Look Around and Look Within

The Science and Art of Human Behavior

The Power To Change The World

What seems small can have a big effect

I just left a manicure salon owned and operated by a team of Vietnamese women. About 35 work there at any one time and I watched them interacting throughout my time there. While rotations determine who is painting nails, doing neck massages or performing other beauty maintenance procedures, those not actively ‘working’ are sitting together preparing materials for work, heating food and eating, or giving each other neck massages, manicures, and the like. It is a constant stream of chatter – none of which can I understand – but one that is full of laughter. They spend 10 hours a day in the salon and 3 hours on the freeways together commuting by carpool two and from work.

It made me think of those communities in Italy where longevity is so great, in part because the social connections are strong. Science is continually confirming that strong and positive social connections promote health and wellbeing. Despite the long hours, the manicurists I asked told me they like what they do and particularly being with their friends at work. None of them knew each other before they began, but now it’s like one giant family.

I stopped by the manicurists on my way home from the X Prize Visioneering meeting, a means of developing future X Prizes and engaging potential donors and sponsors in the process. The X Prize is the brainchild of Peter Diamandis, a doctor and creative genius who co-founded Singularity University as well. What Peter does best is think ‘big’ and then and make that thinking become reality.

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In contrast to the manicure salon, the X Prize does ‘big stuff’ – send a rocket into space, end literacy, revamp the prison system - to name a few projects that have happened or are a potential focus of a future X Prize. The manicure salon does little things – fingernails and toes to be exact. But they do something big too – they provide a community (in this case, immigrant women from Vietnam) just like the X Prize provides a community to philanthropists and innovators. Everyone needs a place to belong – to feel a part of something bigger than oneself. The manicurists create a home away from home – for many of them leaving Vietnam also meant leaving family behind, for years if not still continuing.

And while the X Prize might land someone on the moon or save the planet from climate change, the manicure salon is doing big things in another way. They are a community centered in work but infused with the warmth of social connection and support. They are women working together, sharing and helping one another. If that model were replicated around the world (as it is being done in many cities already) it might put a dent in poverty, gender inequality, and other social ailments without ever explicitly saying it was doing so… meanwhile a lot of fingers and toes look good in the process.

 

Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D., is a professor and behavior geneticist at UCLA Semel Institute and Founding Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).

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