Years ago in my undergrad days, I had a professor that was madly in love with everything Apple. She wore a Steve and Steve shirt to class the first day. She refused to teach in a lab that was not outfitted with Macs. She owned every Apple product produced since 1983. She had the Apple logo tattooed on her calf. She sent emails to Stave Jobs once a month. She once kicked a kid out of class (this was a fairly big university) for bringing a PC laptop to class. Every story she told involved Apple is some way. She defined herself through her allegiance to this one single company.
As you could probably guess, she was a laughing stock to 95% of the students she encountered. Everything she talked about was in some way related to Apple, and it was annoying as Hell to the vast majority of her students. Of course, there was always one student that greed completely. Their enthusiastic feedback just fueled the fire. She had no perception of the effect she was having on the wider class; she was singularly focused on the lone source of affirmation.
To this day, I refuse to buy a Mac because of her crazy fanaticism. I recently had a discussion with some former classmates… they also did not buy Apple products because of her. I’m convinced Microsoft has prospered due to crazy ass people like her… the fanatics do more to turn people off than even the harshest critics.
So what does this have to do with barefoot runners?
Simple- as the ideas behind barefoot and natural running spread, the nature of the population that comes in contact with us changes. I like to use the diffusion of technology curve to describe the barefoot running movement:
The “Innovators” are the people that have been barefoot running for a long time and/or the people that have worked to advance our knowledge base and teach others. These were the people that took the biggest risks in the beginning- well before the “Born to Run” popularity spike. By their very nature, the Innovators are visionaries. They see potential where nothing exists. They are risk-takers. Most of all, they have the uncanny ability to completely ignore societal norms and expectations. This is what gives them the freedom to be Innovators.
The “Early Adopters” are the people that follow the “Innovators.” This group looks up to the Innovators to learn and as a source of inspiration. The Early Adopters have some of the same qualities of the Innovators, but may not be quite as courageous to buck trends. They’re not going to do much innovation, but they will take obscure ideas and run with them. They don’t need to follow a crowd; they’re more than happy to follow individuals or small groups. They closely follow the Innovators and develop close ties with their “mentors.” They tend to be the type of people that research and experiment with new ideas. This group represents the vast majority of barefoot runners we see today- they started before the idea of barefoot and natural running entered the consciousness of the wider running community.
The “Early Majority” is a much different group. They don’t try something until there’s some supporting evidence. That evidence may come in the form of science, adoption by large groups, marketing and advertisement, they know several friends that have tried it… whatever. They are aware of emerging trends and will do some research and experimentation, but are much less willing to go against societal norms. This group is critically important because the Early Majority determines if a trend lives or dies. If they pick up an idea, it hits critical mass, crosses a tipping point, and spreads through the rest of the population. If they reject an idea, it dies.
My premise is simple- understanding how the Early Majority thinks is critical to spreading the ideas of barefoot and natural running. How my fellow classmates and I viewed our crazy computer teacher can give us some very good clues… well, at least one critically important clue:
The Early Majority does not view Innovators in the same way as the Early Adopters.
The Innovators typically have a great deal of passion. Their lives are tied to the idea. They have strong opinions that typically diverge from the widely accepted ideas of the wider society. They are a little bit fanatical.
The Early Adopters LOVE this! It is what inspired them to take the leap in the first place. It causes them to place the Innovators on a pedestal and give them an endless stream of positive regard. That flow of positive feedback fuels the Innovators’ fanaticism to the point where they begin to disregard how the wider society views them. This lack of self-awareness creates an “us versus them” dynamic that attracts more Early Adopters.
This creation of a small, loyal group of “followers” allows movements to grow to the point just below the tipping point between the Early Adopters and Early Majority. Some ideas pass that critical threshold; some do not. One of the determining factors has to do with the perceived fanaticism of the group made up of the Early Adopters and Innovators.
If the Early Majority see the idea as something that will fit within their world view, they will likely test it out. If they like it, the idea spreads farther. If the Early Majority are turned off by the fanaticism of the Early Adopters and Innovators, they’ll ignore the idea and it is forever relegated to the few that are willing playing the “outcast” role.
So… my old college professor was an Apple fanatic. She was a true Innovator- she owned every single product Apple ever produced. She attracted a small number of people that were open to her message. However, she turned off countless others with the same message. In short:
The Early Adopters see the Innovators as crazy geniuses.
The Early Majority sees the Innovators as crazy idiots.
Same behaviors… different perceptions.
How does this pertain to barefoot and natural running? You probably guessed where I’m going with this. If our goal is to spread the idea (that’s my goal, by the way), we have to be cognizant of how we are perceived by the Early Majority.
I spend a lot of time observing other people’s behaviors (psychology background + personality flaw = spending wayyyy too much time observing, assessing, and predicting others’ behaviors.) There are a lot of people that LOVE the barefoot running community. They contribute to the forums regularly. They join groups. The put the word “barefoot’ before their name. Their Facebook profile includes a pic of bare feet (or feet in barefoot shoes.) This group is the Innovators and Early Adopters. This is our community.
There are also people that express curiosity about barefoot running. This group is fundamentally different than the people that expressed interest a year or two ago- they’re the Early Adopters. They’ve heard of barefoot running somewhere. Their source was reliable enough to convince them that this idea is something a lot of people are trying successfully. They’re testing the waters. Based on my observations, the water is pretty chilly.
When I was running in the Across the Years 72 hour race this last weekend, I ran the first 20 miles barefoot. The course was mostly gravel and the sensation started to get annoying. I made the decision to put on some shoes. What happened next was fascinating. Over the course of four or five hours, about twelve people initiated a conversation about barefoot running. NONE approached me when I was barefoot.
The moment it happened, that incongruency stood out like a sore thumb, so I asked a few of them about it. Their response wasn’t too surprising. They didn’t talk to me before because they expected me to be a barefoot fanatic that would condemn them for running in shoes despite the rough gravel.
All of the people I talked to knew at least something about the movement and many actually had experimented with minimalist shoes… er, I mean barefoot shoes. Yet they were incredibly skeptical because of their perception of barefoot runners.
In short, their limited exposure to barefoot runners made them gun-shy about seeking out information or advice from barefoot runners.
We’re limiting our influence with the wider running community that makes up the Early Majority based on their perception of our fanaticism. This is a major issue to anyone interested in spreading this idea. If we’re going to engage the next wave of potential barefoot and natural runners, we need to be aware of our image. The hard-core fanatical schtick is great when playing to the Early Adopter crowd. The Early Majority is a different story- not only is it a flop, it may actually turn people away from the idea of barefoot running.
The “barefoot shoes” issue is a good example. It’s a term the Early Majority has adopted. Some people in the barefoot community understand this, accept it, and have decided to use it to their advantage. Others have rejected it for a variety of reasons. That inability to see the big picture is probably a pretty reliable predictor of the people that will help influence the Early Majority to accept the idea of barefoot and natural running versus those that will turn people off to the idea of barefoot and natural running. I’m hoping more people fall in the former group. If too many of us fall in the latter group, our movement will die.
So… what should be our plan of action? How do Innovators and the Early Adopters adapt to this new wave of interested converts? It’s pretty simple; all it takes is a basic understanding of the rationale behind people’s reasons for exploring barefoot and natural running.
1. Be skeptical of your own beliefs, no matter how strong. This is a biggie. For a long time, many of us automatically rejected the use of shoes for any reason. Some have stuck to that belief. Others have actually tried it, found shoes are required in some conditions, and changed their beliefs accordingly. The Early Adopters may see this as blasphemy because they automatically assume the Innovators are all-knowing… but that’s okay. The Early Adopters will eventually come around once they gain more experience.
2. Know your audience; learn to pick up on subtle cues. When conversing, learn to recognize the difference between the Early Adopters (who will likely agree with you) and Early Majority (which may disagree with you, but are still interested.) The Early Majority is looking for a convincing argument. You have to create a bridge between YOUR world view and THEIR world view… not hammer YOUR world view into their skull. That means openly admitting some of your points may be wrong.
3. Accept that we’re all different and there may be more than one solution. This has been a big one for me personally. For a very long time, I actively fought people wearing shoes while learning to run with good form. I still believe starting barefoot is best for the VAST majority of people, but I concede it is possible to learn with shoes. There are disadvantages, which I convey, but I don’t condone people for doing it. After all, they’re still learning good form, which is my ultimate goal.
4. Avoid dogma. Several of the people I talked to at Across the Years talked about things they’d heard from barefoot runners. The phrases were predictable… they were the dogmatic statements that we repeat without much critical though. The idea behind the statements make sense; they’re the basics we use to teach others. However, when repeated out of context they sound like crazy rants from fanatics. Dogma invigorates the Early Adopters. Dogma turns off the Early Majority. Know your audience before opening your mouth.
Following these four easy steps will help make barefoot runners more appealing to the Early Majority, which will help assure the survival of our movement. If we really want to spread this idea, we have to understand our changing audience and adopt accordingly.
What are your thoughts? Innovators and Early Adopters? What about those of you in the Early Majority? If you just started barefoot or natural running recently, how do you view the barefoot running community?
Share your thoughts in the comments section!