#35 – On the Shoulders of Giants

I always look for ways to teach my kids through experiences.

One of the best lessons is to understand the importance of small actions and using your talents and skills to help something greater than yourself.

As a father of four, one of my challenges is to consistently find one-on-one time with each kid. Our traveling circus has its own energy, soul and character, and I love it. I also love my one-on-one time with each of its performers. These moments are particularly special because I can really see who they are becoming as individuals. My daughter, Presley and I have found a nice groove with our #elvispresfit project, where we train together at my gym on Sundays, talk about the week and discover the power behind overcoming physical obstacles. My nine-year old son, Merritt has always enjoyed music, and he has a pretty solid sense of rhythm and space. A week ago Sunday, I decided to ask Merritt if he wanted to come down to the studio while we worked on a film score project for #weloveATL’s civil rights documentary, The Time Is Right.

I’m so glad that I did.

Whenever we embark on these one-on-one missions, I always notice a wonderful sense of energy, excitement and potential without any expectations. It seems to be guided by a pure and true sense of wondering where the day is headed. On this particular day, this familiar feeling was coupled with a sense of purpose, gratitude and the idea of feeding something far greater than ourselves.

The week before I was asked by a producer and friend of mine if we would be interested in helping him build a musical character and voice for a documentary he was producing. The film presents the hard fought foundational success of Atlanta’s civil rights heroes during the 50s and 60s, while carrying the message forward through inspirational stories of today’s stewards of that movement.

A former Syrian refugee who fought his way through college and medical school in a post-911 landscape. An enthusiastic storyteller who uses bike tours to bring us closer to those who paved the way for equality. A passionate lyricist who helps kids wrestle with hardships through songwriting, recording and performance. An immigrant from Africa who put himself out there and worked hard to become a member of his city council.


#weloveATL’s photographers continue to showcase our city and the creators who make it great, and in this case, they have partnered with the Center for Civil and Human Rights to deliver an important message.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants …”

“It will get better because we will make it better.”

Pat Hussain – Southerners on New Ground

After watching the first cut of this film, an overwhelming sense of pride for my city  emerged. Atlanta is special and her creative energy, sense of community, willingness to show up and desire for action is unparalleled. I also felt a deep sense of responsibility to help carry this message forward with small acts within my personal ecosystem.

Our participation in this project was starting to feel like something more than music. It was our way of applying our talents and networks to feed something bigger than ourselves. It was about connecting and creating, getting back to basics, taking care of our neighbors and being the change we wanted to see in the world.

BH and JG

Photo credit: Tom Griscom

Over the years, my long-time friend and Tunewelders co-founder, Ben Holst has worked tirelessly to foster a collaborative world of amazing musicians by putting relationships first, and promoting a culture of action over talk. We determined the best approach to this film score was to reach out to our friends, who happen to be some of the most thoughtful and talented players in Atlanta, with the mission to create this special musical character. We were humbled by the response, which translated into a collective experience where the sum of people, passion, instruments, recording equipment and a building was greater than the individual parts.

Inspirational moments like this usually lead to great questions.

Afropunk Festival Atlanta

Photo credit: Tom Griscom

What makes a movement?

Movements require non-linear thought, and the ability to bring an open mind to any situation. Any movement needs a catalyst, but the great movements require persistence and sustained momentum. Positive change can often seem like an unattainable target rotating in perpetual motion, especially when everyone is relying on everyone else to make that change happen.

Movements are not driven by complacency, indifference and indecision.

If you recall from #29 – Change and Balance, Dr. Robert Cialdini’s research investigated how and why people make decisions. A phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance arises when someone decides not to act on something because they think someone else has or will. We’ve all passed that stalled car on the side of the road. Nobody stops because they assume someone else already has stopped to check on the situation.

Kindness will always ask the question, even if its repetitive.

Kindness is a movement.

The Freedom Riders personified a movement.

freedom riders

The Freedom Riders were a brave group of people determined to make a difference through non-violence. They were a purposely integrated group who rode together on buses during a time when a black person and a white person could not sit together on a bus. Read that last sentence again. While we have come a long way, we are not that far removed from this world. In fact, there are particular pockets of our society that still support versions of this negative mindset.

On the shoulders of giants, our small actions can lead to positive change.

The science of movements

Within every movement is a complex system. Within the system, you will find individual participants with unique perspectives, varying appetites for risk and susceptibility to pluralistic ignorance.

Its fascinating how movements are created and sustained over time.

Consider the example of the starling.


Photo credit: ATA Walerian Walawski

These birds are known to closely coordinate their flight patterns resulting in what looks like an intricate dance. This dance is the result of a defense mechanism years in the making. Working together, they can confuse their prey and stay alive.

Can we learn a simple lesson from the foundational movements of a starling flock?


In 1986, computer scientist Craig Reynolds created a simulation program called Boids (think someone from NY saying birds) to study the flocking behavior of birds like starlings. Through this simulation, we are able to understand the simple algorithm that these birds use to start and sustain a collective movement.

Step #1 – The birds align themselves with the direction of other birds.

Step #2 – They move toward other birds.

Step #3 – They maintain separation to avoid colliding with other birds.

Seems simple, right? Small actions lead to big movements.

“It’s really hard to make things right, and it’s really easy to break stuff” – Nicky Case

According to game developer and complex systems expert, Nicky Case, bottom up solutions and emergence are the keys to starting and sustaining a movement. Action from individual to individual is a bottom up approach. From a philosophical perspective, emergence is the result of many small things coming together as a group to take on a whole new set of characteristics.

The group is greater than the sum of its parts.

Evolution of ideas, philosophies and social conditions occur when we find a group of individuals interacting with a point of chaos and disorder. Case defines evolution as the product of selection and variation. Selection occurs through feedback loops. In the case of Boids, alignment and cohesion are examples of reinforcing and balancing feedback loops. As the birds align in the direction of other birds, it causes more birds to join the party. The balancing feedback loop keeps the birds from crashing into each other by maintaining a close but safe distance.

Case refers to variation as the introduction of chaos along with a dense network of interactions. The movements of the starling are generated by a reaction to chaos (or perceived chaos), which could be defined as a hawk moving in ready to attack. The dense network of interactions allow small communications between individuals resulting in a massive, coordinated dance.

Small actions lead to big movements.

The Time REALLY Is Right

Atlanta has a storied history of brave leaders who sought change through peaceful measures. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Joseph E. Boone, Ralph Abernathy,  Andrew Young and countless others worked to bring the South from Jim Crow to equality. The Time Is Right reconnects us to the deep history of civil rights in Atlanta, and reminds us that our work is not done. The great movements are never really finished. The early battles are always hard fought, and the true cost of them is never really understood until years later.

Carrying the work forward is our challenge.

I think about where the world will be in twenty years. Not from a place seeded in anxiety and hopelessness, but one of pure curiosity and wonder. Positive change starts with controlling the things you can control and banishing the rest of the noise and distraction that goes along with trying to control something you cannot. Controlling something and affecting change are two distinctly different things. Without control, most of us feel powerless. The power actually comes from your actions and your behaviors.

My ecosystem is in my control.

Who I spend time with is in my control.

My actions within that ecosystem are in my control.

Just like the starling, a small action can lead to a dance serving a greater purpose.

Small actions lead to big movements.


What can I do? versus What can I DO

The first version of the question doubts the execution of the answer before its even determined. The second version of the question honestly seeks an actionable way to make a difference. Having the right mindset when you ask the question is important, but listening to the answer is paramount. Listen first, then match that answer with your skills, talents and your network. We all have microphones. Some of their gain levels may be turned down, some audio signals are masked with noise and ground loops, and others are so loud that you can’t actually hear them.

Elevate kindness.

Don’t let your microphone reproduce someone else’s noise.

Being inspired isn’t usually the hard part. Its carrying through with action after the initial inspiration that proves difficult. Many of us leave these inspired moments with grand ideas to change the world, then nothing happens.

The next step is small action within your ecosystem.

I recently reached out to my friend, Rohit Malhotra.

He runs the Center for Civic Innovation, where they bring an entrepreneurial mindset to traditional social challenges. They invest in the doers of Atlanta to attack these challenges from a new, energized and unconstrained perspective.

I asked Rohit to help me answer the question, What Can I Do?


What could a lone Atlantan do to dig in and drive change?


Show up. Most neighborhood meetings are empty.

Invest. Challenge the way you think about risk and investment.

We showed up with our friends one Sunday afternoon.

We invested our space, our relationships, our time and our skills.

We are grateful for the opportunity from #weloveATL and the Center for Civil and Human Rights. From the bottom of our hearts, THANK YOU Jon, Ryan, Ken, Evan, Drew, Gloria, Sam, James, Jack, Matt, Micah and Deke for helping us respond and take action.

Action over complacency, indifference and indecision.

Show up and invest any way that you can.

These ideas were inspired by a Sunday afternoon on the shoulders of giants.


Derek Sivers – How to Start a Movement

Jan van IJken’s short film on Starling Flocks


Go see the Center for Civil and Human Rights

Nicky Case’s Blog

More on the Freedom Riders


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