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This is how long it takes to change the world

Yancey Strickler
Yancey Strickler
8 min read

We want change to be instant. Immediate. But there is biological, historical, and sociological evidence that suggests thirty years is the right amount of time to think about substantive change.

What kind of change? I don’t mean the emergence of a new product or category. I mean significant shifts in values, beliefs, and behavior. A paradigm shift where a previously new idea becomes an accepted default. Changes like these happen all the time. But they take time to happen. About thirty years, more or less.

Take the antiseptic method, for example.

In 1865, a doctor in Glasgow named Joseph Lister proposed the idea of sterilizing doctor’s hands and equipment and the patient’s wounds as a way of preventing infection. This idea was based on a recent discovery by a French scientist named Louis Pasteur called Germ Theory, which posited and proved the existence of microscopic particles called germs. Lister theorized that these same germs were the cause of death from post-surgical infections, which caused 80% of patients to die after surgery at the time. Lister’s sterilization technique greatly improved the practice of surgery, making it a healing rather than deadly tool for the first time.

You’d think such a change would be met with great celebration. It wasn’t. Lister was met with much hostility. If what Lister proposed was right, this meant existing doctors were responsible for the deaths of an untold number of their patients. For an established surgeon to accept Lister’s ideas meant a kind of self-negation that many doctors found hard to do. In all likelihood so would we.

For doctors and scientists in training at the time of Lister’s proposal, on the other hand, the antiseptic method was much easier to accept. They could see that the results justified the treatment, rather than feeling personally judged by them. Buying into the antiseptic method didn’t require a deep rewiring of their beliefs. Their reputations weren’t on the line.

Thirty years later enough of the older generation of surgeons had died, stopped practicing, or been marginalized for their outdated thinking that their influence had waned. A younger generation who accepted the science of the antiseptic method was practicing in their place. The changing of the guard created a tipping point. In 1903 when the King of England needed an emergency appendectomy, his doctors called Lister. They followed Lister’s method and the King survived. King Edward later told him, "I know that if it had not been for you and your work, I wouldn't be sitting here today."

The antiseptic Method had become accepted science and the majority point of view.

If a significant change is successful — even something as consequential as dramatically improving surgical mortality rates — it takes time for that change to become the new norm. The new idea must prove itself to — and ultimately outlast — its skeptics. When it does, the new becomes normal. This process often takes thirty years.

Basketball’s three-point shot is another example — two different times, in fact.

In 1979 the NBA first introduced the three‐point shot. But the initial impact of the three was negligible. In the first years after the three pointer was added, it wasn’t often taken. In that first season, only 2.8 three‐pointers were attempted each game.

The three wasn’t embraced for a good reason: it was a harder shot to make. Two‐point shots went in about half the time. Three‐point shots went in less than 30 percent of the time. The math was clear: it was easier to make twos than threes. So don’t shoot threes.

For the first almost thirty years that the three‐pointer existed, taking one was discouraged. Coaches and TV announcers condemned it as selfish. They were bad shots. They weren’t how the game was played.

But in the 2000s, the way people thought about sports began to change. In the wake of Moneyball, the 2003 Michael Lewis book about the Oakland A’s using data analysis to outperform better‐resourced competitors, data science became a new focus in sports. Including basketball.

Trailblazing analysts started to ask new questions. Questions like: where are the most efficient places on the court to shoot? This was a new kind of question. To know the most efficient shot, new forms of measurement were needed. To get the necessary data, new kinds of technology were created.

Soon, analysts and algorithms categorized and measured each play with intense granularity. Teams began using special cameras to scan the action on the court. They tracked not just whether a shot went in, they looked at precisely where on the court the player was. Whether the player had dribbled before shooting or had just caught a pass. Who the nearest defender was, how close they were, how tall they were. No detail was too small.

When the analysts added up the data, the results looked very different from the conventional wisdom. A new statistic called “effective field goal percentage” showed that teams taking threes would miss more shots but would also—counterintuitively— score more points in the long run. Turned out that other than a layup or dunk, the best shot in basketball was a three.

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The basketball establishment was skeptical. Computers telling us how to play? No thanks. But a few teams tried shooting more threes and outperformed expectations. Others followed their lead. Within a decade, basketball was transformed. More three‐pointers were taken in last year’s NBA season alone than all of the 1980s combined. Thirty years from new to normal.

The same pattern repeats itself with the invention of the three-point shot, by a man named Howard Hobson. Hobson was one of the first basketball coaches and a successful one, coaching the University of Oregon Ducks to the first-ever NCAA champions in 1939.

But the basketball played back then only superficially resembled the game we know now. It was low-scoring, physical, and slow (not to mention mostly white). Basketball was a game of brute force, not creativity or skill. The final score of that first NCAA championship game was a bruising 46-33.

Hobson’s close study revealed one of the game’s major inefficiencies: very little of the court was used. Players crowded around the basket rather than spacing themselves out. This was the source of the game’s ugliness. Hobson’s radical solution? To draw an imaginary line on the court and make shots taken from behind that line worth more points than shots taken in front of it. Originally called “Long Shots,” this was how the three-pointer was invented.

Hobson proposed the idea in a stunningly prescient book called Scientific Basketball, published exactly thirty years before the three-point line was added to the NBA. “The three-point field goal will act like a good cough syrup and break up congestion around the lane,”⁠ Hobson explained.

To improve his team, Hobson painstakingly recorded what he saw on the court. For thirteen years and 460 games, Hobson took detailed records of everything he saw. He tracked the shooting percentages of his players and opponents based on how far away from the basket they were and how open they were. The exact same thing data analysts used spreadsheets and cameras to do sixty years later, Hobson did painstakingly by hand.

In 1945, Hobson tested out the idea for the first time in an experimental game in New York City. Hobson’s imaginary three-point line and a wider lane beneath the basket were painted onto a basketball court for the first time in history.

The crowd in the New York City gym had never seen a basketball court look like this. Nobody had seen a basketball court look like this before.

The experiment seemed to be a success, as a poll of spectators showed approval for the three pointer by a 60-40 margin. The New York Times, however, wasn’t so sure, saying it “was hardly a rousing success.” The Times predicted that the three pointer “will be permitted to die a natural death.”⁠

For a while it did. But Hobson’s idea was resuscitated in the 1960s in lower-tier basketball leagues, and in 1979, thirty years later, became part of the NBA for good. Hobson’s experimental court became the basketball court. Now we can’t imagine the game any other way.

How to do a perfect handstand

What can businesses and organizations learn from the thirty-year theory of change? How important it is to have the right expectations. This is something that Jeff Bezos memorably illustrated in Amazon’s 2017 Shareholder Letter. Bezos wrote:

“A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good. She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. ‘Most people,’ he said, ‘think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.’ Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be.”

When we underestimate how long and how much effort it will take to do things, we cut corners. We don’t stay committed. When things don’t work out we wonder what went wrong. But when we’re realistic about what it’s going to take, we’ve got a shot.

It takes six months of daily practice to do a perfect handstand. It might also take thirty years of daily effort and patience to change the world. This is a process most people will not see through to completion.

Howard Hobson passed away in 1991. He didn’t get to see the three-pointer’s modern renaissance, but he recognized its impact even if few others did. In an interview three years after the three’s NBA debut, Hobson said basketball had become “now an ideal game.” This happened in large part thanks to his ideas. Little did Hobson know that the biggest revolution in basketball was just getting started, and that he was responsible for it.

Change isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon — and a relay. Each person or generation runs a leg of a longer race. The finish line may not appear in our lifetimes. This is no reason to feel discouraged. It’s simply the math we have to work with. Change isn’t impossible. It simply takes time. No matter how hard we try, we’re not going to do a perfect handstand in a day.

Instant gratification is harder to come by, but a lot changes over the long-term. Thirty years is how long it took for exercise, organic food, recycling, the three pointer, sterilized surgery, the internet, and many other unnoticed parts of modern life to go from ideas to a reality. These ideas started small, but accelerated quickly. Change creates compound interest: some people changing means more people will change. Change is contagious. A growing movement can seem to tip in favor of a new idea overnight. But for the really big changes, “overnight” takes thirty years to arrive.

Long-term thinkingThe Bento SocietyData is fire

Yancey Strickler

Sup y'all. I'm Yancey — writer, founder of the Bento Society, cofounder of Kickstarter, and author of "This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World." Subscribe to stay in touch.

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