The starfish effect

I was always a firm believer in the ‘starfish effect’. I honestly thought that the story of saving the individual starfish was a great inspirational one…until I had a very enlightening conversation with a somewhat distant colleague. I say distant because I don’t work with this person everyday but when we do meet, the dialogue is always interesting and actually I always learn something new even if very random.

Now, for those of you who have never heard the starfish story, it goes something like this: Once upon a time, there was a beach and on it’s shore, many hundreds or thousands or even millions (depending on how dramatic you feel while telling the story) of starfish had washed up. A man/women/person came across another person who was throwing the starfish back into the ocean one by one.

The question posed was, “Why are you (the starfish thrower) wasting your time throwing the starfish back into the ocean? There are so many, you won’t make a difference…” The person replied “ it makes a difference to that one” tossing a single starfish back into the water. Hence, the starfish effect. This is the difference one can make when performing small acts of kindness.

For many years, I absolutely believed in the the starfish effect. So, going back to my conversation with my colleague. Sometime during the conversation, I mention my belief in the starfish effect. The question posed in response was, “But why was the starfish laying on the shore in first place?”. I’m quiet for a while. “I don’t know” I reply. AWKWARD.

I sense another question coming and now I’m starting to dread ever mentioning the starfish effect which off course I thought had given me the moral high ground. WRONG.

“Do you know anything about starfish?” colleague asks. “No”, I reply. Now I’m really uncomfortable. “Have you ever considered that perhaps the ocean was low on oxygen and that the starfish were deliberately exiting the ocean in pursuit of surviving the oxygen deficiency” colleague explains “And that perhaps by throwing them back, it would extend the agonizing suffocating death of the starfish”. No reply from my side.

In conclusion, I had never considered the alternatives. I had somewhere heard a nice story, believed in it, and never bothered to questioned it.

Whether starfish really exit the ocean on mass exodus or not, is not the point.

The point is, you can change a belief even if you have clung to it for many years and you should always always always wait till your colleagues are drunk before trying to take the moral high ground.

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