Making Perfect Moments

How to Change the World

Charles Tsai
Jul 11, 2016 · 12 min read

Are there moments in life that are so perfect that we are immediately aware of their meaning and significance? Have you had such moments? Do you think we can create them or do they tend to happen to us, if they do at all? Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre explored those questions in his 1938 novel, Nausea, a dramatization of his existentialist ideas.

For a time at least, one of the characters, Anny, believed she could. But creating “prefect moments” isn’t easy. According to Anny, you need exceptional situations of “rare and special quality” and the people in them have to take the right actions. As an actress, Anny created those moments often through art — on stage — but her obsession was to create them in real life. Because she eventually gave up, the reader is left wondering whether such a feat is possible.

One such reader was Nirvan Mullick, a philosophy student who later became a filmmaker in Los Angeles. The questions stayed with him and, for years, he wondered, “What if you could look into a stranger and know what it was that they wanted more than anything else in the world, and figure out a way to choreograph, and make that perfect moment happen for them in their life.”

In other words, could he take the right action in such a circumstance?

That question became all too real when he met nine-year-old Caine Monroy in 2011.

The boy had created an entire arcade out of cardboard boxes in his dad’s used-auto-parts store in East Los Angeles. With little foot traffic in the area, Caine had no customers until Mullick showed up.

He decided to buy a “fun pass” and played the arcade games one by one. Almost right away, he knew he wanted to make a film about Caine. But he wanted to do much more.

Mullick told the New Yorker, “When I ran into Caine, I knew how to create a perfect moment for this boy. I knew what he wanted more than anything: customers.”

In that instant, the filmmaker became a changemaker. He set out to change Caine’s life by organizing a flash mob to show up on a chosen Saturday. That day, more than 100 people surprised Caine, cheered him on, and spent hours playing his games. His dream had finally come true. Caine later told his dad, “That was the best day of my life.”

No doubt Mullick captured the perfect moment on film and released it as part of an 11-minute documentary, Caine’s Arcade.

It was a hit from day one. Grown men and women watched and wept, social media exploded, and then money started pouring in for Caine’s college fund. Soon, viewers donated more than two hundred thousand dollars. A philanthropist matched that amount to fund creativity in other kids. That led to the formation of the Imagination Foundation. Today, schools in more than 60 countries have held cardboard challenges, engaging more than 350,000 children in creative making.

Few non-profits are born of such a happy circumstance or have touched so many lives so quickly.

It’s natural for those of us working in the social sector to wonder what this story teaches us about how to change the world.

Is it a black swan? Or can we explain and repeat it with some regularity?

First, we should recognize what it’s not. It’s not a viral campaign like the Ice Bucket Challenge or KONY 2012. Its purpose was not to market a cause or rally people to take action… until later. Initially, Mullick simply wanted to capture and share the “joy of creativity” on film.

Mullick did intend to create change but he limited his impact to one boy rather than introduce a solution for many. In that sense, this accidental changemaker thought very differently than most changemakers I know or have worked with.

Changemaking, in recent decades, has become serious business. More and more courageous individuals commit to it as a career and lifelong pursuit. They even find enough peers to form communities of practice, train one another, hire one another, and share learnings at conferences. They conduct research, some more rigorous than others, and extract best practices to spread across the field. They go by many names — activists, community organizers, social entrepreneurs, social innovators, etc. — and occupy distinct niches. They have their own jargon and already speak in ways few outsiders can understand.

A confluence of global trends spurred their growth. Increased access to education, knowledge, technology, and wealth gave ordinary citizens more tools and power to effect change.

As early as the 1970s, an American consultant, Bill Drayton, began noticing a new type of changemakers emerge. They didn’t just protest or advocate for change. They didn’t resort to traditional methods to help the poor. Emboldened by their own creativity and means, they set out to invent new solutions to address a myriad of societal problems. Impressed by their entrepreneurial spirit, Drayton gave them a new name: social entrepreneurs.

He later founded the non-profit, Ashoka, in 1980 to identify and support social entrepreneurs around the world. By naming them and bringing them together, he made the world pay attention. He made them see, or so he hoped, that “the most powerful force in the world is a big idea in the hands of a great entrepreneur.”

Today, you find social entrepreneurs at top universities, Fortune 500 companies, and in government. They’ve started non-profits and businesses all over the world. They’ve even won the Nobel Peace Prize, paving new paths to making a real difference.

They’ve done this mostly by thinking big!

As Bill Drayton puts it, “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.” They aim to change systems and patterns so that others will start doing things differently, as if no other ways made sense.

The most famous social entrepreneur, Muhammad Yunus, has benefitted millions of people through his invention, the micro loan. By lending small amounts of money to poor women, at first in Bangladesh, he showed that they will put the money to good use by investing in micro-enterprises. With the money they earn, almost all will repay the loan on time… with interest. He proved that poor people can be a good investment.

Today, micro-loans have become big business. Even traditional banks have started lending to the poor. It’s no wonder that Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize and has become the role model for many aspiring social entrepreneurs.

Tech billionaires seem to be minted every day but how easy will it be for social entrepreneurs to impact millions or billions of people?

The sobering truth: not so easy. There are real limits to growth in the social sector. Most successful businesses can rely on the profit they make to grow bigger and bigger and reach more and more people. Social entrepreneurs don’t often have that luxury. Maybe their beneficiaries (or “customers”) can’t pay or pay enough. Maybe they are a non-profit and can’t generate profit for investors. Maybe donors want to move on to the next new thing. For a host of reasons, success doesn’t always mean more money and more growth.

But all hope is not lost. There are other ways to impact the world on a large scale. There are other .

Aside from organic growth or sustaining your service, you can…

  • help others replicate your solution
  • open source your idea and let others use it and improve it how they can and where they can
  • get the government to adopt your solution
  • get businesses to adopt your solution
  • or achieve your mission once and for all by ending a problem (i.e., ending polio)

Which endgame you choose should depend on the problem you’re solving, the people you’re trying to serve, and the kind of resources you can depend on. Most endgames, though, involve changing one or more system, which is why “system change” has become the shorthand for what social entrepreneurs or social innovators try to achieve in the long run.

The biggest system, of course, isn’t even government or the market. It’s culture. When social entrepreneurs need to change norms and behavior — how people relate to the environment, how they approach education, what they consume day to day, etc., — that’s the system they eventually have to influence. And this is where a filmmaker like Nirvan Mullick may have something to teach us about changing the world.

Filmmakers have reasons beyond Sartre for focusing on perfect moments. A typical good story needs a climax — a point in time when conflict, tension, or desire is resolved, a moment when someone’s dream comes true. It’s filled with action and emotion — you can see it and feel it.

Imagine Caine’s Arcade without the flash mob scene. It would have been a story about a lonely little boy who built an arcade that no one visited. It would evoke pity but it probably wouldn’t inspire. It would feel… incomplete, the way Caine probably felt.

Stories need perfect moments because people need perfect moments.

Oddly enough, social entrepreneurs tend to overlook this in their work to help others. They think like wonks, not storytellers. They zero in on numbers, the bigger the better. They track outputs (the easy metrics that yield the big numbers) rather than outcomes (the harder to measure difference they’re making).

Visit websites of charities and social enterprises and you’ll find impressive numbers of how many youth were engaged, how many meals were served, and how much was raised for this or that research. What’s harder to find are numbers of lives changed and how those numbers have increased over time.

There’s evidence of progress but not transformation.

We are impressed but not moved.

Rarely do the numbers change how we think, what we believe, or make us choose a new path.

Yet, changemakers need to do just that if they are to impact the world on a large scale. They need to offer a new story — of what it means to be a child, a student, a poor villager, a healthy person, a neighbor, a citizen, an inhabitant of Planet Earth, etc. At the heart of any new story should be a new perfect moment.

So how should changemakers incorporate perfect moments into their work?

Here’s how I advise the young social entrepreneurs I work with…

1) Choose to Be a Changemaker

Don’t just make things — a product or service. Commit to making a difference. And mean it! Nirvan Mullick didn’t just want to make a film. He wanted to change Caine’s life.

2) Practice Empathy

Who are you trying to help and what do they want most of all? You can ask them point blank but that is rarely the best approach. More often than not, you have to spend time with them, immerse yourself in their world, walk a mile in their shoes, so to speak.

Even then, there’s a chance you might not “get it.” You’ll learn that empathy isn’t a feeling, it’s a skill that involves active learning and ongoing practice. It’s perhaps the most difficult skill to master.

For J.K. Rowling, empathy is nothing short of magic. In the Harry Potter series, it took a magic mirror, the Mirror of Erised (“desire” spelled backwards) to show Harry what he wanted most of all — to see and be with his parents. It’s this understanding of his true desire that allowed him later to cast the powerful Patronus charm to defeat the soul-sucking Dementors.

Rowling is right. Empathy has magical powers. Believe it.

3) Imagine Perfect Moments

Once you have some understanding of what your beneficiaries want, try to imagine specific moments when those desires can be fulfilled. Don’t just think of one moment. There could be a series of moments, one building up to the next. An earlier perfect moment for Caine might have been the time when he made his first cardboard arcade game, tested it, and saw that it worked.

Perfect moments are likely to vary from individual to individual. You probably can’t boil it down to a single formula. But a good place to start is to look for or imagine moments when 1) a real life challenge is overcome, 2) remarkable creativity is expressed, or 3) meaningful connections are made. (Educators take note.) Notice how these are active moments. Someone’s actively doing something (often realizing their potential) not just passively receiving.

You’ll know it’s a perfect moment when other people observing it will appreciate its significance right away. It won’t require explanation or spin. For changemakers, just think of it as a moment when people can see and feel the magic of what you do. Ask yourself, “Is the impact clear and tangible?” and “Does it have emotional weight?”

4) Design a Solution

Now comes the fun part. Can you come up with a way for those perfect moments to happen — in a repeatable way or for more people? It may be easier than you think. Chances are these perfect moments are happening already — just not enough times for enough people. These rare perfect moments are called “bright spots,” a term I prefer to the more technical name, “positive deviants.”

Caine himself is a bright spot. He built his arcade with no formal support. It emerged naturally from his own imagination and will — not because his parents signed him up for Cardboard 101 or Intro to Arcade Building. So how did he do it? What support made it possible? Study existing bright spots well and you’ll begin to piece together the ingredients of a successful solution.

If you want to help teenagers lose weight, learn from those who have lost weight and kept it off. If you want to reduce the dropout rate at your school, learn from students who dropped out but then came back. If you want to install solar panels at your school, see if other schools have done the same.

Based on what you’ve learned, design a solution using the resources that you have. Do what you can with what you have where you are.

5) Build. Measure. Learn.

Of course, no plan survives first implementation. Test your solution and be open to learn. Does your product or service work as expected? If not, what changes need to be made? Test other options. Make improvements until your solutions works reliably.

Again, empathy is key here. Get inside the head and heart of your user.

6) Tell a new story.

If your intervention is successful, you should start to see perfect moments unfold in front of your eyes. Capture them. Use them to tell a new story — not about you and not to impress donors but about them, the readers and viewers. Let people see a different path for their own lives. Inspire them to act and create change for themselves. That’s how movements are born.

History is full of perfect moments that shift hearts and minds. The best of them even alter consciousness: Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics, Rosa Park’s act of resistance, Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech, the Earthrise, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tank Man, the first gay marriages in each country, etc.

But perfect moments also happen every day, in our neighborhoods, away from the gaze of any camera. Start noticing them. Be present when you see and feel magic. What has made this situation possible? Who’s taking action and what type of action is needed to make this moment perfect? Who can it inspire? Let such moments remind you of what’s truly important and what it takes to make a real difference.

It’s how we begin to make the world better and our lives more meaningful.

If you like this article, please recommend it by clicking on the green heart below and follow me to be notified of future articles on how to transform education. See my previous articles as well.

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