Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Reluctant Butterfly Effect

Decide, and do, don't wait!

For a long time, I have known that it's often the seemingly small decisions which, in the end, turn out to be defining moments in life. This is tragicomic, since we want the opposite to be true, that our defining moments are pinnacles of careful reasoning and balanced reflection, and that these deep sessions of consideration determine where we wind up. But it's not the case, if we're honest. We know it's often been the quick, offhand, spontaneous choice which started the journey that we find ourselves on still.

For example, on December 30, 1993, I was standing in a corner near the Mayan ruins of Palenque, in Mexico, chatting with a French couple. They mentioned that they were heading to San Cristóbal de los Casas in their rental car, and asked if I wanted to ride along. It was still early in the day, and only a couple hundred kilometers, and also, it was a place I wanted to visit. I had already checked out the bus schedule. They seemed kind, and fun, and to this day I can't really say why I declined. It would have been more in my character to hop in and go with them. If anything, it may have been my vague plans for the connections I had mapped out to get where I was going, and San Cristóbal was sort of in the opposite direction, although I wasn't in any real hurry, and could have easily rerouted. So I said non, merci, and the next day the Zapatista uprising began. I had a 35mm camera and a bag with many rolls of film. The photos I took of the ruins on that trip are some of my favorites. But I always wonder what would have happened if I had chosen to take the ride with the nice French couple to San Cristóbal, and filled those rolls with uprising photos instead. A path not taken, one tiny choice.

The small choices add up. This is my version of the butterfly effect, the idea that a butterfly moving its wings causes distant effects. This is true, uncomfortably so, but is more apparent in retrospect. After all, it's not like every small choice turns out to be a life-changer, so in looking back, the ones that had significant consequences stand out, while the other ones retain their minor status of little significance. Although, a corollary to the butterfly effect is the unknown consequences domino chain, where small decisions you make have some major downstream effect that you never know about, for someone else. But that's another post.

For this post, I want to connect up with concept of activation energy. I was reminded of it by a motivational speaker on a PBS fundraising drive, but I've heard it, and similar ideas, from Leo Babauta, who somewhat amazingly has a latest post up on almost the same topic(!), as well as other speakers and bloggers. The activation energy version for getting started on something basic goes like this: there's something you want to do, go for a bike ride for example, but somehow you just never do it. Perhaps it's learning a new skill that seems interesting to you, the speaker on PBS was telling about trying to learn how to play the guitar. What he found was that he wasn't starting the course to learn the guitar because he had stored the guitar in a closet that was twenty or thirty seconds away from the chair where he had pictured himself practicing. He found that by taking the guitar out the closet and putting it in a guitar stand next to the practice chair, he began practicing. Simply by removing the twenty second delay that was acting as some kind of barrier to getting started.

I thought about this a lot, and it seems like a deep aspect of our psychology: that a twenty second delay of some kind, typically of distance or inconvenience, serves as barrier for us to starting some new thing we want to do. The bicycle which is blocked by boxes of junk. The tool you know is there but you can't quite put your hand on. That twenty seconds acts to feed some resistance or reluctance to change, and rather than starting, we fall back on the older, more convenient habits. That twenty seconds, in fact, often serves to kick off a much longer process of rationalization and negative self-dialog which far outgrow the seedling twenty seconds, and often the time and effort of the Thing Not Started itself. 

Putting these two concepts together, I picture a butterfly sitting on a leaf with its wings folded. It wants to start, to fly somewhere, to begin, but its wings remain still. It waits twenty seconds to see what happens, but nothing new does. No flapping occurs, no distant effects are triggered. It is reluctant, it has doubts. It remains. It seeks out no nectar, pollinates no flowers, does not reproduce. Self-conscious, anxious about those distant, possible storms, it does nothing. Another twenty seconds pass thinking of distant thunder. By not flapping its wings, by not causing that weather event on the opposite side of the world (I think that's the base case "butterfly effect"), it also does not cause thousands of seeds to be made, or create thousands of offspring by reproducing, thereby not causing thousands of further downstream butterfly effects. I want him to move his wings. I want him to fly, to cause those unforeseen distant effects. But the twenty seconds of reluctance has overcome him.

The new, improved, redesigned, primary fixture of urban improvement (these things are everywhere)

What's awe-inspiring, humbling, and even wacky about the reluctant butterfly effect (rbe) is when you consider its implications for your own future, your own path ahead. It's sometimes overwhelming when we face major decisions to start something major, and that's probably understandable, when they involve a career change, major amounts of money, significant change, all that. Some level of procrastination is understandable when it amounts to a strategic delay in preparation for major action.

But the rbe is not primarily about those, merely this: overcoming that twenty seconds of reluctance to start something new can turn out to be a life-changing event, even when the new thing is seemingly minor or small. Because we won't know until it plays out if that turns out to be one of the small life-changing decisions that in retrospect are turning points. 

That realization suddenly became a force for me to overcome those twenty seconds of reluctance whenever they occur. I am jumping into seemingly small action without hesitation; I'm jumping into the work even when it seems trivial, because you never know. You may see me in constant rearranging mode. I am making the future by removing small barriers to starting small new things. I'm making seeds, I'm gathering nectar, I'm flapping my wings. I'll not get caught on the boring end of the rbe.The weather on the other side of my future world, baby: I'm making it, with trembling wings. No rbe here.


  1. I'm using my 20 seconds to post a comment on this blog. Maybe two comments. And that 20 seconds of action will hopefully lead me towards other 20 second action events and maybe soon I'll be flapping into a new future. Thanks in advance for the positive consequences.


Please feel free to comment here, almost anything goes, except for obvious spam or blatantly illegal or objectionable material. Spammers may be subject to public ridicule, scorn, or outright shaming, and the companies represented in spam shall earn disrepute and ire for each occurrence.