The Butterfly Effect

Dr. Randy Watts
In each of your lives, you will have many butterfly effects. You will make small decisions — perhaps inconsequential at the time — that will impact the trajectory of your life. Further, it may impact the lives of those around you.
Blog: The Butterfly Effect

You may be familiar with the term “The Butterfly Effect.” It was coined by Scientist Edward Lorenz to explain how minor disturbances — such as the flap of the wings of a butterfly — can impact weather patterns halfway across the globe. He maintained that it was ultimately impossible to predict the weather due to the large number of factors that could determine the outcome.

The Butterfly effect has been linked with “chaos theory” in physics. Very small changes can make a big difference in a dynamic system. Despite our advanced technology, there are too many variables to predict exactly what will happen in the future of weather — and many other types of phenomenons.

Personally, when I think about the butterfly effect, I think about the fact that any one of us can make small changes that can, potentially, have a huge impact on the lives of others.

Here are a few stories to illustrate that idea:

In 1905, a young man applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Unfortunately for him and for us, he was rejected — twice. That aspiring art student was Adolf Hitler, who after his rejection, was forced to live in the slums of the city, where his anti-Semitism grew. Instead of fulfilling his dreams as an artist, he joined the German Army. Adolf Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust, which resulted in the deaths of more than six million people.
On November 22, 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Had he not been wearing a back brace, he would have slumped down following the first bullet, thereby avoiding the second fatal bullet to the head.

Several years ago, a sociology student in college wanted to find a way to reduce greenhouse emissions. He noted that most cars are in use about 2% of the time. He conceived of a rideshare program in which prospective passengers could contact prospective car owners who could drive them to their destination. Now, Uber and Lyft have more car seats available than any other company, but ironically, these companies are not responsible for owning or maintaining a single car, since the drivers use their own transportation.

In 2008, two roommates living in New York City faced an unexpected 25% increase in their rent — which had already been expensive. Desperate for income, they conceived of the idea of renting air mattresses in their apartment to guests and providing them breakfast and tours of the city. The concept of renting air mattresses — Air Bed and Breakfast — evolved into Airbnb. That company, now worth $25 billion, has more rooms for rent than any hotel chain and does not own a single building.

I want to share with you a butterfly effect that may have impacted my life.

Almost 21 years ago, on December 13, 1997, I was invited to a Christmas party. I was tired and almost decided not to attend. In a last-minute decision, I made the trek through the snow of Northern Virginia to visit with some old friends. As I entered the house, Nadia Schulman, a friend of mine from college, was walking down the stairs. I walked up at the same moment and greeted her. Our eyes locked and, in that that moment, we would later disclose to one another that we knew we would spend the rest of our lives together.

In each of your lives, you will have many butterfly effects. You will make small decisions — perhaps inconsequential at the time — that will impact the trajectory of your life. Further, it may impact the lives of those around you.

The parable of the Good Samaritan also demonstrates the butterfly effect. In the story, when a man is robbed and wounded by thieves, he is ignored by two people until a third person comes along. This person, forever remembered as the Good Samaritan, heals the man’s wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his stay and recovery. They had never met before but were clearly connected as neighbors.

As we enter this Christmas season, think about all of the opportunities that you have to make small, yet positive impacts on other’s lives. One gesture of kindness; one move of support; one initiation of additional effort can make all of the difference.

Consider that the seemingly random events that connect us to one another may be God’s grace to help us make truly special and impactful connections.

I shared this message as a devotion to Brookwood’s Middle and Upper School students on November 30, 2018.

Located in Thomasville, GA, Brookwood School is a private school for grades JK-12. Students benefit from a challenging academic program, fine and performing arts, competitive athletics, and a wide selection of extracurricular activities.