“Like a pebble in a pond”

“Each contribution you make,” I’ll often tell an audience, “is like a pebble in a pond, rippling out and bringing you into contact with more people and possibilities.”

It sounds a bit lofty, doesn’t it? Like an exaggeration? Here’s an example of what I mean.

A simple contribution

After reading Working Out Loud, Andrea could have quietly put the book on the shelf, but instead she offered public appreciation on LinkedIn and asked a simple question

“Is there anyone in the Munich area who is interested in forming a local #wol circle?”

Though I didn’t know Andrea, I was notified of her post because she mentioned me in it. So I offered some ways she could find potential Circle members and added that, by coincidence, I would be in her city in a few weeks.

“Fabelhaft! :-) One way to find Circle members is to ask in the WOL groups on Facebook or LinkedIn. There are many WOL practitioners in Munich. I'll be there myself in 2 weeks!”

One step unlocks another

Andrea’s short post didn’t exactly go viral, but it did draw a reaction from people in a few dozen companies and at least half a dozen countries. One of the comments, from someone who neither Andrea nor I knew,  said he would also be in Munich and perhaps we could meet. That led to a group message with a growing number of people. Soon, we had a date, time, and place to meet for dinner

There were 12 of us, and we had fun discovering connections between each of us. What motivated each person to attend? Did they know anyone else there? How did they even hear about WOL?

If that was all that happened, it would be enough, and Andrea summed it up nicely in a post.

“12 people from different companies with various backgrounds- and one common denominator: an interest in working out loud...It was a pleasure to see you all today! I feel enriched by your stories and I hope to meet you again in a circle, or otherwise :-)”

More people and possibilities

But the ripples kept spreading (and keep spreading). For example, six of the people there were from Airbus. Several of them brought a book, inscribed by their manager who, unbeknownst to me, was giving it to her team members. As we talked, we discovered other connections with Airbus in France, and the team resolved to start their own WOL Circles inside the company.

Stranger still, the woman I sat next, Gleyce, was already part of a group led by someone in Brazil working to translate the Circle Guides into Portuguese. The web of connections and coincidences seemed to grow, and we all remarked on how it all began with a simple post.

"Airbus starting to Working Out Loud - Elina Golke, Clotilde Martin, John Stepper, Gleyce Kastl Lima, Philipp Rathjen, Bernd Schmid" 

"Airbus starting to Working Out Loud - Elina Golke, Clotilde Martin, John Stepper, Gleyce Kastl Lima, Philipp Rathjen, Bernd Schmid" 

Pebbles and butterflies

In Week 10 of the Circle Guides, there’s a contribution checklist to help people become more systematic about what they have to offer. Your gift can be as simple as attention or appreciation, or it can be making your work visible: sharing what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, resources and people that have helped you, things you’ve learned, questions you have, and more.

When I write posts like the one you’re reading now, most of the readers are people I don’t know, and aren't even connected to me, and the ripples take me and my work to some surprising places. Just this week I got a note from the principal of a school in Austria who wants to use WOL to help teachers with their professional development. It's a topic my wife and I are both interested in, and that I wrote about almost four years ago, and the Austrian principal and I agreed on an experiment we'll do together in a few weeks.

How do such things happen? And how can you make them happen more often?

In chaos theory, as a way to demonstrate that small changes can have dramatic and unpredictable consequences, it's said that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can affect the weather in New York City.

What if, like Andrea, you unleashed your own butterflies each day, offering contributions without expectations? What kind of changes could you make possible, for yourself and for others?

Why is Italo Calvino stalking me?

I had never heard of Italo Calvino before, and now he’s everywhere. It’s starting to make me suspicious. Why is he following me?

Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Our first meeting

I’m in my favorite bookstore on Bleecker Street, bookbook. It’s the one with a table outside offering engineered serendipity at a discount. Inside, asking for a book recommendation from the person behind the register can be like asking the sommelier about a wine. “I like Borges. Do you have anything like that?”

“Try this,” he said, and handed me If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.

At lunch

I’m heading out to meet my daughter for lunch at Buvette on Grove St. I’m late and have to pick a book to throw into my backpack. (“Always bring a book” is a rule of mine.) I consider a few options and bring the Calvino since it’s compact.

The place is crowded so we eat at the bar, and before the food comes the person next to me places a book on the counter. I do a cartoonish double-take. It’s If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. I notice it’s a much older edition, meaning she probably didn’t get it from the same bookstore.

I can’t help but mention the coincidence to her. Like a good New Yorker, she’s unimpressed. “I couldn’t get into it,” she says, “so I’m giving it to my friend.”

On Twitter

Now I must read the book, and I find it is indeed like Borges. “Not one novel, but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambience, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense…a labyrinth of literatures, known and unknown, alive and extinct.”

A few days go by. As I scan my Twitter feed, I see Italo Calvino is there too.

Italo Calvino on Twitter

And again a few days later.

Italo Calvino on Twitter

Surely, the universe is telling me something. The next time I am at the book store, I buy two more of his books, a collection of stories titled Cosmicomics and a novel, The Baron in the Trees.

In the car

When I’m driving by myself, I usually listen to TED talks or simply try to be quiet and enjoy the drive. This time, for some reason, I switched on the radio. Selected Shorts was playing on National Public Radio, a show where they read short stories aloud in front of a live audience.

“Our first story tonight is Italo Calvino's “The Distance of the Moon” read by Liev Schreiber." My mouth drops. I listen to the story in full, hanging on each word. It is in the collection of stories that I just bought.

A conspiracy of attention

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Maybe the author is experiencing a sudden surge in popularity 30 years after his death. Or perhaps the universe is trying to introduce me to Italian fiction.

More likely, though, is that I’m simply tuned in to what has always been there. Maybe my one choice in the bookstore that day simply made me aware of things I was blind to before.

Of the eleven million data points our brains can take in at any moment, we’re conscious of only forty. But which forty? Deciding what we pay attention to can shape our entire world view. It can decide which doors are open to us and which doors we never see.