4 min read

Life Advice From Chaos Theory

In an outcome-oriented world, be a process person
Life Advice From Chaos Theory
Image Source: Brown Daily Herald

I've just finished my first month at my marketing job, and I've been working hard to get a few early wins. As a marketer, that looks like more people signing up on the site or a social post reaching many people.

With all the data that tools now collect, I can track every little response I get on the content I put out. Even with this newsletter, I get to see open rates. But this data, I'm afraid, is only a mirage. It captures very little.

When we do work, we expect that it'll lead to something. We want tangible change in the world. I think the word tangible does a lot of heavy lifting here - what we want is not change, but change that can be tracked or measured. Outcomes that can't be measured, in the world of work, don't exist.

As an example, I recently added some bullet points on my resume, saying that I write this newsletter that has a great open rate. That says something, but barely. I hope at some point, I changed someone's mind or made them feel less alone. The open rate doesn't capture that kind of thing. I doubt there's a metric that can.

The Butterfly Effect

I think it makes sense to worry less about outcomes, for the simple reason that I will never truly know what they are. The work I've done, and will do going forward, plays a mind-boggling part in affecting the world. It's just simply not possible for me to know how.

I borrowed this particular intervention from 'The Butterfly Effect', a phenomenon which Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman explain in a way only they can:

“It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that change the world, according to Chaos theory, are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.” — Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

The butterfly effect posits that a small event can have a massive impact in a complex system. Of course, it could also have no impact at all. The point, atleast for my purposes today, is that its virtually impossible to find out.

Imagine if this butterfly, let's call her Mitli, decided whether to flap her wings based on what she saw in front of her. Poor Mitli would feel so dissuaded, thinking to herself 'I keep flapping and nothing ever happens,' while a storm that wouldn't exist without her rages on, far away from her.

Is the butterfly effect real? If you're wondering this, it's the wrong question to ask. Here's a great explainer if you want to dive deeper.

Letting go of the 'how'

With all the metrics I see online, I often get deluded into thinking that I can measure the outcomes of my work. What I can measure is so small in the face of what actually happens that it almost feels like a lie. What I can measure about the outcome of this newsletter is how many people open it. How little that is, and how insignificant.

Jim Carrey has this wonderful commencement speech he delivered a few years ago, and I've kept it close to my heart for a long time. In it, he recites a story about wanting a bicycle as a child. His parents couldn't afford it, but a friend of his  randomly enrolled him in a lottery, the prize for which was a bicycle, and he won. The moral of the story, as Carrey puts it, is this:

"As far as I can tell, it's just about letting the universe know what you want and then working toward it while letting go of how it comes to pass."
- Jim Carrey

Letting go of how it comes to pass is critical. The risk of holding on is that we might feel discouraged, or simply distracted. I cannot possibly estimate the changes I'm making in the world. I might as well focus on just flapping my wings as much as possible, and let the storms take care of themselves.

📖 What I've been reading

I loved this piece about Vincent Van Gogh and his obsession with painting cyprusses in the New Yorker. It made me want to create again.

You could say that we’re drawn to van Gogh because his life crackled with complexity. You might also say that this is putting the cart before the horse—that any life or object, no matter how ordinary-seeming, contains multitudes, if we bother to look. This happens to have been the premise of van Gogh’s art. The plainer his subject, the more he found.
The World-Changing Trees of Vincent van Gogh
In “Van Gogh’s Cypresses,” a new show at the Met, the artist seems to bend nature itself toward his brush.