Yesterday I posted a link to Atul Gawande’s commencement address at the University of Chicago Medical School. It’s a must-read on the subject of health insurance, but he makes a point in the middle that I think is worth calling out and discussing on its own.

He discusses a charitable organization that worked to improve childhood nutrition in Vietnam:

They went to villages in trouble and got the villagers to help them identify who among them had the best-nourished children—who among them had demonstrated what Jerry Sternin termed a “positive deviance” from the norm. The villagers then visited those mothers at home to see exactly what they were doing.

Just that was revolutionary. The villagers discovered that there were well-nourished children among them, despite the poverty, and that those children’s mothers were breaking with the locally accepted wisdom in all sorts of ways—feeding their children even when they had diarrhea; giving them several small feedings each day rather than one or two big ones; adding sweet-potato greens to the children’s rice despite its being considered a low-class food. The ideas spread and took hold. The program measured the results and posted them in the villages for all to see. In two years, malnutrition dropped sixty-five to eighty-five per cent in every village the Sternins had been to. Their program proved in fact more effective than outside experts were.

This is an incredibly powerful message for everyone. Observe your peers who are achieving better results than you are and imitate them. If you don’t understand what they’re doing, ask them. It’s a big reason why pair programming can be a good thing. It’s why screencasts are a good way to learn.

The trick is making sure that the people you’re imitating really are positive deviants. In college I had a roommate who was so smart that he could make perfect scores without any studying beyond cramming. Imitating his study habits didn’t serve me well at all.