When Jerry Sternin arrived in Vietnam in 1990, he spoke no Vietnamese and had no idea what he was going to do about the hopelessly complex problem he’d been tasked to solve. Sternin was working for Save the Children, an international organization that helps children in need. He had been sent to Vietnam to fight severe malnutrition.
Sternin was met with a cold welcome in Vietnam. The Vietnamese foreign minister had seen plenty of ‘do-gooder’ missions:
The foreign minister told Sternin he had six months to make a difference.
Sternin had read all the literature on the complex causes of malnutrition—poor sanitation, poverty, lack of education, etc. He considered this information ‘TBU’ (true but useless). “Millions of kids can’t wait for those issues to be addressed,” he said.
This may seem obvious, but many miss this point: if you want different results, you can’t follow the herd. Sternin knew he had to go against the grain of conventional wisdom. But with almost no money to spend and the clock ticking, the odds were against him.
Sternin’s approach to the problem was elegantly simple. He went looking for bright spots—successful efforts worth emulating. Instead of focussing on all the problems and getting nowhere because of paralysis by analysis, he looked for what was working.
You might be trying to lose weight, make healthy food choices, or quit drinking. Whatever your goal, Sternin’s model of looking for bright spots gives us a powerful tool for rapid change.
Finding Bright Spots
Sternin’s first task was to go looking for bright spots. He travelled to the villages of malnourished children and met with the mothers. He asked them if there were any children that were healthier or bigger than the other children, even though their families had access to the same resources. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’.
When Sternin spoke to the mothers of healthy children, it was clear that they had a different approach. There were a couple of key differences to how they fed their children.
- First, instead of feeding the children two large meals a day like adults, they fed them four smaller meals. The mothers used the same amount of food as other families but spread it out more frequently. Feeding large meals to malnourished children turned out to be a mistake because their stomachs couldn’t process large amounts of food.
- The second major difference was that the mothers were collecting tiny shrimp and small crabs from rice paddies. They also collected sweet-potato greens from their garden. These were considered ‘low-class’ foods but added the much-needed protein and vitamins to the children’s meals.
Sternin had found a ‘local’ answer to this complex problem. He then set out to replicate it.
Sternin created a program in which groups of malnourished families would meet in a hut and learn to cook meals with the shrimp, crabs, and sweet-potato greens. The mothers were empowered to solve the problem with local knowledge taught by other villagers. It was a simple solution and it worked.
Six months later, 65% of children were better nourished and remained that way. Sternin’s model reached over 2.2 million people in over 265 villages. Today, it’s a national model used to teach villagers to reduce malnutrition in Vietnam.
You don’t need to be fighting malnutrition or tackling world issues to use bright spots to make changes in your life. Let’s look at how you can put this into practice.
Reverse the Way We Look at Problems
We can use Sternin’s approach of looking for bright spots in our own lives to create major change. It reverses the way we tackle complex problems in a deceivingly simple way. Instead of looking to fix all the broken parts, we try to replicate the tiny glimmers of light. We focus on what’s working, no matter how small.
If you learn to look for bright spots and understand them, you’ll find solutions. You do this by answering one of the most fundamental questions about change: what do I need to do differently to achieve my goal?
Here’s a great video from Dan Heath explaining the process:
Now that you understand how to use bright spots, let’s look at how you can apply them to health and fitness goals.
Health and Fitness Bright Spot Examples
Health and fitness are made out to be overly complex. Most of the information we get from mainstream media is total bullshit (like 30 days to six-pack abs) or conflicts with what we were told yesterday. If you want to lose weight, build muscle, or perform at your best, it’s going to be hard work. But achieving your goals doesn’t need to be rocket science.
By applying the bright spots model, you can home in on what’s working. Then, simply replicate the successes. Forget about all the broken parts, focus on what’s worked in your life. Here are some ideas of health and fitness bright spots to look at:
If you find it hard to exercise, you’re not alone. Not everyone likes to lift heavy stuff, go running, or play sports. But I bet if you think long and hard you’ll come up with some type of physical activity you enjoy. It doesn’t need to be structured exercise in the typical sense. It could be kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, walks around the neighbourhood, gardening, or just about anything that gets you moving. Come up with a list of your exercise bright spots. These are the activities that you’ll stick to because you enjoy doing them.
Weight loss is hard work, but it’s not complicated (with the exception of metabolic disorders). I think deep down inside most of us know where we’re going wrong. As tasty as pastries and doughnuts are, they’re definitely not your bright spots.
Think about what’s worked for you in the past, even if you only got minor results. Was it exercising more or cutting out processed foods? How can you replicate what’s worked, but do it in a sustainable way? Maybe you try using the 80/20 principle. Or make a rule that you’ll only eat treats after a balanced whole food meal of protein, clean carbs, vegetables, and healthy fats.
If you eat a lot of processed foods or aren’t getting enough micronutrients, your health will suffer. A poor diet can lead to a lot of issues beyond weight gain (e.g., acne, chronic allergies, eczema, migraines, irritable bowel, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and heart disease).
Whilst it can be hard linking specific foods to health issues, many people see dramatic improvements by simply eating more whole foods—these are the foods found in the outer aisle of the supermarket. Think fresh vegetables, meats, clean carbs, and healthy fats. All the foods that don’t come in packets or boxes.
I think most of us know what we should be eating, it’s a matter of finding ways to fit healthy foods into our schedules. Look for what’s worked before. Maybe your bright spots are spending some time on Sundays prepping food for the week. Or maybe you hate vegetables and need to find ways to sneak them in.
Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) pick one area of your health and fitness you want to improve and list out your bright spots. Once they’re identified, start replicating them. As Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.
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