What Lights You Up and What Breaks Your Heart?

Artist, philanthropist and businesswoman Tasha Wahl of the Butterfly Project | Image courtesy of Tasha Wahl
BY GAYLE JO CARTER August 19, 2019

Can one butterfly flapping her wings inspire us to make a difference? Spark change? Start a movement? Artist, philanthropist and businesswoman Tasha Wahl believes it can and she‘s proving it with her Butterfly Drops and life-sized interactive Butterfly Installations seen all over the world. At the heart of the movement  is the micro-philanthropy Butterfly Drop in which an artist [aka: a person wanting to do good] decorates a wooden butterfly provided by Butterfly Effect and then hides it in anywhere in the world. Once found, a donation is made to a non-profit organization of the finder’s choice. The butterfly is a memento for the finder to keep, but what resonates is “change that will bring hope, rebirth, faith and love to the world,” believes Wahl. In a recent interview, she spoke to Aspire about the story behind her movement; how to discover and ignite your own passions; and the secrets to turning failures into wins.

Q. What is your vision for The Butterfly Effect?

The Butterfly Effect is based on Edward Lorenz’s theory that when a butterfly flaps her wings on one side of the universe, it moves a molecule of air, which moves another molecule of air, which moves another molecule of air, that in turn can start a hurricane on the other side of the world. It’s the idea that each of us makes a difference every day with our small, individual actions that collectively create a hurricane — whether positive or negative.

We ask ourselves, “What are we going to do? Because every action does actually matter.”

With the Butterfly Effect movement, we are trying to create small acts of contagious generosity that will blossom into a “Pay It Forward” movement that generates real and meaningful positive change. It’s not about this one particular thing you do. Rather, the Butterfly Effect is about awakening and empowering individuals to get curious about what motivates their own generosity and then inspiring them to embody the change they want to see in the world. 

Q. How did your movement begin?

It’s really fun for me to share my story. This was all just a small idea I had sitting in a living room full of kids trying to explain the concept of tithing. I have three boys and we always have [more] kids over. One day we were sitting around talking and they had never heard the word “tithe” before. I knew if I explained it in this dry, intellectual way, it wouldn’t mean much to them. So, I thought, “What can I do that will engage these kids, what will get them up off the couch?”

It gave me the idea of doing a geocache for charity. I used the visual of a butterfly because growing up my dad called me “butterfly” and because I loved the idea of Edward Lorenz’s Butterfly Effect. I asked the kids to go out to find this hidden butterfly. If they found it, they in turn get to pay it forward as I would make a donation in their name to their favorite cause. 

It required them to ask themselves what they really care about: “What lights me up? What breaks my heart? What are the things that are so messed up in the world that I have to change?” And now that I have $100 to do something about it – where do I want to give it?” This small idea has inspired other people to say, “I’m going to act on that idea I have.”

Q. How do you know if it’s working?

I don’t think it really matters if it works all the time. You don’t often know if this small idea you have in your head will work but you have to keep on trying. You don’t know what spark is actually going to light the fire. I think about trying to start a fire with a piece of flint and a stone – there are all these sparks, but only one needs to catch the kindling. So, if we don’t keep trying ideas, we don’t know what will actually work. And there are so many different, wonderful ways positive change can work! One of the things that’s been fun for me to watch with every school and every organization that has either taken on Butterfly Drops or the Social Butterfly is how beautifully different their own version of a movement becomes. 

"You don’t often know if this small idea you have in your head will work but you have to keep on trying. You don’t know what spark is actually going to light the fire. I think about trying to start a fire with a piece of flint and a stone – there are all these sparks, but only one needs to catch the kindling. So, if we don’t keep trying ideas, we don’t know what will actually work."

Q. What’s your role once a group takes on a Butterfly Drop?

I believe in giving it to other communities to make it their own. I’m just the flint, and in fact that’s what I love to do.  For me, it’s about planting and nourishing a seed. It’s the gift of saying, “Here’s a little bud of this little plant and I give it to you, now you make it grow.” Small ideas work when you share your excitement about it, and it becomes contagious. People get excited about somebody else’s passion. There’s no better way to ignite a small idea then by getting passionate about it and sharing it with other people. Small ideas are often better than big ideas, because they are less overwhelming.  

If I had known what the Butterfly Effect was going to turn into on the day I geocached that one wooden butterfly and thought, “This is the beginning of a huge movement” it would have been overwhelming. Instead, I thought, “Let me just try this one little thing and see what happens.” And every Butterfly Drop I did, I learned and incorporated another lesson and eighteen months later the American Cancer Society asked to do 5,000 Butterfly Drops at all of their Relays for Life. So sometimes it’s just those tiny ideas that are light enough to catch the wind and fly.

Q. How do others learn about the Butterfly Effect? 

It’s usually word of mouth, by people sharing something they think is inspiring. Butterfly Effect is starting to be covered in some newspapers, blogs, articles and podcasts but the way most people find me is by seeing one of our Social Butterflies somewhere and thinking, “We can do that, we could have one in our community.” It’s an immediately empowering and interactive idea. People can see that Social Butterflies aren’t just beautiful and cool, they are also accessible for anyone to do, anywhere. People find me because they love the concept and idea and they want to know how they can do it for their own community.

Q. Are the small projects enough? What is the bigger goal?

My big message is passion. The small projects spark the big projects but the big projects, they reach a greater group of people. So yes, it would be neat if people keep on putting Social Butterflies up or do Butterfly Drops everywhere, but of course it would be so much more impactful if this became a global movement. I mean, what if everyone was looking for these little tiny wooden butterflies that were also acts of charity? Imagine you are in New York on the subway and you see a butterfly stuck in the space between seats or if you were in a library and there was a butterfly  between the books or if you were in Washington, D.C. and there was a butterfly propped up against a statue at the Mall — all as active symbols for people to be both saying – and hearing – on an individual level, “I believe in hope. I believe in goodness.”

Q. What are your biggest challenges?  How do you overcome them?

I’ve had as many failures along the way as I’ve had successes. With the Butterfly Effect, one challenge I’ve run into is that as it’s grown, I have been pressed to figure out other ways to fund it, such as finding corporate sponsors. When I had to do the 5,000 Butterfly Drops for the American Cancer Society, that was a major logistical and funding challenge. How do I get 5,000 butterflies? Can my little Etsy vendor, who normally makes me 25 butterflies a month, figure out a way to get me 5,000 wooden butterflies? How we are we going to fund that? How are we going to advertise it? As with any challenge I’ve faced, I did it bit by bit. There are so many seeming obstacles that have appeared in my life, but what I’ve learned is that for every stumbling block, there is somebody who will come across my path that knows how to help me solve that problem. It has become a collaboration — both with other people and with my own faith in how the universe unfolds. 

Now, every time something big comes up, I think, “Oh, who will I meet to help me solve this problem?” Who might have a gift to solve this particular problem that I don’t have? Because my gift is to plant seeds and start sparks. I don’t know how to do the other big things. When I started my Social Butterflies, and people started wanting them all over the country — places I couldn’t travel to — I had no idea how I was going to create a stencil to help people paint them independently.  I remember thinking, “‘Okay, how am I going to do this?” Then I realized I could get stencils made and shipped out to people and create an instructional video but to do all that, I would have to collaborate. So, for me, the problems mean that it’s not all about me. This isn’t my project. This is a movement that many, many people are excited about and involved in and the more people that get involved, the better that it is. 

Q. How do you stay motivated through a bad day or stumbling blocks?

My family. The Butterfly Effect is a passion project for me. It’s something I just took on and it was this small idea that took off. My husband and I started a business from scratch 15 years ago that has grown into a fulfilling and successful vocation. I’ve created a startup before and I know there are going to be bad days and I’ll want to quit and feel like it’s a failure, and I also know that the way to respond to that feeling is to just go to bed and get up tomorrow and welcome whatever small thing will come along and make me feel better.

I read a lot and I’m inspired by people’s failures as much as I am by their successes. Failure is where you grow. For me, this learning has been a process. In two years, I will be 50 and in my lifetime, I’ve been involved in things I felt were failures at the time but actually turned out to be a step to get to the next place I needed to be. 

I’ve also learned that when something in business isn’t working out, it’s best to try to operate out a place of gratitude. I’ll think, “Let me think of three things that I’m grateful for in the midst of this crisis.” Then I can operate out of a space of gratitude and abundance. Then, I’m not defying joy. I’m noticing that it’s right around the corner. It’s so easy for us to get caught up in a bad day because things can be really, really crappy but I have a teacher that taught me a long time ago that when things are at their worst, just think about what you are grateful for. Focus on that and you’ll be able to find your hope. 

Tasha Wahl at one of the Social Butterfly Installations in Brooklyn, NY | Image courtesy of The Butterfly Effect website

Q. What are your Top Tips for everyday people that want to make change? 

1. I would ask them to really sit down with the two questions that I ask everyone involved with Butterfly Effect. “What lights you up?” Essentially, what makes you so happy that you have to do it? What is that thing that you get up in the morning and are so excited to get up and do it this week? And the second question is, “What breaks your heart?” The heart of that one is to ask yourself what is so messed up in the world that you can’t let it happen anymore, that you feel you have to have some small part in fixing it. Everybody has the answer within them to those two questions, whether it’s cancer, the homeless, animals, educating young girls, global warming. 

I really encourage people to write their answers to those two questions or better yet, have a conversation around the dinner table with your family because they know you, and they’ll really help you flush it out. When you really know these two things about yourself, you are tapping into what you were put on this Earth to do and it almost always has nothing to do with your profession. If it does, that’s incredible. That’s where this concept of the gift of 10% comes from. I deeply believe that 90 percent of your time and 90 percent of your resources are yours to do with what you please, but 10 percent should go to that thing that you figured out. For many people, it really is the thing that breaks their heart that compels them to give. For me, it lights me up when I get to encourage other people to figure out what their dreams are and helping them happen. And it breaks my heart when people don’t have access to someone in their lives who believes in their ability, and who is there to encourage and inspire them.

2. I would ask people to ask themselves these two questions and then consider giving 10 percent. Just try for one month to give 10 percent of your resources, your time, or your talents to whatever that thing is. It truly doesn’t matter what the cause is.  If it’s the homeless, take your paycheck, keep 90 percent, take 10 percent and go buy socks or toothpaste or books or whatever is needed and go hand it out while looking people in the eye. Or spend 10 percent of your time volunteering at a shelter, checking people in, feeding them, and talking to them. Or donate a bit of your talent by doing something like putting together a really cool bag that makes people feel good. Or maybe you’re a chef and you want to make them a homemade sandwich. Find a way to be with the people you are serving as you are learning to be with this part of yourself. 

When you start doing that, then you know the difference that you want to make, and you’ll start coming up with other ideas. You’ll be with like-minded people who share your passion and where there are two or more, you have a much greater capacity to affect real change. It starts as a spark and many sparks together ignite a fire. 

3. Collaborating is huge because you get tired when you feel like you have to take it on by yourself. As women, we are so good at multitasking, we are so good at doing it all ourselves. The more you identify as “successful,” the stronger this feeling can be.  The reason we’re successful is because we get stuff done. We wear a lot of hats: we’re moms, we’re businesswomen, we’re partners. We’re constantly trying to be several different people all at once because we think it’s easier than asking someone else for help. At least that’s been my experience. 

So often when we think it’s just easier to do it ourselves than try and go find someone to collaborate with, we are losing the gift of being with other people and allowing them to come in and help us build something. We lose the joy of “oh, we did it together.” It’s so much better when you’re able to share and collaborate with another person.  My team is imperative. They’re all passionate and they love this project for their own reasons. I have a writer, a web designer and an assistant. These are women that have come into my life that make the Butterfly Effect better. This would be a very one-dimensional project if I tried to do it all myself. Thank goodness I’ve realized that it can become so much more beautiful and powerful when I add other people’s talents to it.

4. Don’t give up at the first failure. I would really give it a try at least five times. If after the fifth time whatever this thing you’re trying to do doesn’t work, then take a fresh look at it and try to revamp it. The first two or three times is really just about figuring out your process. Don’t give up. Try and see obstacles as opportunities. If you view your obstacles as opportunities to learn, not as failures, but more like, “Oh that was interesting. I wonder why that didn’t work the way that I thought?  Let me try this again,” you will learn and grow and succeed. After five times you might say, “Okay, something in this idea or this vision isn’t working. I’m going to take a rest and look at it again a little later and see if there’s a different way to do it.”  

I’m constantly learning, experiencing both failures and successes, sometimes at the same time, and the Butterfly Effect is evolving right along with me. But these things have served me in me well in my own journey in trying to be the change I want to see in the world.



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