop or interview.
Save a little money from each check, put it into a retirement account, and harness the power of compound interest.
Go to bed 15 minutes earlier. Get up 15 minutes earlier.
Turn off the television. I guarantee that you will not come to the end of your life and regret that you did not watch more TV.
Listen to that still, small voice in your head the next time it tells you to do something you feel like you should have done long ago but have put off many times in the past.
It’s been said that the gates of history swing on small hinges. Those of you who’ve experienced a leak in your ceiling know how fast that pan protecting your floor or furniture fills up with water. You think about how incredible it is that you have to empty the pan so frequently. Our lives are filled with daily decision drops. To paraphrase the Buddha, we can’t think lightly of good or bad by thinking, “Well, this is only a small thing so it won’t matter that much.” Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, true success in life comes little by little. Who knows how your future will be affected by one small decision today?
So the next time you wonder whether you should or should not do a “small” thing, remember Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and fix your bayonet.
For some awesome recordings of Bob’s stories, visit BobWelsh.com.