It doesn’t happen every time we’re stopped at the traffic lights.
But it happens often enough.
My wife is driving, so she has her foot on the brake.
We’re talking, but I’m watching the traffic lights.
Chutzpah is a Jewish word meaning audacity.
In 1980, Eli Beer was a seventeen-year-old boy living in Jerusalem.
He wanted to do something worthwhile, so he volunteered to be an Emergency Medical Technician working on ambulances.
But the traffic in Jerusalem is terrible, the ambulance always took a minimum of twenty minutes to get to an emergency.
Once, his ambulance was called to a little girl choking, by the time they got there she was dead.
A doctor said “I was a block away, I could have saved her”.
Eli Beer went to see his boss.
He said he and a dozen colleagues all lived in the same area.
If the dispatcher would let them know when there was an emergency in their area they could run there fast, and keep the patient alive until the ambulance arrived.
His boss said “Kid, go back to school or go open a falafel stand. We don’t need your wild ideas”.
What Eli Beer did next was an example of chutzpah.
He thought “The hell with you. If you won’t give me the addresses I’ll get them myself”.
And he bought two police-band radios.
Almost immediately he heard about a nearby car crash.
He ran to the scene and found an old man bleeding to death.
He stopped the bleeding and kept the man alive until the ambulance arrived, twenty minutes later.
And he thought, in two years that’s the first life I’ve saved.
At that point he quit ambulances and started Hatzalah United.
He would listen for emergencies and broadcast the details to whichever of his volunteers was nearest.
And they kept patients alive until the ambulances arrived.
Then Eli Beer decided they could save even more lives with a little bit more chutzpah.
All the ambulances were getting stuck in traffic.
But what if the ambulances could travel through the traffic, even on the pavement?
They needed motorbikes that were equipped like ambulances, with blood plasma and defibrillators.
With more chutzpah, Eli Beer began raising money to buy them.
Now they could get to any emergency inside three minutes.
They could keep people alive until the ambulance got there.
And they began saving more lives, and more lives.
And Eli Beer raised more money to buy more motorbikes.
Currently they have two hundred medically equipped motorbikes across Israel.
Every motorbike will save, on average, 120 lives a year.
Hatzalah United saves lives regardless of race, religion, or nationality.
In fact, when Eli Beer’s own father had a heart attack, his life was saved by one of Hatzalah United’s Moslem volunteers.
So successful is Hatzalah United, it’s being copied in Brazil, India, Mexico, even Australia.
And it’s saving lives in all those places.
None of which would have happened without a seventeen-year-old boy’s chutzpah.
The dictionary defines chutzpah as:
“The personal confidence that allows one to do things that may seem shocking to others.
Gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, insolence, audacity, temerity, presumption plus arrogance”.
When Henry Ford started making cars, few people had them.
Ford knew that cars were only bought by the rich.
So obviously his strategy would be market growth, not market share.
In 1908, the average car cost over $2,000.
So he launched the Model T costing just $800.
People who’d never even considered owning a car could now afford one.
Adam Garone is from Melbourne.
In 2003, he was having a drink in a pub with his mates.
They were laughing about ridiculous 1970’s fashions: huge platform shoes, flared-trousers, flower-pattern shirts, long droopy moustaches.
But however ridiculous the fashion was, it always made a come back.
Sure, people grew beards, or goatees, or soul-patches.
But old-fashioned moustaches just looked too ridiculous.
Susan Blakemore wrote ‘The Meme Machine’.
She says a meme isn’t simply something that occurs on the Internet, like LOL-cats or hashtags.
In Wikipedia it’s defined as follows:
“A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through, writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.”
Put simply, a meme is something that catches on.
Susan Blackmore gives an example of a meme in everyday life.
She shows a photo of a toilet in a backpacker’s hostel in Malaysia.
The toilet is very basic of course, tatty, well worn, but clean.
We don’t notice anything unusual until she points out the toilet roll.
The corners of the first sheet have been folded over.
She shows various photos of the same thing, the first sheet of toilet paper with the corners folded.
In a hostel in Shanghai, in a toilet on a Japanese train, in an outdoor toilet in Thailand,
Why is it happening everywhere, what does it signify?
Well to most of us it signifies that we will be the first person to use that toilet since it was cleaned.
But when did that become a sign?
Personally, I first noticed it several years ago.
At home, we had a cockney cleaning lady called Carole.
Her sons paid for her to have a holiday in a nice New York hotel.
Carole noticed that every day after the cleaning staff had finished, they folded the corners on the first sheet on the toilet roll.
Carole had never seen that before.
But she liked it and remembered it.
She thought it looked professional even though it cost nothing.
When she came back, she began doing it to our toilet rolls.
It was Cariole’s way of signifying that she’d done her job: that room was now clean and ready to use.
I didn’t know it had caught on until I saw Susan Blackmore’s talk.
But that’s exactly how a meme works.
No one tells us what it means, but we see it and we get it.
We like it so we use it.
Then, other people do the same and it gets into the language.
Without ever being explained, or discussed, or taught.
Another meme would be the heart symbol.
We see it everywhere, especially on Valentine’s Day cards.
But in medieval times it was a heraldic device used on shields and banners.
At some point it became the universal symbol for love.
Then it was carved into trees.
And now, it even substitutes for the word itself: “I (heart) NY”.
The extended middle finger would be another meme.
It’s believed to be an ancient Italian gesture, indicating homosexuality.
Immigrants took it to New York with them.
It was adopted as a universal insult and spread across America.
And spread, via American films, across the world.
That’s what a meme is, a symbol that catches on and communicates.
That’s how semiotics works, that’s how language works.
That’s how all communication works.
If we want our work to catch on, we need to study memes.
A while back, a man went into a Target supermarket in Minneapolis.
He asked for the manager.
He said “I find this offensive. Your store has sent this leaflet, personally addressed to my teenage daughter.
Coupons for maternity clothing, nursery furniture, baby-clothes, baby milk, diapers.
My daughter is still in school, what are you trying to do, encourage her to get pregnant?”
It seemed like a mistake so the manager apologised.