The foundation of chaos theory is that small changes lead to giant ones over time. This is often referred to as that butterfly effect — a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can lead to a tornado in Texas. It’s a weird concept that I’ve been in love with since I first heard about when I was in 9th grade. So much so that I went on to get my doctorate in the math behind it. It also became the foundation for my love of working with data
I’d like you to take a moment and think about a significant event. Maybe it was the first time you exchanged glances with a future loved one. Maybe a time you almost stepped off the curb and was narrowly missed being hit by a car. Maybe it’s a moment where the only way of rationalizing it is to say that you were at the right place at the right time. Now think about all the infinitesimally small changes that led up to that event or could have led to the event not happening.
It’s a hard thing to get our mind wrapped this kind of complexity. But that’s chaos theory.
So what does chaos theory tell us about how to think about planning, our choices, and resiliency? Simply put, you can’t be wedded to a single plan — it’s chaotic. Because the small changes manifest into the large changes, you have to quickly adjust to a rapidly changing set of conditions. A way to think about it is that you’re on trajectory in life that’s like a roller coaster ride, you’re just not sure which one you’re on. In a chaotic world Option A is great, but you damn well be ready for option B. And options C, D, E, F, G H, I and J.
Like many of us, I had an Option A when I graduated from high school — go to a great college and major in something that would help me get a job. Except for one problem, I really wasn’t very good at math in high school. Ok I plain sucked. I sucked so bad, that I didn’t get into any of the colleges I wanted to go to. Luckily, I had two things going for me: a great local community college and a girlfriend who was highly motivated in taking hard classes. Luckily for me, one of those classes she signed up for (which meant I also signed up for) was calculus. And did I fall hard for math. The moment I walked into that classroom changed my life.
Was it a tragedy that I didn’t get into the college I wanted to? Absolutely not. My point is that our Option A plan often doesn’t work. So you have to be ready to “kick the shit out of Option B” (and why I’m such a big fan of Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s new book). In my case it would be easy to say that Option B was go to community college, fall in love with math and then graduate with a degree in math. But that’s being revisionist. What really happened is that Option A failed and I had to scramble. Luckily my dad (a scientist), had forced me to think about developing a large number of other options. Those plans included everything from professional sports to automotive repair to teaching.
If I’m honest with myself, I never saw the math option coming. But because I had developed those other options, I was ready to grab them when they came along. Life isn’t linear. It’s better described by chaos. And that means to “kick the shit of Option B” we need to be prepared to develop those other options as new opportunities present themselves — plan for A and be ready to jump to B, C, D, E…