As a trainer and executive coach, I have seen thousands of tiny acts make big differences. It’s very cool to observe. The question that turns the meeting on its end. The sudden inspiration to visit a museum that leads to a career change. The phone calls you make day after day and that finally pay off big. The new method that becomes your signature. Sometimes the impact is immediate, like when a blogger posts about his favorite new gadget and sales go through the roof in under and hour. Sometimes the big affects are delayed, like when you rediscover your youthful ambitions by strolling though an old photo album.
Often, our small actions start a chain reaction of other actions that build and develop until – POW – something happens.
- A job opening is posted at your company. It’s not exactly a match to your past experience, but you find this job highly appealing.
- You decide not to apply.
- You mention the job to your wife at dinner. She picks up in the tone of your voice that you want to apply and encourages you.
- You don’t apply.
- The next day, you go for a walk during lunch and see street performers. You decide to apply for the promotion.
- You don’t get the job. The news is tough to take because you had already mentally moved out of your current job. It’s no longer interesting or challenging.
- Over the next few months, you go to more association functions and talk to people in a different way than you used to.
- Prior to the job posting, you went to these functions and acted like a smug jerk (you weren’t looking for a job). But now you want to learn about what’s going on and whether the grass might actually be greener somewhere else.
- You click with a couple people. You exchange cards and a few emails. You have coffee with a like-minded colleague who works right around the corner from your office.
- She just heard ABC is launching a new division. She can tell that your interest is piqued and suggests you call ABC and ask for information.
- You put off making the call.
- You mention the ABC project to your wife and she can see in your eyes you want to call. She encourages you to call.
- You don’t call.
- You read an article about Richard Branson’s new Spaceport venture in New Mexico.
- Your boss does something stupid at work.
- You make a call and talk to the expansion leader at ABC. As it turns out, you met him at an association function a couple months ago and sat at the same table for dinner. Luckily for you, this occurred after you stopped being a smug jerk at these meetings.
- You have coffee with him the next day and – POW – your career takes a new and exciting direction.
Tiny snowflakes that together create an avalanche of change. If any one action did not occur, the outcome would have been very different.
This idea that small changes can make a big difference is nothing new to those of you who follow chaos theory. The butterfly effect is a widely popularized interpretation of one of the key elements of chaos theory. Simply put, the butterfly effect says that something as seemingly insignificant as a butterfly flapping its wings in the rainforests of Brazil has the potential to trigger a tornado in Texas. The flapping wings stir the air and the effect grows into a meteorological event of epic proportions. If the butterfly hadn’t flapped its wings, the tornado wouldn’t have occurred. If the butterfly had flown in a different direction or been in Tahiti instead of Brazil, maybe the result would have been a typhoon in the South Pacific or a hailstorm in Russia instead of a tornado in Texas.
The butterfly effect has its roots in something that mathematicians refer to as extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. That means that even small and seemingly insignificant changes at the start of a process described by certain kinds of equations can produce wildly different and practically unpredictable results. During the early 1960s, American meteorologist Edward Lorenz was developing some of the first computer simulations of weather and wanted to repeat the last steps of a previous simulation. Because computers of the time were slow and difficult to use, one day Lorenz tried to save some time by using the intermediate output from a previous simulation as input for a new simulation. Doing so would save him the trouble of repeating calculations that weren’t of interest and give him the results he needed. Or so Lorenz thought. To his surprise, the results of his second simulation were much different than the results of his first simulation even though they should have been virtually identical. Lorenz eventually discovered the source of the difference: the first simulation used results calculated to six decimal places but he used value rounded to three decimal places as input for the second simulation. That small difference in starting values produced two completely different sets of results. Mathematicians had long known about sensitivity to initial conditions, but Lorenz’s work emphasized how important they can be in real-world applications such as weather forecasting.
Although Lorenz originally quoted a colleague who had made reference to the flapping of seagull wings, he eventually switched to butterflies and used the title “Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” for a presentation at the 1972 meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science. The practical implication is not literally that a butterfly can cause a tornado half a world away, but rather that sensitivity to initial conditions makes long-term weather forecasting a practical impossibility.
Lorenz eventually simplified his model and reduced the number of equations from twelve to three. He discovered that in addition to having sensitivity to initial conditions, for certain input values the system would change over time but repeatedly return to certain states or combinations of variables known as attractors. Scientists and mathematicians working on chaos theory have since discovered many other kinds of attractors, but the particular set discovered by Lorenz continue to bear his name and are often used as a classic example of deterministic chaos.
Chaos theory is cool. We can see a sensitivity to initial conditions in many aspects of our lives. Small changes in new employee orientation reduces turnover. Getting good running shoes reduces injuries and could impact the overall health of someone 15 years later. A new job is posted. Little things can make a big difference.
There are three beliefs that will help you put the big power of small actions to work in creating breakthroughs and generating a life you love. The first belief is that you are not in control. You need to let go of any need to know which action, or combination of actions, is going to make things happen. In chaotic systems, and your life is a chaotic system, you are not in control. Some actions will impact the system and others won’t seem to make any difference at all. They may become important at a later time or never.
Instead of trying to control what you cannot, focus on putting lots of directionally aligned actions out into the world. This is where the power of small actions repeatedly applied comes into play. You don’t want to waste time with actions that do not line up with your goals. Focus is always important. If you can take a few small and aligned actions every day, you will experience breakthroughs and produce great results.
The second belief I recommend you adopt is that you will be more successful if you take act from a position of sincerity, passion, service orientation, and gratitude. The magical and mystical powers of small actions will flourish more when people sense that you are working on something larger than yourself. If you believe that you are somehow entitled or due for a breakthrough, this will come through in your actions and dull their affect. This belief gets to the question of why you do what you do. What’s driving you to succeed? If you need to see a tangible result from every action you take, you are measuring success in a way that will hinder your success.
The third belief that will serve you is that life is about the journey not the goal. Ten years from now, you will recall and tell stories about your experiences along the way, not the end result. Goals and aspirations provide some focus for how to live today and you need focus to feel great about where you are heading. Where you end up is not nearly as important as how you got there. Pour your energy and focus into today’s journey. If you do this, your tomorrow will be much better. When you adopt this belief, you will increase the power and appeal of your little actions. Small deeds can be done today. They exist in the present.
Flap your butterfly wings. Flap, flap, flap. Each small action is another flap. You never know the impact each tiny flap might have. Today’s flap might catalyze tomorrow’s blizzard of changes. Who knows what possible!