A good friend told me a quote from Helen Keller. It’s close to –
“I am but one person. I cannot do everything. But I am one person and I can do something.”
And I’ll add one more from that great America philosopher, Yogi Berra, “The future is really hard to predict.”
Helen Keller’s profound point stretches a bit past pure business, but combined with Yogi’s truth, describes well the whole concept of emergence and chaos theory (mathematicians, please feel free to correct my use of that term). There’s an old version – the straw that broke the camel’s back. And a new version – which grain of sand starts the avalanche. But either way, the point remains the same. Each one of us has no real idea of the outcomes or consequences of our actions, both big and small.
The combination of these ideas mean that any action you or I take could have profound outcomes… and the size of the original action has no bearing on its eventual effect. This has been captured by Edward Lorenz with the concept of “sensitivity to initial conditions.”
As usual, an illustrative story. As a geologist, I would occasionally talk to my kids school classes. As a parent, I pretended to be a soccer coach. One day, a year or so after talking to one of these classes, I was at the soccer field and a little girl ran up to me. She said, “Hey! You’re Jacob’s dad, aren’t you?” Since she didn’t look like a bill collector, I told her I was and asked her how she knew me. She answered back, “You talked to us about geology! And that’s what I want to be when I grow up!”
Now there’s a very good chance she talked to a concert pianist or a surgeon and headed in a completely different direction. But there’s a chance she became a geologist and is busily working on some exotic problem that will save the world. The point is not so much what path she ended up taking, but rather that at the time I was talking, I wasn’t trying to “influence” anyone. I was just talking.
I was just one person and I couldn’t predict the future course of my actions. Just call me Helen Berra!
But the basic point here is that it’s hard to know what actions produce what results. At least in the “real world”. Isaac Newton, et. al., have done a great job of describing a very specialized part of the Universe, the clean dimensional part. The two and three and even four dimensional world. And it is powerful. Except for mistakes (or non-clean dimensional interferences like a lighting strike in the middle of a launch), if you aim for the Moon, or at least if you aim where you predict the Moon will be when you get there – it’s generally going to be there.
But in the everyday world, our dimensions are not so clean. And the depth of our real world is infinite. The deeper we look, the more we find. And problematically, we have no way to predict the outcomes or interactions of what we find.
My trip to that class was a very small thing in the world, but who knows where that little girl is today? For all I know, she became an astronaut and is right now mapping out her reasonably predictable trip to the Moon!
The bottom line on this is probably that even our smallest actions are relevant. It may seem useless just to say hello to a stranger, but if you feel it, my advice – don’t take the chance. Say hello:)