The Power of One


I first came across the term, “the power of one”, when I was reading the book, “Influencer”.  The authors mentioned an experiment in the 60’s designed to help researchers understand why so many people followed the Nazi’s lead to massacre millions of Jews.    The participants in the research were told that they had to give shock treatment to someone in another room and continue to increase the intensity of the shock treatment until it reached the highest level.  Although many participants were uncomfortable about the study, as many as 65% of them felt compelled to follow the instructions.  In a follow-up study, the scientists found that if just one person went ahead and turned up the shock treatment, then the number of participants after him who actually went through with the administration of shock treatment jumped from 65% to 90%.  On the other hand, if one person spoke up and refused to follow through, the percentage of participants after him who administered the shock treatment dropped to 10%. What a difference one person can make!  One person managed to change the tide or the compliance pattern.  That is the power of one!

I also experienced the power of one when working in Mexico to raise money for the rural and indigenous students from the state of Chiapas to enable them to go to a professional midwifery school.  I set a goal for myself to raise the money in Mexico instead of in the U.S. so the school could reduce its dependency on international organizations.  I had never done fundraising before.   In fact, the idea of asking people for money was unsettling to me and was against my upbringing, but I believed in the cause and was determined to overcome my own fear and language barrier.

Because I only knew one family in Mexico, I had to do some research before I started the process.  As soon as I began gathering information, I realized how much more daunting it would be than I had thought.  I quickly learned that there was lack of “understanding” between the rich and the poor and there was not a strong culture of philanthropy in Mexico.  I was also advised that discussing problems such as poverty and social issues would embarrass or make Mexicans very uncomfortable.

The day after I arrived in Mexico City, I was invited to a party by the family I knew.   We chatted before the guests arrived, and I mentioned the project I was working on.  The daughter of the hostess suggested that I present my project to the guests at the party.  Given the advice I got from people familiar with the culture, I was immediately concerned about the awkwardness the discussion might create.  I tried to get out of it initially but decided to go for it, to set an example that every one of us could make a difference.

At first, most guests listened to my presentation carefully.  A few minutes into my presentation, it started pouring outside.  The guests jumped on the first opportunity to divert into their own conversations.  Obviously, the subject was making them uneasy.   I asked the daughter to explain to me what people were saying among themselves.

“They are saying that they know fundraisers who received huge commissions on the donations and became very rich.”

My heart sank when I heard that.  Their skepticism saddened me, especially because I gave up a full-time job to work on this as a volunteer.  It seemed to confirm what everyone had warned me about the difficulty of doing this project in Mexico.  The poor didn’t think change was possible.  The rich were skeptical of the poor and philanthropy.   I could hear my friend trying to defend me in Spanish.  It seemed surreal to me.  My face was burning.  It felt like their discussions were going on forever until I heard this loud and young voice from the back of the room.

“You should contact the TV station’s foundation.  They have this telethon every month to raise money.  I don’t know if they really give the money to the poor, but maybe you can talk to them first.”

The young man saved me from the awkward moment because, unlike most people in the party, he took enough interest in my presentation to give me a suggestion.  He also saved the project.  I once met someone who worked with the top management at the TV station but I hesitated to contact him for the project.  I wasn’t sure if he would remember me or be willing to help put me in touch with the right person at their foundation.  The young man’s comment encouraged me to reach out to my contact at the TV station.  We were later awarded funding by the foundation after 2 years of hard work by many people.  The foundation became the first Mexican non-profit organization to support the midwifery school and broke the decade-long dependency on international organizations.

The project was also awarded its first multi-year corporate sponsorship, thanks to a simple phone by an acquaintance who helped me cut through the receptionist and pave the way for my fundraising effort there.   Despite the pessimism of the general public in Mexico, the few who chose not to give up their power and voice helped put me closer and closer to my fundraising goal.  Like Robert Kennedy said,

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

At some point in our lives, we probably have experienced a sense of powerlessness because we worked for a large corporation or because we were part of a complex process.  We are often convinced that we are too small of a player to have enough visibility or power to drive a meaningful change.  But being bigger or being part of something bigger doesn’t necessarily give us more power.  It is the recognition of the power of oneself that will give us the ability to influence others.

Before we stand up to the voices of other people to express what we believe in, we must first stand up against the many voices in our heads – the fearful voice, the judgmental voice, the rational voice.  And all too often the negative voices drown out our true self and our vision.  Why not let your true voice power your decisions?  And only then, listen to your rational voice to help you overcome potential challenges and accomplish your goals.   Change the order of how you orchestrate different voices in your mind.  Listen first to that singular voice deep inside you that tells you that you are inspired to do and that you can do whatever it is you put your mind to.  When you reverse the course in your mind, you have the opportunity to reverse the course of events and create impact in the world around you.

The power of one.  The power of you.  The power to make a difference!  Imagine and visualize it.  And put it into action!