Positive Deviation 

April 8, 2022

“Who are you and how do you know my name?” Those were my friend’s thoughts after two complete  strangers greeted him at the Newark airport with, “Welcome back to the United States, Mr. York.”  Without any explanation they asked, “Can you follow us?” It is at times like this that you wish you could  be like Liam Neeson’s character in the movie Taken and say, "I don't know who you are. I don't know  what you want… I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills… that make me  a nightmare for people like you.” Or then again, you could be like my friend and quietly go with them. 

My friend is Matt York and he had just returned from Guinea. It was the height of the Ebola crisis, and  everyone was running for their lives to get away from the epidemic. Matt, on the other hand, risked his  by racing into the middle of it. And while he didn’t look as imposing as Neeson’s movie character, he did  possess a very particular set of skills that could help stem the tide of the Ebola nightmare in West Africa.  

Matt is the founder and president of Videomaker Inc., a leading publisher on video production. He is  also the executive director of illuminAid – a non-profit he founded in 2008 to educate the world’s  poorest people through low-cost video technology. He takes no salary, donates his time, and uses his  skills in video electronics to encourage positive deviation. Positive deviation is an approach that  empowers people to break free from the constraints of ingrained traditional behaviors and to establish  more productive ones that lead to better solutions to common problems in their community.  

In Guinea, traditional burial behaviors affected the Ebola crisis because the virus isn’t spread by sneezing  or coughing but by direct contact with body fluids. So, the funeral ritual of everyone drinking from a cup  that had been pressed against the decedent’s lips was a problem. The positive deviation desired was the  replacement of this harmful practice with the removal and cremation of the body. To facilitate the  

change, Matt and his team taught local leaders how to create videos and provided them with the solar  powered cameras and projectors needed to shoot and show them. However, the content and messaging  were left to the local leadership because information alone is not enough to change behavior. It must be  presented and communicated in ways outsiders would fail to grasp and only locals could understand.  

The researchers at The University of Chicago’s Financial Education Initiative discovered that traditional  financial education suffers from the same problem. Financial behaviors aren’t significantly changed by  teaching objective financial facts because people’s “behaviors are shaped by what students bring to a  financial education course and the deeply personal lens through which they approach financial literacy.” 

As an advisor I must be aware of such ingrained behaviors in my clients that are the result of how our  brains are hardwired for financial failure and exacerbated by poor role modeling. To encourage change,  clients need education about such things as debt, spending, risk, return, compounding, taxes, gifting,  and more. But it has to be done in ways they can understand and relate to. It must address their hopes  and fears, their learned behaviors from life experiences, and the environment in which they live.  

It turns out the two suits in Newark were there to escort Matt to an isolated area for Ebola testing. They  knew their mission (to prevent the spread of Ebola to the US) and they knew that Matt had been to  West Africa. The key to affecting positive deviation is similar – knowing the objective and knowing your  audience. That way you can make and implement an effective plan to change ingrained behaviors for  the better. For Matt that means providing local leaders with the video equipment and training they  need to effectively speak to their community. As an advisor that means knowing my clients and  personalizing my approach based on individual behaviors and the factors behind those behaviors. 

You can donate to IlluminAid at www.illuminaid.org/donate

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