Once upon a time- in the late 1950’s- Japanese scientists observed an interesting phenomenon on the islands that were home to the macaques monkeys. The scientists gave the monkeys sweet potatoes mixed with sand and wheat. In order to eat the food, they had to laboriously pick the sand and wheat off the potato. One young smart monkey learned to stroll down to the beach and wash the sand and wheat away from the potato with sea water. By watching the original monkey, other monkeys learned to do this also. And so, the behaviours spread.
Almost instantaneously, this behaviour spread through other islands around Japan. The scientists guessed that the monkeys on the other islands had learned it by some form of telepathy or collective unconscious. They guessed that once a piece of knowledge is known by a critical mass then the idea naturally spreads among the species. Whether you personally think the behaviour spread via the collective unconscious or that some monkeys swam like Michael Phelps to other islands, the idea nonetheless spread across all islands.
Humans aren’t that different…. When a large enough number of people think or learn the same thing; lets use the over popularized phrase of the turning point if you will; a kind of nonlinear process occurs where the idea just spreads… or so the theory goes.
The subject matter in this article is twofold. First, the focus will be on the turning point of the 100th monkey where ideas simply just spread and we will cover three examples of this. Second, the focus will shift to the organisation called TED, which is based on this notion of spreading ideas. Also after reading this article, you’ll be left with one question and one suggestion to take or leave it’s up to you (so you’ll have to hold in for those!).
The first example is sliced bread created by Otto Rohwedder in 1917. This was the greatest invention since..well… sliced bread. Yet for the first 15 years since it was available it was a complete and utter flop. That was until Wonder came along and figured out how to successfully spread the idea. You see, it’s not always about the product, it’s about diffusing the idea. As Seth Godin preaches- the idea that spreads, wins.
The second example is Sudoku which seemed an overnight sensation when the world went ‘Sudoko loocoo’ from 2005 onwards. It was originally conceived by Howard Garns in 1979 when he was 74 years old. It became a hit in Japan in the 1980’s. The tipping point came when a Japanese magazine was reprinted in 2005 as a US edition.
The last example is Facebook. Started officially in 2004 at Harvard by sophomore Mark Zuckerberg, it was initially a way to get to know others at Harvard. It was also a way for Mark to meet women on his campus. But the site spread almost overnight and expanded to include other colleges and schools until it became open to everyone.
These ideas worked because they are remarkable ideas. An allegory here is you’re driving down the road and see a Kangaroo. You don’t go- oh a Kangaroo pull over! Frankfurt maybe, but not here in Australia because you’ve seen millions of them. But if the Kangaroo waves at you whilst smoking a cigarette- then you will not just pull over, but you’ll slam the breaks to pull over! So to get us to act and pull over we need something remarkable. We need more waving Kangaroos’.
What do they have in common?
So, Bread, Sudoku and Facebook. On the surface have nothing in common, but once a critical mass was reached they all experienced phenomenal growth. This now brings us to the second part of this article TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design).
TED is simply conferences and events that give a platform for the world’s smartest thinkers, greatest visionaries and most-inspiring teachers. They bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives…in 18 minutes (I am still awaiting my invitation…)
TED really only officially started in 2001 when Chris Anderson saw the monkey. He saw the potential for bringing together brilliant minds on a larger, grander scale. He saw that from this type of conference there were many ideas worth spreading. He saw he could build a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge. He was building a community of curious souls. So, I think it’s safe to say he saw the monkey. From 2001 to 2010, thanks to Mass media, technology and market forces it has created enough leverage for TED to be a success on this larger, grander scale.
Brisbane TED Event
Two weeks ago, I attended the first TED event held in Brisbane, Australia. To give you an example of what it was like, in the space of a few hours, I got to listen to a passionate farmer, who devotes his life on finding a solution to help the 90% of farms that operate on a loss. I listened to photographer who was kidnapped and tortured in Nigeria for over 400 days. I listened to an eccentric architect and an even more eccentric Graphic Designer. Other than TED and probably Toastmasters, there aren’t too many organisations where you hear a diverse array of speakers and ideas in such a brief period. Now consider of course that an idea is created out of thin air with nothing but some inspiration and can; if spread; cause new thinking patterns, which in turn can further create more inspiration. So if I can make one suggestion, visit TED.com sometime in the next week and watch some of their speeches. I’ll give you tonight to think it over.
Most of us have thought of many good ideas. The thing is that good ideas are common – what’s uncommon are people who work hard to bring them about. For example, take the man who wanted to be a Jeweller. Sure that’s not unique, but instead of diamonds he uses cremains. So after someone dies, you can use a cremated body (hopefully one you know) and turn it into a necklace. Instead of saying “Oh, yes, this is my grandmothers necklace”, you can now say “Oh yes, this is my grandmother”.
Personally, I believe once a critical mass is reached for a good idea it will inevitably help in moving us that 8 degrees to the left which will help steer us to a new reality. A reality that, dare I say it, could be one with clean energy, unhindered technological and medical advances and to quotes possibly every beauty queen since pageants were invented….head in the direction of some form of ‘world peace’. Just as one drop of water tipped the wave, it only takes one individual to tip the wave of a critical mass. So to leave you with that one question. What if you know you’re the agent for some sort of positive change you’ve been meaning to do in your family, workplace or life? Because isn’t it changes like that which help shape the world? So the question I leave you with is ‘What if you are the hundredth monkey– the person who can help cause the tipping point for some sort of positive change?’… what if?
Author Bio: Jethro Batts is a management focused entrepreneur who is working on a number of startup and consulting projects