Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Trivial Events Can Have Serious Effects

You’ve no doubt heard of the power of a butterfly. A butterfly can flap its wings in Tokyo and create sunshine instead of rain in Tiananmen Square.

Small insignificant events can have big unpredictable impacts.

Does a teeny two penny tax on tea sound momentous enough to incite a war between the world’s strongest nations?


Yet that’s exactly what happened in 18th century America.

Three thousand miles away in London, the British economy was reeling from the war against France. To fill the coffers, Britain turned to the colonies for help. But instead of asking, English politicians held a meeting to raise taxes and didn’t invite the Americans.

Quicker than they could finish their cuppa, parliament passed the Tea Act. Which actually lowered the price of tea, but also gave the British a monopoly.

The colonists got so mad that they dressed up as Indians and dumped enough tea into the Boston harbour to cause the modern equivalent of about one million dollar loss.

The protest backfired.

Instead of backing down, the British passed even more acts that limited America’s sovereignty.

Not only did the colonists ignore the acts, they stopped paying taxes, created a 12-state alliance that acted like a government, and prepared for war.

A two penny duty on tea inspired Americans to fight for independence.

While not as unpredictable as the effect of a butterfly’s wings, it was hardly a foreseeable result. But it would have been easier to spot if we looked at the incentives of the people involved.

Unlike a butterfly or a force of nature, people act in relatively predictable ways. After all, if there’s a thing worth having, people will find a way to get it.

Even if it means cheating, breaking laws, or waging a war.

Just about everyone is ready to cheat if the stakes are right. You may say to yourself, “Not me. I never cheat.”

But what about that time you ignored a red light and walked across the street because there was no traffic? Or that summer you worked as a waiter and pocketed your tip instead of pooling it? And who can forget the occasion when you overcharged your friend as she landed on your Monopoly property, you rascal.

Everyone has an incentive to bend the rules and get ahead. But we won’t bother unless the risk-reward ratio is worth it.

In 18th century America, the risk of going to war was high. But with no way to weigh in on British legislation, the colonies were incentivized to fight.

How is any of this relevant to you?


If you’re running a business, how are you incentivizing customers to tell their friends and colleagues? If you’re selling books, how are you incentivizing people to buy your stuff rather than pirate it? If you’re in a competitive market, how are you incentivizing customers to stick with you instead of switching to a cheaper or more convenient choice?

Without a proper incentive, people will ‘cheat’ you out of referrals, attention and money if the stakes are right. Said differently, why should people be nice to you?

Are you solving their problems? Are you listening? Do you keep your promises even when it’s difficult? Are you offering something no one else is? Are your intentions clear? Have you been showing up for a long time?

The answers to these questions have serious effects. They’re anything but trivial.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach