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Analogy: What’s a Trillion Really Mean?

By Peter Jeff
The Leadership Mints Guy

        Let’s peek into a college astronomy freshman class and  see how this teacher/leader is helping a student better grasp the concept of a light year.  The student knows the definition of a light year as the distance light travels in one year. But he wonders: “How far is that anyway?”

      Making abstract concepts more concrete is a critical skill of the most effective leaders. The most effective leaders develop meaningful and memorable analogies. Read on to refresh your thinking on constructing an analogy that your followers can follow.

   186,282 Miles Per Second

Light travels 5.87 trillion miles in a year

        How far is a light year? About 6 trillion miles. The astronomy professor guided the student in processing the  calculation  with these steps:

  1. Light travels at 186,282 miles per second.
  2.  There are 86,400 seconds in  day.
  3. Multiply steps  1 and 2 and you get the number of miles light travels in a day.
  4. Multiply that daily distance by 365 days and you get the number of miles light travels in a year.

    “I did all that and I get 5.87 trillion,” said the student. “So a light year is 5.87 trillion miles.  But what’s  a trillion? “

                         The professor responded:  “Well, a trillion is 1 followed by 12 zeroes. It’s  a thousand billions in the United States and England and a billion billions in Germany and a few other countries.”

          The student objected: “Wait a minute, all I want to really understand is what’s a trillion. That’s way too big a number for me to get my head around. And don’t tell me it’s a thousand billions or a million millions.”

Spending a Million Dollars As Fast As You Can

       The professor fumbled for an answer.  “Let me give that some more thought and I will have an answer for you at our next class.”

       The next class  the professor was ready with a relevant analogy — something the student could  identify with, something the student could readily understand. The professor posits:   “Let’s say you win  a million dollars. The catch is you have to spend it all as fast as you can. Or lose it.”

      Now the professor clearly had the student’s interest in trying to explain the concept of a trillion.

1. Let’s say you could spend your million dollars at the rate of the  speed of light or 186,282 miles (or $186,282 ) per second. It would take you 5.36 seconds to blow through a million dollars.

2. “Now let’s say you won a billion dollar shopping spree. It would take you nearly 90 minutes to blow through a billion dollars.

3.  “Now, let’s let’s say you won a trillion-dollar shopping spree. It would take you 62 days to finally spend  a trillion dollars.”

 So what 4.5 seconds is
to a million,
90 minutes is
to a billion, and
62 days is
to a trillion.

       That range gives some meaning of the scope and dimension of a trillion. Here’s another way of conceiving and contrasting  the vast expanse of a trillion to a number we can understand like a million:

1.  A million seconds is 11.5 days.
2.  A billion second is 32 years.
3.  A trillion seconds is 32,000 years.

Stack of $1,000 bills 68 Miles High

        And here’s another way to conceive of a trillion.

1. If you had a stack of $1,000 bills, a million dollars would be 4 inches high.
2. If you had a stack of $1,000 bills, a billion dollars would be 358 feet high.
3. If you had a stack of $1,000 bills, a trillion dollars would be 68 miles high.

            The key leadership skill is adapting your message to the audience’s (students/employees/followers) frame of reference.  Analogies can build a bridge of understanding between what one knows and what one is trying to understand in terms he or she already understands.

          Do you think the professor’s million-dollar shopping spree concept works in helping us understand what a trillion really means? I look forward to learning from you what  other analogies you have  used to gain greater understanding  of a trillion.

 Today’s ImproveMINT:

Use analogy to gain better buy in and keep your leadership skills in mint condition.

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When REPLYing, send TO PeterJeff@charter.net.

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