The Butterfly Effect: How Small Decisions Can Change Your Life

The butterfly effect: a term often used within the context of ‘unpredictable systems‘ like the weather and other ‘natural’ systems. For those who don’t know it, the butterfly effect refers to a system being ‘(very) sensitive to changes in its initial conditions‘. As the name implies, think about a butterfly flapping his wings and, because of this small flapping, causes a hurricane to occur at a later point in time and possibly an entirely different region in space. The butterfly in this example is the symbol for how small changes in an earlier stage can cause huge changes to occur at a later point in time.

But can’t this concept be applied to life as well? Think about it: have you ever experienced a small phenomenon occurring – like you receiving a mail, you stumbling upon something on the internet or you meeting a person who happens to change the way you think – that, looking back, has influenced your life significantly? Let’s take the example of you talking to a person who made you change your mind. I can only speak for myself, but I definitely have had a couple of such experiences in my life. Let me give you an example of my life that illustrates the effect utter randomness can have on the course of your life:

I didn’t know what kind of Master to attend after finishing my Bachelors. While thinking about studying economics in Rotterdam (the Netherlands), I came in touch with a professor philosophy of science, who – at the time – was supervising my bachelor thesis. I had always though about attending a Master philosophy somewhere at a university, but I had difficulties with the ‘vague touch’ Philosophy masters tend to have; none of them seemed analytic or logical enough to me.

The professor and I – during one of our supervising sessions – accidentally stumbled on the question what I wanted to do after my Bachelor philosophy; so I told him about my plan to go to Rotterdam. When he asked me why I wanted to study Economics there, I didn’t really know what to say. I said, ‘Well, I always dreamed about studying abroad at a nice university; Oxford, Cambridge or something along those lines. But there don’t really seems to be Masters over there that suit my interests. That is: thinking about the world in a “non-vague” manner.’ He responded, `Have you tried the LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science)? They have a Master Philosophy and Economics and a Master Philosophy of Science. Isn’t that something for you?’ ‘Also,’ he added, ‘A good friend of mine – someone I hang out with on a regular basis – is a member of the selection commission of that Master Philosophy of Science. It might be interesting for you.’ I took a look at this Master and I was sold right away. I applied, got accepted and have studied a year in London.

What if I wouldn’t have talked to this professor about my ambitions? What if I would have had a different thesis supervisor? What if I would have had a headache that day and didn’t feel like talking? Then my future would very likely have looked very differently.

So what can we – or what did I – learn from this story: I learned that I shouldn’t hesitate to take opportunities, no matter how small they might seem. Because those small opportunities might cause a stream of new possibilities to arise later on. And the same goes for the opposite: I should avoid bad actions, no matter how small. I remember that – a couple of years ago – I said something mean to my football trainer, and I have regret it ever since. In other words: small actions can have significant consequences.

But what do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

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