On the Wings of Butterflies

After recently attending a college reunion I have a renewed appreciation for what’s known in chaos theory as “Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions” (SDIC)—aka, the “Butterfly Effect.” Simply put, tiny variations of an initial condition in a dynamic system can produce huge variations in the system’s later behavior. By this theory a butterfly flapping its wings in China can produce—through a lengthy cause-and-effect chain—alterations in weather patterns in North America. Leaving aside the arcane science and calculus involved (or the validity of the butterfly example itself), SDIC, when applied to human events, lets us play an interesting game of “What if?” For instance, whose flapping wings triggered the world-wide recession? (Many answers, of course.)

But it can be more fun to apply SDIC to personal events in our own lives, as we did at my reunion. For example, what if we had a different teacher in school who didn’t inspire us to dive into mechanical engineering or information technology or political science, which we may still be engaged in ten—or forty—years later? What if we didn’t sell ads for our student newspaper, leading us into a career in sales or advertising or publishing? What if we didn’t attend that Saturday night mixer (are they still called “mixers”?) and didn’t meet our future life partner?

In my case, the simple act of oversleeping what would have been my induction into the U.S. Army as an undergraduate member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (not to mention my joining a campus rock & roll band that blasted me into the music business) clearly contributed—according to my relatives anyway—to my eventual moral decline. (My becoming a management consultant years later, of course, represents rock bottom.) So … was there a seemingly insignificant event in your life—perhaps in your school years if you’re out of school now—that has since changed EVERYTHING?

John OLeary posted this on July 6, 2009, in Brand You.
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