Readings #4: The Tipping Point (Changing Your Environment, part 2)

In my last post, I mentioned James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. Before reading that book, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point. The two books were written over 15 years apart, but they both discuss elements of our environment and how those elements shape who we are and how we can change, for better or worse.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell describes environments as what he calls the Power of Context. These contexts set parameters within which we operate and function. In many ways, they dictate our daily lives and our habits.

To illustrate his point, Gladwell examines The Broken Windows Theory, which suggests that when a window is broken and left broken, passersby will think no one cares and will throw a rock to break more windows. It’s a cue of sorts to continue degrading the area. It’s a way to view how crime could become contagious. But what it indicates is that perhaps otherwise decent people might begin casting stones if they are in the proper environment.

If you need more convincing, an often-cited study in psychological research is the early 1970s Stanford Prison Experiment led by Philip Zimbardo. Half the participants were given the role of being guards while the other half were assigned the role of a prisoner. Zimbardo hoped to explain why prisons were such terrible places.

The experiment was intended to last two weeks, but after less than a week, the atmosphere and interactions between the guards and the inmates had degraded into utter chaos. The study illustrates that there are certain situations (or environments) that encourage or even produce our behavior, whether for good or ill.

Think about your training environment. Before COVID-19, you probably had people around you who encouraged you to be a better human being. You had training that may have pushed you to physical exertion, or at minimum, it gave you a decent workout.

But what if the people around you or the situations in which you typically found yourself consistently had negative consequences? Would you allow them to drag you down in the wake of their own self-destruction? Or would you take steps to change your environment?

Gladwell discusses our character in detail in The Tipping Point. He writes, “Character… isn’t what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be… Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on certain circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.”

That last sentence was echoed by Clear in Atomic Habits when he wrote, “‘disciplined’ people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control.”

Maybe we don’t need Herculean strength of will. Perhaps a change of atmosphere or at minimum, a re-organizing of our space will offer us a chance to change our habits. Make your environments work for you instead of them dictating your daily life.

What would your life look like if you were given a new set of circumstances tomorrow? How has the shift in our social practices as of late changed your habits?

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