From paralysis to action

Published Tuesday, February 16, 2016 date in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

When I was a kid growing up on a farm, barn swallows regularly nested in the rafters of our machinery shed.  One day I walked into the shed and discovered four small nestlings perched on a shelf at eye level.  I’m guessing they’d been trying out their wings for the first time, needed a place to land, spotted the shelf and flopped down.

Curious to see them up close, I approached slowly.  Instead of flying away, the foursome huddled together, wide-eyed.  Paralyzed by fear, I supposed, so I backed off and let them be.


Perhaps we humans can be a bit like those swallows.  Every now and then, we find ourselves in situations where we need to act.  Maybe we face a direct threat.  Maybe a problem needs fixing, a crisis needs solving or an opportunity beckons.  

Whatever the situation, we know we need to do something.  But we pause to consider: what’s best?  What’s quickest?  What’s cheapest and easiest?

And if you’re like me, you sometimes find yourself overwhelmed by too many options, too much complexity or too much fear and uncertainty.  So what ends up happening?

Nothing.  It’s called analysis paralysis, where we spend so much time thinking about doing something that, at best, we take far too long to act or, at worst, we never quite get to doing it.  I shudder to remember how long it took me to choose a new cordless drill when my old drill died.


Maybe it’s overanalysis to suggest that barn swallows suffer from analysis paralysis.  But people sure do, and perhaps nowhere more than in trying to figure out how best to save energy and live more sustainably. 

What’s the best thing I can do to reduce my carbon footprint?  What’s the best way to make my home more efficient?  What’s the best way to improve my vehicle’s mileage?  What’s best, organic or local?  It quickly gets complicated and confusing.

As well, paralysis can be caused by despair at the size of a challenge and our perception that we’re too insignificant to make a difference.  That’s increasingly the case with climate change, and it’s not hard to understand why.  Just last week, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels hit 405 parts per million – a level unprecedented in human history.  Arg. 

Take heart, take action

If you find yourself paralyzed by complexity, note these words of Confucius: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”  In other words, any action, even if it does not produce a perfect solution, is better than no action.

And if you find yourself paralyzed by despair, consider the Butterfly Effect.  Here’s the true story.  

In 1961, MIT Meteorologist Edward Lorenz developed one of the world’s first computer programs for predicting weather.  The program would accept numbers representing weather conditions, perform some difficult calculations and then produce a weather model, or forecast.  

To test the program, Lorenz ran a set of figures through the computer and got a forecast.  The next day, he ran the same scenario, expecting the same result – but to his astonishment, the forecast was completely different.  When he checked his data, he discovered that a number he’d entered to six decimal places the first day had been entered to just three decimal places the second day.  It was a miniscule difference, but it had a massive impact on the outcome.  Lorenz’s experience led him to speculate: could something as small as the flap of a butterfly's wings over Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas weeks later?  The Butterfly Effect.

The message?  Every action, no matter how small, is important.  And thanks to the Butterfly Effect, small actions sometimes make huge differences. 

My mother once told me, “Maybe you can’t change the whole world, but you can change your corner of it.”  It’s timeless advice to help us all transition from paralysis to action.