– In chaos theory its called sensitive dependence on initial conditions. We know it as the butterfly effect.
It was a late Saturday morning and the wife and I were driving to the in-law’s house out in the Temecula area. I like my in-laws but the drive from Silver Lake to Temecula can sometimes be long, depending on traffic. Luckily, traffic wasn’t too bad. And to kill the time, my wife and I talked about reality television and social media.
I remember we were discussing Adam Lambert and his second place finish on American Idol. The wife was sorry she’d logged on to Facebook during the Idol finale, and seen results posted by viewers on the East Coast. We started talking about how Facebook was the perfect venue for a new breed of reality entertainment. People cast their votes, opinions, and feedback 24/7 on social media anyway. Why not combine the concepts of reality television and social media and have a show where people vote on what someone should do with their day. It would be a little bit American Idol with voting and a little bit of the 1980’s Choose Your Own Adventure young adult books where readers were given choices on how a character could progress through the story. The show would be called… Choose My Adventure. The wife thought it was a great idea and suggested that I throw my hat in the ring as the first contestant.
One thing you should know about me is that I don’t like to be told what to do. By anyone. That’s why I quit Corporate America a few years back and now work as a freelance technology consultant. I work when I want, with clients I choose, and on my terms. It’s also why the wife knows not to directly tell me what to do. Instead, she makes suggestions, and then waits for them to be my idea. She’s smart, that wife.
Another thing you should know about me is that I crave adventure. My greatest passions in life are exotic food, travel, and trying things I’ve never attempted before.
Now that you know a little more about me, it’s (hopefully) all the more interesting that I would knowingly and willingly participate in something like Choose My Adventure on Facebook where I rely on strangers to tell me what to do, and when to do it.
In July of 2009, my first Choose My Adventure poll went up on Facebook.
The first poll was a bit boring. I asked people to vote on how I would spend a couple of hours on a Wednesday night. Should I read, play a video game, or exercise… Some people suggested I play the video game. Even fewer suggested I read. The majority of people suggested I exercise, and so I did a little bit of yoga that Wednesday. About 15 people voted. Not bad for round one.
For round two I decided to up the interest factor. A friend was having a birthday party on Saturday and I figured the party would be context for Choose My Adventure. I asked people to vote on whether I should be antisocial and not talk to anyone at the party, get drunk, or, and this was pushing my comfort zone, wear a toga to the party.
Guess which one won.
The night of the party, as my wife was getting dressed in traditional party attire, I opened the linen closet, peered in at the white sheets, and asked myself, ‘What are you thinking?’
Part of me was excited. The other part nervous. Deep down, I knew I couldn’t back down. I had to wear the toga to the party or the experiment was over. If I didn’t follow through, how could I be trusted and why would people vote? So I grabbed the biggest, whitest sheet I could find in the closet, wrapped it around me several times, and drove to Burbank in my toga.
Now, keep in mind that a lot of the people at the party are also my friends on Facebook. So they knew what I might wear to the party. Then again, there were many strangers I’d never met who had no idea who this guy was walking through the door in a sheet and flip flops.
The toga incident was a big hit. Those who knew about the challenge loved that I followed through with the experiment. Those who’d never met me before may have thought I was slightly wacky, but seemed impressed and intrigued by my social experiment. Many of them befriended me on Facebook after the party.
If the toga incident taught me anything, it’s that if I really wanted this new kind of adventure in my life, I had to up the ante and relinquish control of the choices people voted on. So for round three I asked people to recommend adventures.
Be a street corner sign flipper for a day.
Advertise free hugs and give strangers free hugs.
Recite some poetry.
Come up with a fundraising adventure.
Cook a fundraising dinner and let us choose the charity.
In order to not influence the next adventure, I ask people to vote on everything. After a couple of weeks of voting it was decided that I would cook a fundraising dinner for a charity.
I then asked my Facebook friends to choose the charity. The winning recipient was Alexandria House.
Alexandria House is a local non-profit in the Mid-Wilshire area that helps women with children transition from shelters to permanent housing. They also offer educational and enrichment opportunities to residents and members of the surrounding community. I learned about Alexandria House by signing up to volunteer for one of their events through another organization L.A. Works.
Friends and family know that I love to cook and entertain. I’ve also made an effort to volunteer regularly for most of my adult life. So some may be apt to think that it was a nice coincidence that people chose cooking and philanthropy as things I should do since they are things I am already passionate about. Sure, it could have been coincidence. Or was it inevitable?
Once the adventure and recipient had been decided on, I had one month to sell fifty tickets to my fundraising dinner. I had one month to find a location (our home just isn’t big enough to comfortably entertain 50 guests). I had one month to come up with a menu.
It was a little daunting but I knew I could do it. I had cooked dinners for 35 people before and I roughly knew how much food it would take to feed 50 people, as well as how much it would cost.
The first few days of the first week of planning were fantastic. Right off the bat I had a dozen people buy tickets and our realtor Michael Locke graciously said ‘Yes!’ to us hosting the dinner at his beautiful Los Feliz home.
Alexandria House was on board with the fundraising dinner. I was glad that they didn’t freak out at the idea of some random stranger contacting them, telling them the very story you’ve been reading about. All in all, everything was sailing along pretty smoothly.
As week two began, the ticket purchases slowed. I was stuck at about 15 tickets sold. Also, I had gone out into the neighborhood asking local businesses to donate food supplies and wine and was being turned down. Everyone said times were tough and their donation budgets had been slashed. And emails I was sending out promoting the dinner were being ignored by friends and acquaintances alike. I felt somewhat discouraged, but only for a minute.
Taking action is not for the easily deterred. Change takes energy. This reminded of what I’d learned in Physics class in college. Newton’s first law, the law of inertia says ‘A body persists its state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force.’
If it required energy or force to move my friends and acquaintances in a direction, then I would have to step up my efforts to get people to say yes.
I was also reminded of a lesson I’d once learned in psychology class in college. Humans are resistant to change even when that change is for the good.
Who knew that physics and psychology would play into my fundraising dinner?
As week three began, ticket sales were still slow. I started to worry that my goal of raising $2,000 for Alexandria House would not be met.
At that point, I had about 25 signups. I calculated the food costs, and I was over budget.
I decided to make changes to the original menu to lower costs, and even then I could still not afford to have wine. Nevertheless, it was looking up. Vons and Trader Joes agreed to donate supplies. I continued to promote the dinner and ask friends to promote the dinner, too, as this was turning into a real grassroots group endeavor.
The last week to RSVP arrived. With just two more weeks to the event, I was down again. I was ready to resign myself to the fact that only about 25 people had bought tickets. I began to tell myself that that was good enough. That I had tried hard.
The wife wouldn’t have it. A small business owner herself, she knows how challenging it can sometimes be to reach your goals. But she also knows the power of perseverance. She told me that the only thing preventing me from reaching my original goal was myself and my limiting beliefs.
She was right.
I kept at it.
Eight days left until the event. Seven days. Six days…. It’s in these last few days that things finally kicked into high gear. I purchased all the food. Tested and refined the last couple of recipes. And then I hit 30 tickets sold, 32 tickets sold, 35 tickets sold, and finally 40 tickets sold. Woooo Ha! I had done it. I had hit the $2,000 mark.
The fundraising dinner was a huge success. With the help of my friends/sous chefs Luis Calle, Carolyne Crollotte, Barbara Lamprecht, Staci Steadman, and Anjanette Collaso, we served our guests fabulous food in style. For an appetizer we served thin slices of smoked salmon with basil olive oil and a fresh wedge of lemon. The persimmon orange salmon slices were a gorgeous canvas for the the dark green basil oil swirls and droplets (I told you I was a foodie). One main dish was baked tilapia with artichokes, black olives in broth seasoned with bay leaf and thyme. The second main dish was a New York rib roast. As sides, we served a cannellini bean puree with bacon and a spinach salad with raspberries, blue cheese, walnuts, and shaved turkey. And for desert, we offered a scoop of banana gelato with fried banana, fresh raspberries and black berries, and a spicy chocolate bar.
Looking back, I’m somewhat in awe of how a little social experiment on Facebook turned into a philanthropic foodie success. Was the throwing of a fundraising party for local non-profit Alexandria House the result of the conscious actions taken by a group of philanthropically minded set of people? Or was the conversation my wife and I had on Interstate 10 on a Saturday morning the inevitable consequence that began with some butterfly flutter? I have no idea.
What I do know is what I’ve learned from the experience. Without action there is no change. And to be the change we want to see in the world, WE must be that change. To everyone who participated, each of us came together and raised $2,210 for Alexandria House. And we did it in a ‘bad’ economy. Our efforts will help a woman and her children move out of a shelter and into stable housing. And that could lead to a little boy or little girl staying in school and going to college because his or her mom now has the time to provide love and support.
Thanks to everyone who participated. We changed the world that night.
Luis De Avila