Little things matter

Published: Friday, December 27, 2013 at 11:02 AM.

I have no way of testing this proposition, but Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, says it’s true. Take a large piece of paper. Fold it in half. Then do it again, and again, and again, until you have folded that piece of paper 50 times. When finished, how tall do you think the final folded piece of paper will be?

The size of a telephone book? As thick as a mattress? As tall as a refrigerator? Not even close. Gladwell says the folded piece of paper would be as high as the distance from the earth to the sun — with only 50 folds. This is what mathematicians call “geometric progression.” I call it mind-boggling. Something that starts incredibly small, as it doubles upon itself, takes very little time to become something extraordinarily huge.

My father used to play a similar game with me when I was a boy. He would say to me, “What if I had four flat tires on my car, and I paid you to change them all for me. Which would you rather have: $10,000 or a dollar for the first lug nut, but I’ll double it every lug nut thereafter?”

I would always take the $10,000 and he would chuckle but never explain anything. I was much older before I realized that if I took the doubling dollar, at the end of the tire-changing session I would have much more than $10,000 —much more. So if you ever come across someone on the side of the road who happens to have four flat tires, and who happens to make such an offer, don’t take the lump sum.

Do you believe that little things matter? Sure you do. And more so than hypothetical paper folds and lug nuts. The microprocessors in our computers, the antibodies in our bloodstreams, the placement of a single decimal point or added zero on our bank statements, a single vote in a toss-up election. Oh yes, we believe little things matter.

What about a baby born on a cold night to a teenage mother and a handyman father? A child so insignificant and poor his cradle was a feed trough, his nursery smelled of cow manure, and his birthplace so far back in the sticks it was hardly on the map.

A child who spent his first years on the run from the government and who lived as an exile in a foreign country; a child who grew up in a place called Nazareth, a seedbed of good for nothings and losers, a place that produced nothing but insurrectionists and troublemakers.

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