Noodle XIII: Surprising Benefit of Extreme Weather (Before you cancel that event..)

Surprising benefit of extreme weather: reflectionsThis winter carries a surprising benefit of extreme weather. It has been a bit colder than usual in much of the U.S.A. due to the “Polar Vortex,” and I have observed that many professional groups in Chicago have canceled or postponed events due to “extreme weather” over the past two months. This has started to become a phenomenon, so I’ve been observing it with interest.

My social business client work involves analyzing digital social networks, and it constantly reveals how people affect each other’s behavior, often in surprising ways. I hypothesize that reactions to this weather phenomenon are having unintended effects, so, in the spirit of all Noodles, I’ll explore some of these deeper meanings and invite your thoughts.

Assembly

When a group of people decides to assemble, there is always some kind of shared sense of mission or intention. Of course, every participant has his/her own motivation, but everyone had agreed to assemble at that date and place and time. Canceling or postponing the assembly “due to weather” can mean several things—to the organizer and the participants—but I’ll postulate that the most general meaning is, “The threat to injury/loss of life is more valuable than assembling at that place/time.” On the surface, it would be hard to argue with that. But I will.

Threats, Convenience and Safety

Now some specifics. In Chicago we have been having temperatures hovering around 0°F ±10, and windchills have been extending the extremes twenty degrees or so. (More data: our average low temperature is 19°F, with a range between -17°F and 54°F). I have lived a good part of my life in the northern U.S.A., so I am accustomed to these temperatures during the winter months. This year is thus far marginally colder than the mean, but it is within normal for “normal” activities like indoor meetings (I’m not talking about outdoor football matches) in urban areas where everyone has access to transport of various types. Obviously all these terms are relative; I am assuming participant and organizer health is within normal bounds as well.

In most cases, these meetings could have been held at minimal threat to anyone involved, but they were not. So, why am I bothering to write about this?

When events are canceled due to “life-threatening conditions” (this expression is often used as the reason for the cancelations), event organizers are unwittingly exaggerating conditions, but they are also doing something else. They are implying that they do not have confidence in attendees to take responsibility for themselves, so they can assemble safely. Participants, since they experience cancelations from numerous groups, are taking in how dangerous the winter is, and this begins to alter their behavior. It resets “normal.” It is a spiral that feeds on itself. 

Volatility

Volatility may be defined as extreme conditions in terms of some variable, like speed, frequency, or magnitude. What is the most adaptive response to volatility?  When you meet volatility with flexibility, you have greater choice and usually the chance of a favorable outcome. Volatility inherently challenges past patterns of action or behavior (it’s “extreme”), so people who are the most flexible can react most easily.

By canceling events, organizers are unknowingly supporting people in becoming less flexible, and they are exaggerating threats.

Modern Humans

If we define humans as homo sapiens, we have lived 250,000-500,000 years. Our DNA has been iterating that long, and longer. Since 1750 or so, the Industrial Economy, in which people learned to mechanize the production of goods and services, has given rise to incredible wealth, to the point that it is becoming adaptive to act counter to what our DNA wants us to do. I have had several clients in the health and wellness area, so I have analyzed behavior of many kinds of people, how they are dealing with health issues and trying to achieve goals involving nutrition and exercise. The fact that people “work out” is in itself a symptom of a new challenge because, for almost all of our history, our work has been physical, and life expectancy was much shorter because people’s bodies wore out.

Physical work also meant that we have lived under harsh conditions, and our DNA and behavior is wired to avoid those conditions. People’s physical comforts were in fact far less than they are today. Our DNA tells us to seek comfort, and that was adaptive under prevailing conditions of discomfort. Likewise, our DNA tells us to eat as much as we can because, until recently, we had often experienced lack of food due to droughts, pests and famines. Today the challenge is the opposite.

Being Adaptive

I’ll close this Noodle with an invitation to join me in seeking out volatility and relatively extreme conditions in controlled situations. Since most readers live in relative comfort, it is becoming adaptive to be purposeful about rising above, going beyond, doing it, practicing resilience.

Here’s how I do it. I’m no Olympian or extreme sport practitioner. I’ve never been in the Arctic, or even the Tundra. -30°F means an extra baselayer or pair of long johns, an extra scarf to wrap around my face and my watchman’s cap. Thicker gloves. Backpack so I can put my hands in my coat pockets for much of the time outside if I want. I’ll be there.

If you organize events, by keeping the event on, you will accomplish some surprising things:

  • You treat your members as responsible adults and give them the chance to overcome a little extremity. Some will complain, but most will feel an extra sense of wellbeing.
  • You let members self-select: only the most serious will be there. Overcoming the extremity will add energy and quality to the interactions.
  • You send yourselves and your members a powerful message: “We care about our mission, and we’ll overcome a little inconvenience to do it.”
  • Here’s an example of the spirit!.. [#kudos #technori]

Surprising Benefit of Extreme Weather: Grab your long johns

Finally, here’s another side benefit of flexibility paying dividends under volatile conditions. When we experience -60°F windchills and neighbors run out of food, people who are accustomed to -30°F can venture out because they are more flexible. They have some knowledge of how to function in unusual conditions. By staying in when temperatures are -30, people start to lose the knowledge of how to function. That’s not a spiral I want to follow, so I don’t.

Challenges are learning experiences, so I plan for and even relish trying weather. To get flexible you have to get uncomfortable. Stretching is like that ;^)

2 comments to Surprising Benefit of Extreme Weather

  • As someone who walks a dog 3 times a day (rain, snow, sleet, wind, and minus 30 degrees), but who readily took advantage of event cancellations; I think that there is another reason. Our traffic times are getting longer and subject to big variations in length, due to slight changes in the weather. Those waits for a bus or long times sitting in a car are often the issue.

  • @Charlie, thanks for the thought; I’m sure you’re right because these nudges can have a significant impact, especially when large numbers of people are involved. Conversely, although it varies with the group’s goals, often the most productive meetings are those in which the most motivated people show up. In cases like that, some kind of adverse condition can serve to allow people to self-select for the most interested and motivated.

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