Do you ever spend too much time following the news and start to feel completely demotivated? That’s been me over the last month or so. It looks like the world is falling apart, so who cares what I do — does any of it matter? Ugh.
What a disempowered place to be in. Let’s shake that off and look to the butterfly for some perspective.
In 1961 Edward Lorenz, a geophysicist, discovered that computer models can’t accurately predict the weather more than a week in advance. He found that slight differences in his starting parameters caused wildly different outcomes over time. It turns out weather systems are highly sensitive to their initial conditions.
Lorenz lectured about his findings using the butterfly as a metaphor — something as minute as a butterfly flapping its wings could cause a hurricane halfway around the globe — and the “butterfly effect” was born. It’s less poetically known as chaos theory, but either way it points to the fact that natural systems are difficult to simulate. They are highly complex and prone to fluctuate based on the tiniest of changes.
The butterfly effect was initially meant to explain the limitations of meteorological computer models, but the metaphor resonated with people and took on a larger cultural meaning:
If the flap of one butterfly’s wings could have such a significant impact on the weather, imagine what one person’s seemingly small actions could do.
This world has a lot of problems — big ones — and it’s easy to think that if you can’t solve them there’s no point in trying. But the truth is, you’re changing the world all the time — one small action after another.
I was leaving Home Depot one day with all my purchases in a cart. After I put everything in my car, I rolled my cart over to the designated return area. There were carts strewn all over the place. It looked like people had haphazardly pushed their carts in as they walked away.
Without thinking about it, I pushed mine in and spent an extra second putting it in place. Then I gathered up a few stray carts to go with it. I didn’t want any of them to accidentally roll into the parking lot.
As I was walking away a man stopped me. With a big smile on his face, he said he liked the way I put the carts away and was feeling inspired. Then he thanked me!
It was such a nice moment I didn’t want to ruin it by asking how putting shopping carts away could be such a big deal. I just accepted what he said and enjoyed the interaction. How often does someone stop you in a parking lot to say you’ve inspired them??
What if that man had decided not to say anything? He could have noted the inspiration and kept on walking, and I would have no idea. How often are you affected in large and small ways by the people you see around you? Maybe it’s what they do, or what they say, or even just the mood they happen to be in. Now remember that you are that person for others, too.
We impact each other all the time.
We, like the butterfly in the metaphor, are an integral part of the supremely complex natural system we call life. It’s highly sensitive to the smallest of changes, but as the computer models indicate, it takes time for the results to show up.
The butterfly doesn’t just flap its wings and suddenly there’s a massive storm. It flaps and the effect builds over time.
I have no idea what that man from the parking lot did with his inspiration, or who he may have inspired in turn. And the beauty of that story is that I was doing something that seemed quite insignificant; I was just being thoughtful about stacking shopping carts.
You don’t have to solve global problems to have a positive impact on the world. You just have to show up every day, be the best person you know how to be, and do what you feel is right to do. And then trust that you are making a difference.
The butterfly doesn’t know it’s creating a massive weather event — it’s just being a butterfly.