Today is my birthday - I am 44 years old and (I think) still hip. Since it is my birthday and this is my blog and I get to do whatever I want with my blog, I am going to share yet another version of the butterfly effect story with you. This is a new essay on a topic that I write a lot about. If you LOVE the essay, feel free to print it out and stuff it into everyone's mailbox at work. Flap, flap, flap!
The Butterfly Effect
by Lisa Haneberg
In a world that is focused on big things – big business mergers, box office hits, platinum music CDs, super models, best selling books, Humvees, big-box retailers – it’s nice to contemplate the power of the very small. Even more satisfying is the notion that small might be greater than big.
The butterfly effect is a popularized interpretation of one of the key elements of chaos theory and has its roots in something that mathematicians refer to as extreme sensitivity to initial conditions (small and seemingly insignificant changes at the start of a process can produce wildly different and practically unpredictable results). In 1961, American meteorologist Edward Lorenz was working on some of the first computer simulations of weather and wanted to repeat the last steps of a previous simulation. Because computers at that time were slow and difficult to use, Lorenz tried to save time by using the intermediate output from a previous simulation as input for a new simulation. The print out, however, rounded the results to three numbers past the decimal point and so he input .506 instead of entering the full .506127. Lorenz assumed that this minute difference in numbers would not significantly affect the results. To his surprise, the results of the second simulation were vastly different than the first, even though they should have been almost identical. The tiny difference in starting values produced completely different results. Lorenz’s work emphasized how important sensitivity to initial conditions can be in real-world applications such as weather forecasting. In 1963, Lorenz published his findings for the New York Academy of Sciences and spoke at several scientific conferences. He quoted a colleague who said that if Lorenz’s theory were correct, the flap of a seagull's wings could change the weather. He eventually changed this metaphor from a seagull’s wings to a butterfly flap and the butterfly effect was born.
Simply put, the butterfly effect is the notion that something as small as a flap of a butterfly’s wings can make a big impact – like causing a tornado on the other side of the world. The flapping wings move the air and the effect reverberates. If the butterfly hadn’t flapped its wings or had flapped in a different direction or with more or less force, the tornado may not have occurred in the same place or time, or at all.
A sensitivity to initial conditions is one of the defining characteristics of a complex system, like the weather. I am no scientist and realize that I am bastardizing the precise meaning of the mathematics a bit here, but I think that the butterfly effect can help us live better lives. Like the weather, human systems are complex and people are sensitive to conditions. People’s moods are affected by whether they slept well, the traffic, whether their pants feel loose or tight, a smile from the good looking guy in the elevator, eBay auction results and dozens of other small things. We can’t predict what other people will do – even those we know very well - because there are many tiny variables that impact their thoughts and actions. Heck, most of us can’t even predict how we will respond to tomorrow’s challenges. We think we know how we will feel and act on Monday morning, but then a call from our mother-in-law on Sunday night changes everything. We might pass by a family having a picnic and feel the need to call our spouse and apologize for being a jerk earlier in the morning. If the children are being rambunctious, we might turn crankier. Political advertisements work because our opinions and beliefs are malleable and change when we learn new information. In Seattle, a front-runner for a city council position lost her political race because she was arrested for driving while under the influence two weeks before voting day – it was a butterfly flap that reverberated with a lot of folks and not in a good way.
If the butterfly effect applies to human systems, the next logical question is to ask ourselves how we can use the big power of small things to improve our lives. This is not a straightforward process, however, because we cannot predict the outcomes. How do we influence what we can neither control nor forecast? Let’s not forget, too, that we are each a flapping butterfly. Even if we could control and predict our future behavior (which we can’t – we can guess and we can form intentions, but who knows what’s going to happen between now and then that will affect our choices), we have no way of knowing who else might be flapping in our direction.
TV news programs love tragic stories of butterfly flapping gone bad. Road rage that caused a twelve-car pile up and two fatalities. The childhood bullying that turned an otherwise smart kid into a killer. Teenage curiosity about drugs that led to unprotected sex and then a pregnancy that altered the course of a girl’s life and the lives of her grandchildren. Tiny decisions reverberate and the reverberations reverberate and then something happens. BAM, we weigh 300 pounds and it seems like just yesterday we were frolicking in the surf in a yellow string bikini.
The negative stories dominate the news and our memories but the butterfly effect can and has catalyzed wonderful outcomes. Here’s a true story. I was giving a talk at the Fayetteville library in Georgia. Before the talk, I mingled with the group of about twenty. I met a man who was starting a new business, but he had a hard time explaining what it was. Also in the group was a woman who was a freelance marketing communications writer (someone who makes a living explaining businesses). Another woman brought pastries to the talk. People lined up for the pastries. The businessman and writer ended up next to each other in line and they got to talking. POW, the man hired the writer to help explain his business. The head librarian flapped, I flapped, the businessman flapped, the writer flapped, and the woman who made the pastries flapped. All the flaps mattered. Had there been no pastries, the businessman and the writer may never have met.
Here’s another example. A month before our wedding, I asked Bill the following question. If you could live anywhere, doing any kind of work, where would you live and what would you do? To my surprise, Bill said that he would like to live in Seattle and have his own geology consulting business. We lived in New Mexico at the time and he had never mentioned Seattle or starting a business. I flapped a bit more and asked, well, what’s keeping us from doing this? To make this long story short, I applied for a few jobs in Seattle, got an offer from a company that included full relocation benefits, and within six weeks we were living in Seattle and my husband started his own consulting firm. We’ve now been living in Seattle for eight years and Bill’s company is thriving. Looking back to the day I asked the question, all I can do is shake my head and wonder. What would our lives be like if I had not asked this one question? I was just making conversation and was not trying to change the course of things.
This story reminds me of another fascinating aspect of the butterfly effect – we don’t know which flaps will catalyze things the most. We act hundreds of times each day and some of those actions will grow legs and reverberate more than others. Why? We are not the only ones flapping! We might go to a coffee shop on Monday and have a coffee. On Tuesday, we might go to the same coffee shop and meet our soul mate.
Actions lead to reactions - sometimes. We flap our butterfly wings and things happen that we cannot predict or control. If we look back on our lives over the past five years we might be able to piece together the small changes that impacted the larger ones, but often we have no idea. People we don’t know and who don’t know us are flapping today in directions that will change our circumstances next week.
Complex systems – they’re fuzzy, enigmatic and wonderful. And we can put the imperfect unpredictable nature of humanity to work to improve our lives and the planet. The key to harnessing the power of the butterfly effect is that small, daily, directionally correct actions can change the world. Our goals define the futures we want to create. When our flaps are focused and frequent, our energies reverberate in a direction aligned with our goals.
A friend of mine wrote a children’s book that shared a story about how to talk to children of foreign adoption about where they came from and why they are in a new country and with a new family. She and her husband adopted a son from Russia and this book came from her experience. Her goal was to publish it and have all the book’s proceeds benefit the Russian orphanage that took care of her son before she adopted him. When I found out about the book, the manuscript had been tucked away in a file folder for five years. She had told very few people about the project and was not sure how to proceed. She needed an illustrator and a publisher and advice about promotions. I shared her story with a few people at a book signing two days later at a Baltimore library. One of the library employees knew another library employee who illustrated children’s books on the side. She and I connected our two friends and BAM, my friend’s book was plucked out from the dusty hallway closet and she had some momentum toward getting it completed. Just a couple flaps are all that is needed to generate progress.
It is much more powerful to act daily in small ways than to be a weekend warrior who does one or two big things each week. Remember, we don’t know which butterfly flaps will reverberate to eventually catalyze a breakthrough. If you make only the occasional grand gesture, you will reduce the momentum and your chances for success. Twenty or thirty minutes of focused action each day may be all that you need to achieve your goals.
All actions are not equal and some will have a greater potential to produce reverberations. For example, let’s imagine that you are thinking about starting your own business. There are hundreds of actions that you could take that would support this goal. You could do research online, apply for a business license, read books about successful entrepreneurs, meet with potential customers, and network with other small business owners. All of these actions are directionally correct and they all need to be done. Actions that connect two or more people, such as coffee shop networking, are better at gaining legs and reverberating to others who can make a difference to our lives.
Conversations are like invisible relay races. We love to talk about the conversations we have had. We tell our friends about what our others friends are up to and we spread interesting news like butterflies on speed. We talk and things change. If we communicate well and repeatedly, things change quickly – the relay is on and we have hundreds of flapping butterflies on our team. Conversations are the most potent types of butterfly flaps especially when you share your goals and seek diverse input from others.
When we share our goals and intentions with others, they enroll in our vision and can double or triple our reach. You have heard of the self-fulfilling prophecy and the Pygmalion effect, right? Both of these concepts theorize that expectations affect outcomes. If we have low expectations for our children or our selves, we will likely get what we expect – low performance. If we have high expectations, performance will be higher. We rise to the level of expectations. We see this belief play out at work, too. If your manager does not expect excellence, you and your teammates will not likely do your best work. Sharing our goals puts the power of the butterfly effect and the Pygmalion effect to work for our benefit. By sharing your goal to start a new business, you are reinforcing your intentions and the expectations you have for yourself. Each time you verbalize your goal, you hear and commit to it again. And you have friendly butterflies flapping on your behalf. Share your goal with two people each day for one week and you will see what I mean. This simple act – this small thing – has the power to shift your reality.
Remember the example I shared about Bill’s goal to start his own business? That one conversation created a new reality. Sometimes it takes more than one conversation and that’s why we should share our goals with many people. You might even try helping your loved ones along by asking them about their goals. What if you asked your significant other the same question I asked Bill? If you could live anywhere, doing any kind of work, where would you live and what would you do? What might come from this conversation?
When we summon the courage to make requests that will help move our goals forward, our situation can change in an instant. Making requests allows us to shortcut the reverberation process and to move directly toward our preferred future. I think people hesitate to make requests because they don’t want to seem selfish or impose on others. The types of requests that I suggest are not the “give me” kind, although sometimes you should ask for what you want (you never know). I had a friend who wanted to make over $100,000 and work only four days a week. She created a win-win proposal and made the request. She got the job! The best “give me” requests offer win-win solutions that address a compelling need or opportunity.
Most of the time, request conversations should focus on gathering ideas, connections, accommodations, and coaching. Asking someone to spend fifteen minutes with you so that you can pick his or her brain for ideas is a great way to enliven conversations about your goals. Sometimes we need to direct our requests to our significant others to ask for accommodations that will allow us to focus more time and uninterrupted energy on important projects. When was the last time you shared your goals with your significant other and asked him or her to help make your intentions a reality? Think about the last time you helped someone else. It felt great, didn’t it? There are many caring people who would enjoy – and feel great about – helping you, too. Take the help!
While we are on the topic of goals, I think it is important to resist the urge to overdefine them. It is the nature of complex systems that the path forward will bring surprises and opportunities that we do not see today. If we define success too rigidly, we are more likely to overlook wonderful alternative paths. It is best when goals are inspiring and we are nimble. Like weather systems, predictions about our lives get less accurate the further out forecast.
Remember Lorenz’s calculations? The tiniest of changes of the initial inputs – from .506127 to .506 – resulted in two very different weather predictions. Each day is an initial input for our future. Sensitivity to initial conditions means that actions taken today create the sunshine and storms of tomorrow. During my day job as a business consultant, I work with leaders and businesses to help them improve results. I see a lot of new systems that tout the promise to increase success. I have been doing this work for twenty-five years and I have seen nothing that comes close to the power of the butterfly effect. Sometimes the simplest answer is the answer.
Flap, flap, flap.
Note: If you made it this far, you might enjoy my book, Two Weeks to a Breakthrough, which will tell you - in detail - how to put the butterfly effect to use in your life. Don't tell my other publishers, but this book remains my favorite.