By Chew

It was a dark and stormy night. I was returning to the barracks with Mak.  It was a fairly long walk between the main gate and our bunk. We’d taken that route many times. The only difference on that night was the lightning. It was near and frequent. But we had to sign in by 23:59 so it was business as usual. We walked, joked, kept calm, and carried on. It wasn’t long before lightning struck a fence nearby, rebounded, and hit my umbrella.

It wasn’t supposed to.

The fence, Mak and I were exceedingly short, next to a large farm of antennas [1] — each of these antennas was roughly 10 storeys high!

Lightning is supposed to hit the highest point as we’ve all been taught. When discussing this topic, I have no shortage of subscribers to this theory. At least one medical doctor and a science teacher made it clear to me that I would be a fool to think otherwise. But how would that explain my experience, which clearly proved contrary?

Life would be simpler if there were no exceptions to the rule when it came to the laws of science!

I work in advertising. At the agency where I work, we encourage associates who do not work in the digital side of things to experiment with Instagram. To spur them on, we offer the prize of a gift voucher for the one whose post got the most likes.

In the most recent debrief, I was fascinated by the points raised. Two, in particular, caught my attention.  The first was that there was an optimal time to post — supposedly on the night of a certain day of the week. The assertion of the second was that a moving visual would always beat a static one.

When I put these two points together with the rest, it became clear everyone was looking for that one thing that was fundamental to helping generate the most likes for a post.

Is there one thing that would make all the difference? [2]

Singapore is a lightning rod and no one knows when and where lightning will strike next. My friends — the doctor and chemistry teacher, have only considered a single factor: the highest point. The reality is incredibly complex; the general considerations of how and where lightning strikes include ground elevation, latitude, wind, and very many more factors.  

Lightning on a stormy night doesn’t happen in a lab environment.

My associates who are new to Instagram were trying to isolate a variable or a set of variables that would garner the most likes for a post. Even if the magic formula or cheat sheet existed, it would be short-lived.

In the social media, what works this week may be obsolete the next; such is the complex world of social media. Figuring out what works in this increasingly complex domain is a learning journey.

When reality is moving the goalposts, there are three things we can do:

  • Construct the big picture. Be open to appreciate the many variables that form the big picture [3]. Systems thinking comes in useful here: account for the variable parts, making sense of how the parts of a picture might connect. To focus, get a helicopter view. Distance yourself so you are high enough to see the big picture, yet close enough to the ground to see if details need to be isolated. Be aware that the environment is dynamic, and in fact, often ill-defined, and that the only constant is change.
  • Constantly improve. If the only constant is change, we need to constantly improve. How? By being mindful about what we set out to do, by measuring how we perform against what was planned, then calibrating for the better, every time. One popular method is plan, do, check, act [4].
  • Share and discuss. When we collaborate as a team or a community of practitioners, we share insights. These are products of combined knowledge and experience. A culture of sharing and improving promotes critical, and possibly strategic thinking. That can translate to individual, group, and organisational success.

So what happened to Mak and me at the antenna farm some thirty years ago? I felt a pain in my forearm and fell to the ground [5]. We picked ourselves up, checked for injuries — there were none — looked at each other and ran for our lives. That was close [6] and not the first.
Lightning frightens me. But learning about the complex factors behind how and why it strikes, was a lesson on the benefit of not generalizing or being myopic.

We hold fast to the theory that lightning strikes the highest point because it is what we’ve always known, and what comes to mind first. It is the easy, simple explanation. Yet when other factors that come into play, the explanation behind why lightning strikes becomes more complex.

Never hasten to a conclusion before taking into account all the variables that make up the big picture. There is always more to something than what appears on the surface.

Remember always—a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Here’s wishing you a good wrap to your week.


[1] Large farm of antennas. Looks like this.

[2] One thing is a matter of perspective. It almost seems like I’m countering what I’d previously written in One to make it happen. Then, I was discussing how one thing can focus and help with problem definition, problem-solving and prioritising. Indeed, there is a time and place for one significant thing, just like how the highest point is one key factor that would determine where lightning would strike. But it isn’t everything.

[3] Related discussions on constructing a visual or mental model: Visualising what to expect and How being ahead of 158 men taught me about fighting battles in business.

[4] PDCA was previously discussed in The Biggest Mistake.

[5] What is known as a side flash probably hit me. In this case, it was strong enough to be felt but weak enough to spare me any injuries.

[6] I had two other close shaves with lightning. One was near the peak of Mount Ophir and the other was when canoeing from Pulau Ubin to Changi Beach


This article was first published on LinkedIn.

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