Our brains employ two modes of thinking to tackle any large task: focused and diffuse. Both are equally valuable but serve very different purposes. To do your best work, you need to master both.
As she lost consciousness of outer things…her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting. — Virginia Woolf,To the Lighthouse
Professor and former Knowledge Project Podcast guest, Barbara Oakley, is credited with popularizing the concept of focused and diffuse forms of thinking. In A Mind for Numbers, Oakley explains how distinct these modes are and how we switch between the two throughout the day. We are constantly in pursuit of true periods of focus – deep work, flow states, and highly productive sessions where we see tangible results. Much of the learning process occurs during the focused mode of thinking. The diffuse mode is equally important to understand and pursue.
When our minds are free to wander, we shift into a diffuse mode of thinking. This is sometimes referred to as our natural mode of thinking, or the daydream mode; it’s when we form connections and subconsciously mull over problems. Although diffuse thinking comes in the guise of a break from focus, our minds are still working. Often, it’s only after we switch away from this mode that we realize our brains were indeed working for us. Moving into diffuse mode can be a very brief phenomenon, such as when we briefly stare into the distance before returning to work.
Oakley uses evolutionary biology to explain why we have these two distinct modes. Vertebrates need both focused and diffuse modes to survive. The focused mode is useful for vital tasks like foraging for food or caring for offspring. On the other hand, the diffuse mode is useful for scanning the area for predators and other threats. She explains: “A bird, for example, needs to focus carefully so it can pick up tiny pieces of grain as it pecks the ground for food, and at the same time, it must scan the horizon for predators such as hawks…. If you watch birds, they’ll first peck, and then pause to scan the horizon—almost as if they are alternating between focused and diffuse modes.”
Both modes of thinking are equally valuable, but it’s the harmony between them which matters. We can’t maintain the effort of the focused mode for long. At some point, we need to relax and slip into the diffuse mode. Learning a complex skill —a language, a musical instrument, chess, a mental model—requires both modes to work together. We master the details in focused mode, then comprehend how everything fits together in diffuse mode. It’s about combining creativity with execution.
Think of how your mind works when you read. As you read a particular sentence of a book, you can’t simultaneously step back to ponder the entire work. Only when you put the book down can you develop a comprehensive picture, drawing connections between concepts and making sense of it all.
In a journal article entitled “The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering” the authors write that “consciousness… ebbs like a breaking wave, outwardly expanding and then inwardly retreating. This perennial rhythm of the mind—extracting information from the external world, withdrawing to inner musings, and then returning to the outer realm—defines mental life.” This mental oscillation is important. If we stay in a focused mode too long, diminishing returns set in and our thinking stagnates. We stop getting new ideas and can experience cognitive tunnelling. It’s also tiring, and we become less productive. This can also set the conditions for us to fall victim to counter-productive cognitive biases and risky shortcuts, as we lose context and the bigger picture.
History is peppered with examples of serendipitous discoveries and ideas that combined diffuse and focused thinking. In many cases, the broad insight came during diffuse thinking periods, while the concrete development work was accomplished in focused mode.
Einstein figured out relativity during an argument with a friend. He then spent decades refining and clarifying his theories for publication, working until the day before his death. Many of Stephen King’s books begin as single sentences scribbled in a notebook or on a napkin after showering, driving, or walking. To turn these ideas into books, he then sticks to a focused schedule, writing 2000 words each morning. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road following seven years of travel and drawing links between his experiences. After years of planning and drafting, he wrote his masterpiece in just three weeks using a 120-foot roll of tracing paper to avoid having to change the sheets in his typewriter. Both Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali took advantage of micro-naps lasting less than a second to generate ideas. Take a look at the recorded schedule of any great mind and you will see a careful balance between activities chosen to facilitate both focused and diffuse modes of thinking.
Studies exploring creative thinking have supported the idea that we need both types of thinking. In a paper entitled “The Richness of Inner Experience: Relating Styles of Daydreaming to Creative Processes,” Zedelius and Schooler write that “Research has supported the theorized benefit of stimulus independent thought for creativity. It was found that taking a break from consciously working on a creative problem and engaging in an unrelated task improves subsequent creativity, a phenomenon termed incubation.” When asked to generate novel uses for common objects such as a brick or paperclip, a useful test of creativity, individuals who are given breaks to engage in tasks which facilitate diffuse thinking tend to come up with more ideas. So how can we better fit the two modes together?
One way is to work in intense, focused bursts. When the ideas stop flowing and diminishing returns set in, do something which is conducive to mind-wandering. Exercise, walk, read, or listen to music. We veer naturally toward this diffuse state—gazing out of windows, walking around the room or making coffee when focusing gets too hard. The problem is that activities which encourage diffuse thinking can make us feel lazy and guilty. Instead, we often opt for mediocre substitutes, like social media, which give our mind a break without really allowing for true mind-wandering.
Our minds are eventually going to beg for a diffuse mode break no matter how much focus we try to maintain. Entering the diffuse mode requires stepping away and doing something which ideally is physically absorbing and mentally freeing. It might feel like taking a break or wasting time, but it’s a necessary part of creating something valuable.
The butterfly effect is an often misunderstood phenomenon wherein a small change in starting conditions can lead to vastly different outcomes. Understanding the butterfly effect can give us a new lens through which to view business, markets, and more.
“You could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby … changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole.”
— Fichte, The Vocation of Man (1800)
In one of Stephen King’s greatest works, 11/22/63, a young man named Jake discovers a portal in a diner’s pantry which leads back to 1958. After a few visits and some experiments, Jake deduces that altering history is possible. However long he stays in the past, only two minutes go by in the present. He decides to live in the past until 1963 so he can prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, believing that this change will greatly benefit humanity. After years of stalking Lee Harvey Oswald, Jake manages to prevent him from shooting Kennedy.
Upon returning to the present, he expects to find the world improved as a result. Instead, the opposite has happened. Earthquakes occur everywhere, his old home is in ruins, and nuclear war has destroyed much of the world. (As King wrote in an article for Marvel Spotlight, “Not good to fool with Father Time.”) Distraught, Jake returns to 1958 once again and resets history.
In addition to being a masterful work of speculative fiction, 11/22/63 is a classic example of how everything in the world is connected together.
The butterfly effect is the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system. The concept is imagined with a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon.
Of course, a single act like the butterfly flapping its wings cannot cause a typhoon. Small events can, however, serve as catalysts that act on starting conditions.
And as John Gribbin writes in his cult-classic work Deep Simplicity, “some systems … are very sensitive to their starting conditions, so that a tiny difference in the initial ‘push’ you give them causes a big difference in where they end up, and there is feedback, so that what a system does affects its own behavior.”
Simple systems, with few variables, can nonetheless show unpredictable and sometimes chaotic behavior…[Albert] Libchaber conducted a series of seminal experiments. He created a small system in his lab to study convection (chaotic system behavior) in a cubic millimeter of helium. By gradually warming this up from the bottom, he could create a state of controlled turbulence. Even this tightly controlled environment displayed chaotic behavior: complex unpredictable disorder that is paradoxically governed by “orderly” rules.
… [A] seemingly stable system (as in Libchaber’s 1 ccm cell of helium) can be exposed to very small influences (like heating it up a mere 0.001 degree), and can transform from orderly convection into wild chaos. Although [such systems are] governed by deterministic phenomena, we are nonetheless unable to predict how [they] will behave over time.
What the Butterfly Effect Is Not
The point of the butterfly effect is not to get leverage. As General Stanley McChrystal writes in Team of Teams:
In popular culture, the term “butterfly effect” is almost always misused. It has become synonymous with “leverage”—the idea of a small thing that has a big impact, with the implication that, like a lever, it can be manipulated to a desired end. This misses the point of Lorenz’s insight. The reality is that small things in a complex system may have no effect or a massive one, and it is virtually impossible to know which will turn out to be the case.
Benjamin Franklin offered a poetic perspective in his variation of a proverb that’s been around since the 14th century in English and the 13th century in German, long before the identification of the butterfly effect:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
The lack of one horseshoe nail could be inconsequential, or it could indirectly cause the loss of a war. There is no way to predict which outcome will occur. (If you want an excellent kids book to start teaching this to your children, check out If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.)
In this post, we will seek to unravel the butterfly effect from its many incorrect connotations, and build an understanding of how it affects our individual lives and the world in general.
Edward Lorenz and the Discovery of the Butterfly Effect
“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.”
— from Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Although the concept of the butterfly effect has long been debated, the identification of it as a distinct effect is credited to Edward Lorenz (1917–2008). Lorenz was a meteorologist and mathematician who successfully combined the two disciplines to create chaos theory. During the 1950s, Lorenz searched for a means of predicting the weather, as he found linear models to be ineffective.
In an experiment to model a weather prediction, he entered the initial condition as 0.506, instead of 0.506127. The result was surprising: a somewhat different prediction. From this, he deduced that the weather must turn on a dime. A tiny change in the initial conditions had enormous long-term implications. By 1963, he had formulated his ideas enough to publish an award-winning paper entitled Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow. In it, Lorenz writes:
Subject to the conditions of uniqueness, continuity, and boundedness … a central trajectory, which in a certain sense is free of transient properties, is unstable if it is nonperiodic. A noncentral trajectory … is not uniformly stable if it is nonperiodic, and if it is stable at all, its very stability is one of its transient properties, which tends to die out as time progresses. In view of the impossibility of measuring initial conditions precisely, and thereby distinguishing between a central trajectory and a nearby noncentral trajectory, all nonperiodic trajectories are effectively unstable from the point of view of practical prediction.
In simpler language, he theorized that weather prediction models are inaccurate because knowing the precise starting conditions is impossible, and a tiny change can throw off the results. To make the concept understandable to non-scientific audiences, Lorenz began to use the butterfly analogy.
In speeches and interviews, he explained that a butterfly has the potential to create tiny changes which, while not creating a typhoon, could alter its trajectory. A flapping wing represents the minuscule changes in atmospheric pressure, and these changes compound as a model progresses. Given that small, nearly imperceptible changes can have massive implications in complex systems, Lorenz concluded that attempts to predict the weather were impossible. Elsewhere in the paper, he writes:
If, then, there is any error whatever in observing the present state—and in any real system such errors seem inevitable—an acceptable prediction of an instantaneous state in the distant future may well be impossible.
… In view of the inevitable inaccuracy and incompleteness of weather observations, precise very-long-range forecasting would seem to be nonexistent.
Lorenz always stressed that there is no way of knowing what exactly tipped a system. The butterfly is a symbolic representation of an unknowable quantity.
Furthermore, he aimed to contest the use of predictive models that assume a linear, deterministic progression and ignore the potential for derailment. Even the smallest error in an initial setup renders the model useless as inaccuracies compound over time. The exponential growth of errors in a predictive model is known as deterministic chaos. It occurs in most systems, regardless of their simplicity or complexity.
The butterfly effect is somewhat humbling—a model that exposes the flaws in other models. It shows science to be less accurate than we assume, as we have no means of making accurate predictions due to the exponential growth of errors.
Before the work of Lorenz, people assumed that an approximate idea of initial conditions would lead to an approximate prediction of the outcome. In Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick writes:
The models would churn through complicated, somewhat arbitrary webs of equations, meant to turn measurements of initial conditions … into a simulation of future trends. The programmers hoped the results were not too grossly distorted by the many unavoidable simplifying assumptions. If a model did anything too bizarre … the programmers would revise the equations to bring the output back in line with expectation… Models proved dismally blind to what the future would bring, but many people who should have known better acted as though they believed the results.
One theoretician declared, “The basic idea of Western science is that you don’t have to take into account the falling of a leaf on some planet in another galaxy when you’re trying to account for the motion of a billiard ball on a pool table on earth.”
Lorenz’s findings were revolutionary because they proved this assumption to be entirely false. He found that without a perfect idea of initial conditions, predictions are useless—a shocking revelation at the time.
During the early days of computers, many people believed they would enable us to understand complex systems and make accurate predictions. People had been slaves to weather for millennia, and now they wanted to take control. With one innocent mistake, Lorenz shook the forecasting world, sending ripples which (appropriately) spread far beyond meteorology.
Ray Bradbury, the Butterfly Effect, and the Arrow of Time
Ray Bradbury’s classic science fiction story A Sound of Thunder predates the identification of chaos theory and the butterfly effect. Set in 2055, it tells of a man named Eckels who travels back 65 million years to shoot a dinosaur. Warned not to deviate from the tour guide’s plan, Eckels (along with his guide and the guide’s assistant) heads off to kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex who was going to die soon anyway when a falling tree lands on it. Eckels panics at the sight of the creature and steps off the path, leaving his guide to kill the T Rex. The guide is enraged and orders Eckels to remove the bullets before the trio returns to 2055. Upon arrival, they are confused to find that the world has changed. Language is altered, and an evil dictator is now in charge. A confused Eckels notices a crushed butterfly stuck to his boot and realizes that in stepping off the path, he killed the insect and changed the future. Bradbury writes:
Eckels felt himself fall into a chair. He fumbled crazily at the thick slime on his boots. He held up a clod of dirt, trembling, “No, it cannot be. Not a little thing like that. No!”
Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.
“Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!” cried Eckels.
It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time. Eckels’ mind whirled. It couldn’t change things. Killing one butterfly couldn’t be that important! Could it?
Bradbury envisioned the passage of time as fragile and liable to be disturbed by minor changes. In the decades since the publication of A Sound of Thunder, physicists have examined its accuracy. Obviously, we cannot time–travel, so there is no way of knowing how plausible the story is, beyond predictive models. Bradbury’s work raises the questions of what time is and whether it is deterministic.
Physicists refer to the Arrow of Time—the non-reversible progression of entropy (disorder.) As time moves forward, matter becomes more and more chaotic and does not spontaneously return to its original state. If you break an egg, it remains broken and cannot spontaneously re-form, for example. The Arrow of Time gives us a sense of past, present, and future. Arthur Eddington (the astronomer and physicist who coined the term) explained:
Let us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past. That is the only distinction known to physics. This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone.
In short, the passage of time as we perceive it does exist, conditional to the existence of entropy. As long as entropy is non-reversible, time can be said to exist. The closest thing we have to a true measurement of time is a measurement of entropy. If the progression of time is nothing but a journey towards chaos, it makes sense for small changes to affect the future by amplifying chaos.
We do not yet know if entropy creates time or is a byproduct of it. Subsequently, we cannot know if changing the past would change the future. Would stepping on a butterfly shift the path of entropy? Did Eckels move off the path out of his own free will, or was that event predetermined? Was the dictatorial future he returned to always meant to be?
These interconnected concepts — the butterfly effect, chaos theory, determinism, free will, time travel — have captured many imaginations since their discoveries. Films ranging from It’s a Wonderful Life to Donnie Darko and the eponymous Butterfly Effect have explored the complexities of cause and effect. Once again, it is important to note that works of fiction tend to view the symbolic butterfly as the cause of an effect. According to Lorenz’s original writing, though, the point is that small details can tip the balance without being identifiable.
The Butterfly Effect in Business
Marketplaces are, in essence, chaotic systems that are influenced by tiny changes. This makes it difficult to predict the future, as the successes and failures of businesses can appear random. Periods of economic growth and decline sprout from nowhere. This is the result of the exponential impact of subtle stimuli—the economic equivalent of the butterfly effect. Breuer explains:
We live in an interconnected, or rather a hyper-connected society. Organizations and markets “behave” like networks. This triggers chaotic (complex) rather than linear behavior.
Preparing for the future and seeing the logic in the chaos of consumer behavior is not easy. Once-powerful giants collapse as they fall behind the times. Tiny start-ups rise from the ashes and take over industries. Small alterations in existing technology transform how people live their lives. Fads capture everyone’s imagination, then disappear.
Businesses have two options in this situation: build a timeless product or service, or race to keep up with change. Many businesses opt for a combination of the two. For example, Doc Martens continues selling the classic 1460 boot, while bringing out new designs each season. This approach requires extreme vigilance and attention to consumer desires in an attempt to both remain relevant and appear timeless. Businesses leverage the compounding impact of small tweaks that aim to generate interest in all they have to offer.
most global firms are penetrating bottom-of-the-pyramid market segments by introducing small changes in technology, value perceptions, [and] marketing-mix strategies, and driving production on an unimagined scale of magnitude to derive a major effect on markets. …Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Nestlé, Apple, and Samsung, have experienced this effect in their business growth… Well-managed companies drive small changes in their business strategies by nipping the pulse of consumers…
Most firms use such effect by making a small change in their strategy in reference to produce, price, place, promotion, … posture (developing corporate image), and proliferation…to gain higher market share and profit in a short span.
For most businesses, incessant small changes are the most effective way to produce the metaphorical typhoon. These iterations keep consumers engaged while preserving brand identity. If these small tweaks fail, the impact is hopefully not too great. But if they succeed and compound, the rewards can be monumental.
By nature, all markets are chaotic, and what seem like inconsequential alterations can propel a business up or down. Rajagopal explains how the butterfly effect connects to business:
Globalization and frequent shifts in consumer preferences toward products and services have accelerated chaos in the market due to the rush of firms, products, and business strategies. Chaos theory in markets addresses the behavior of strategic and dynamic moves of competing firms that are highly sensitive to existing market conditions triggering the butterfly effect.
The initial conditions (economic, social, cultural, political) in which a business sets up are vital influences on its success or failure. Lorenz found that the smallest change in the preliminary conditions created a different outcome in weather predictions, and we can consider the same to be true for businesses. The first few months and years are a crucial time when rates of failure are highest and the basic brand identity forms. Any of the early decisions, achievements, or mistakes have the potential to be the wing flap that creates a storm.
Benoit Mandelbrot on the Butterfly Effect in Economics
International economies can be thought of as a single system, wherein each part influences the others. Much like the atmosphere, the economy is a complex system in which we see only the visible outcomes—rain or shine, boom, or bust. With the advent of globalization and improved communication technology, the economy is even more interconnected than in the past. One episode of market volatility can cause problems for the entire system. The butterfly effect in economics refers to the compounding impact of small changes. As a consequence, it is nearly impossible to make accurate predictions for the future or to identify the precise cause of an inexplicable change. Long periods of stability are followed by sudden declines and vice versa.
Benoit Mandelbrot (the “father of fractals”) began applying the butterfly effect to economics several decades ago. In a 1999 article for Scientific American, he explained his findings. Mandelbrot saw how unstable markets could be, and he cited an example of a company which saw its stock drop 40% in one day, followed by another 6%, before rising by 10%—the typhoon created by an unseen butterfly. When Benoit looked at traditional economic models, he found that they did not even allow for the occurrence of such events. Standard models denied the existence of dramatic market shifts. Benoit writes in Scientific American:
According to portfolio theory, the probability of these large fluctuations would be a few millionths of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth. (The fluctuations are greater than 10 standard deviations.) But in fact, one observes spikes on a regular basis—as often as every month—and their probability amounts to a few hundredths.
If these changes are unpredictable, what causes them? Mandelbrot’s answer lay in his work on fractals. To explain fractals would require a whole separate post, so we will go with Mandelbrot’s own simplified description: “A fractal is a geometric shape that can be separated into parts, each of which is a reduced-scale version of the whole.” He goes on to explain the connection:
In finance, this concept is not a rootless abstraction but a theoretical reformulation of a down-to-earth bit of market folklore—namely that movements of a stock or currency all look alike when a market chart is enlarged or reduced so that it fits the same time and price scale. An observer then cannot tell which of the data concern prices that change from week to week, day to day or hour to hour. This quality defines the charts as fractal curves and makes available many powerful tools of mathematical and computer analysis.”
In a talk, Mandelbrot held up his coffee and declared that predicting its temperature in a minute is impossible, but in an hour is perfectly possible. He applied the same concept to markets that change in dramatic ways in the short term. Even if a long-term pattern can be deduced, it has little use for those who trade on a shorter timescale.
Mandelbrot explains how his fractals can be used to create a more useful model of the chaotic nature of the economy:
Instead, multifractals can be put to work to “stress-test” a portfolio. In this technique, the rules underlying multifractals attempt to create the same patterns of variability as do the unknown rules that govern actual markets. Multifractals describe accurately the relation between the shape of the generator and the patterns of up-and-down swings of prices to be found on charts of real market data… They provide estimates of the probability of what the market might do and allow one to prepare for inevitable sea changes. The new modeling techniques are designed to cast a light of order into the seemingly impenetrable thicket of the financial markets. They also recognize the mariner’s warning that, as recent events demonstrate, deserves to be heeded: On even the calmest sea, a gale may be just over the horizon.
In The Misbehaviour of Markets, Mandelbrot and Richard Hudson expand upon the topic of financial chaos. They begin with a discussion of the infamous 2008 crash and its implications:
The worldwide market crash of autumn 2008 had many causes: greedy bankers, lax regulators and gullible investors, to name a few. But there is also a less-obvious cause: our all-too-limited understanding of how markets work, how prices move and how risks evolve. …
Markets are complex, and treacherous. The bone-chilling fall of September 29, 2008—a 7 percent, 777 point plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial Average—was, in historical terms, just a particularly dramatic demonstration of that fact. In just a few hours, more than $1.6 trillion was wiped off the value of American industry—$5 trillion worldwide.
Mandelbrot and Hudson believe that the 2008 credit crisis can be attributed in part to the increasing confidence in financial predictions. People who created computer models designed to guess the future failed to take into account the butterfly effect. No matter how complex the models became, they could not create a perfect picture of initial conditions or account for the compounding impact of small changes. Just as people believed they could predict and therefore control the weather before Lorenz published his work, people thought they could do the same for markets until the 2008 crash proved otherwise. Wall Street banks trusted their models of the future so much that they felt safe borrowing growing sums of money for what was, in essence, gambling. After all, their predictions said such a crash was impossible. Impossible or not, it happened.
According to Mandelbrot and Hudson, predictive models view markets as “a risky but ultimately … manageable world.” As with meteorology, economic predictions are based on approximate ideas of initial conditions—ideas that, as we know, are close to useless. As Mandelbrot and Hudson write:
[C]auses are usually obscure. … The precise market mechanism that links news to price, cause to effect, is mysterious and seems inconsistent. Threat of war: Dollar falls. Threat of war: Dollar rises. Which of the two will actually happen? After the fact, it seems obvious; in hindsight, fundamental analysis can be reconstituted and is always brilliant. But before the fact, both outcomes may seem equally likely.
In the same way that apparently similar weather conditions can create drastically different outcomes, apparently similar market conditions can create drastically different outcomes. We cannot see the extent to which the economy is interconnected, and we cannot identify where the butterfly lies. Mandelbrot and Hudson disagree with the view of the economy as separate from other parts of our world. Everything connects:
No one is alone in this world. No act is without consequences for others. It is a tenet of chaos theory that, in dynamical systems, the outcome of any process is sensitive to its starting point—or in the famous cliché, the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon can cause a tornado in Texas. I do not assert that markets are chaotic…. But clearly, the global economy is an unfathomably complicated machine. To all the complexity of the physical world… you add the psychological complexity of men acting on their fleeting expectations….
Why do people prefer to blame crashes (such as the 2008 credit crisis) on the folly of those in the financial industry? Jonathan Cainer provides a succinct explanation:
Why do we love the idea that people might be secretly working together to control and organize the world? Because we do not like to face the fact that our world runs on a combination of chaos, incompetence, and confusion.
Historic Examples of the Butterfly Effect
“A very small cause which escapes our notice determines a considerable effect that we cannot fail to see, and then we say the effect is due to chance. If we knew exactly the laws of nature and the situation of the universe at the initial moment, we could predict exactly the situation of that same universe at a succeeding moment. But even if it were the case that the natural laws had no longer any secret for us, we could still only know the initial situation *approximately*. If that enabled us to predict the succeeding situation with *the same approximation*, that is all we require, and we should say that the phenomenon had been predicted, that it is governed by laws. But it is not always so; it may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena. A small error in the former will produce an enormous error in the latter. Prediction becomes impossible, and we have the fortuitous phenomenon.”
— Jules Henri Poincaré (1854–1912)
Many examples exist of instances where a tiny detail led to a dramatic change. In each case, the world we live in could be different if the situation had been reversed. Here are some examples of how the butterfly effect has shaped our lives.
The bombing of Nagasaki. The US initially intended to bomb the Japanese city of Kuroko, with the munitions factory as a target. On the day the US planned to attack, cloudy weather conditions prevented the factory from being seen by military personnel as they flew overhead. The airplane passed over the city three times before the pilots gave up. Locals huddled in shelters heard the hum of the airplane preparing to drop the nuclear bomb and prepared for their destruction. Except Kuroko was never bombed. Military personnel decided on Nagasaki as the target due to improved visibility. The implications of that split-second decision were monumental. We cannot even begin to comprehend how different history might have been if that day had not been cloudy. Kuroko is sometimes referred to as the luckiest city in Japan, and those who lived there during the war are still shaken by the near-miss.
The Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna rejecting Adolf Hitler’s application, twice. In the early 1900s, a young Hitler applied for art school and was rejected, possibly by a Jewish professor. By his own estimation and that of scholars, this rejection went on to shape his metamorphosis from an aspiring bohemian artist into the human manifestation of evil. We can only speculate as to how history would have been different. But it is safe to assume that a great deal of tragedy could have been avoided if Hitler had applied himself to water colors, not to genocide.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. A little-known fact about the event considered to be the catalyst for both world wars is that it almost didn’t happen. On the 28th of June, 1914, a teenage Bosnian-Serb named Gavrilo Princip went to Sarajevo with two other nationalists to assassinate the Archduke. The initial assassination attempt failed; a bomb or grenade exploded beneath the car behind the Archduke’s and wounded its occupants. The route was supposed to have been changed after that, but the Archduke’s driver didn’t get the message. Had he actually taken the alternate route, Princip would not have been on the same street as the car and would not have had the chance to shoot the Archduke and his wife that day. Were it not for a failure of communication, both world wars might never have happened.
The Chernobyl disaster. In 1986, a test at the Chernobyl nuclear plant went awry and released 400 times the radiation produced by the bombing of Hiroshima. One hundred fifteen thousand people were evacuated from the area, with many deaths and birth defects resulting from the radiation. Even today, some areas remain too dangerous to visit. However, it could have been much worse. After the initial explosion, three plant workers volunteered to turn off the underwater valves to prevent a second explosion. It has long been believed that the trio died as a result, although there is now some evidence this may not have been the case. Regardless, diving into a dark basement flooded with radioactive water was a heroic act. Had they failed to turn off the valve, half of Europe would have been destroyed and rendered uninhabitable for half a million years. Russia, Ukraine, and Kiev also would have become unfit for human habitation. Whether they lived or not, the three men—Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov, and Boris Baranov—stilled the wings of a deadly butterfly. Indeed, the entire Chernobyl disaster was the result of poor design and the ineptitude of staff. The long-term result (in addition to the impact on residents of the area) was widespread anxiety towards nuclear plants and bias against nuclear power, leading to a preference for fossil fuels. Some people have speculated that Chernobyl is responsible for the acceleration of global warming, as countries became unduly slow to adopt nuclear power.
The Cuban Missile Crisis. We all may owe our lives to a single Russian Navy officer named Vasili Arkhipov, who has been called “the man who saved the world.” During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arkhipov was stationed on a nuclear-armed submarine near Cuba. American aircraft and ships began using depth charges to signal the submarine that it should surface so it could be identified. With the submarine submerged too deep to monitor radio signals, the crew had no idea what was going on in the world above. The captain, Savitsky, decided the signal meant that war had broken out and he prepared to launch a nuclear torpedo. Everyone agreed with him—except Arkhipov. Had the torpedo launched, nuclear clouds would have hit Moscow, London, East Anglia and Germany, before wiping out half of the British population. The result could have been a worldwide nuclear holocaust, as countries retaliated and the conflict spread. Yet within an overheated underwater room, Arkhipov exercised his veto power and prevented a launch. Without the courage of one man, our world could be unimaginably different.
From these handful of examples, it is clear how fragile the world is, and how dire the effects of tiny events can be on starting conditions.
We like to think we can predict the future and exercise a degree of control over powerful systems such as the weather and the economy. Yet the butterfly effect shows that we cannot. The systems around us are chaotic and entropic, prone to sudden change. For some kinds of systems, we can try to create favorable starting conditions and be mindful of the kinds of catalysts that might act on those conditions – but that’s as far as our power extends. If we think that we can identify every catalyst and control or predict outcomes, we are only setting ourselves up for a fall.
During the Q&A for How to Read a Book, someone asked whether reading a lot makes us better writers. The short answer is yes. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. As Anne Lamott points out, the converse is also true – writing makes you a better reader.
One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with a writer’s eyes. You focus in a new way. You study how someone portrays his or her version of things in a way that is new and bold and original.
Speaking with the wisdom of experience, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway and David Foster Wallace share their thoughts on the relationship between reading and writing.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around those two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on.
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.
What to Read
Schopenhauer said “one can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.”
While that may be true as a general rule, King talks about the role badly-written books played in teaching him to write.
Asteroid Miners (which wasn’t the title, but that’s close enough) was an important book in my life as a reader. Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this! What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?
Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of beautiful characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy – “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” – but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing – of being flattened, in fact – is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.
Who to Read
In an article Hemingway wrote for Esquire in 1935, he recounts the advice he gave an aspiring writer known as Maestro, Mice for short. This entertaining excerpt appears in Hemingway on Writing.
Mice: What books should a writer have to read?
Y.C. [Your Correspondent]: He should have read everything so that he knows what he has to beat.
Mice: He canʼt read everything.
Y.C.: I donʼt say what he can. I say what he should. Of course he canʼt.
Mice: I canʼt write them down that fast. How many more are there?
Y.C.: Iʼll give you the rest another day. There are about three times that many.
Mice: Should a writer have read all of those?
Y.C.: All of those and plenty more. Otherwise he doesnʼt know what he has to beat.
Mice: What do you mean “has to beat”?
Y.C.: Listen. There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasnʼt been written before or beat dead men at what they have done. The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men. Most live writers do not exist. Their fame is created by critics who always need a genius of the season, someone they understand completely and feel safe in praising, but when these fabricated geniuses are dead they will not exist. The only people for a serious writer to compete with are the dead that he knows are good. It is like a miler running against the clock rather than simply trying to beat whoever is in the race with him. Unless he runs against time he will never know what he is capable of attaining.
Mice: But reading all the good writers might discourage you.
Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.
If you’ve always wanted to read the classics but keep putting it off, try breaking the task into manageable chunks.
When & Where to Read
Stephen King suggests aspiring writers read wherever and whenever possible.
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books – of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. Of the books I read each year, anywhere from six to a dozen are on tape. As for all the wonderful radio you will be missing, come on – how many times can you listen to Deep Purple sing “Highway Star”?
Whether you read in “small sips” or curled up by the fire with a glass of wine, the point is that you need to find the time to read if you want to be a writer.
You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
How to Read
Should aspiring writers use a different technique when reading? David Foster Wallace suggests a variation on the Feynman technique to teach yourself to write better. Learning to write, he says, requires “learning to pay attention in different ways”.
Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.
It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good…” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them.
I’ve never given a very satisfactory answer to that question, because it causes a kind of circuit overload in my brain. The easy answer—“Everything I can get my hands on” —is true enough, but not helpful. The list that follows provides a more specific answer to that question. These are the best books I’ve read over the last three or four years, the period during which I wrote The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Hearts in Atlantis, On Writing, and … From a Buick Eight. In some way or other, I suspect each book in the list had an influence on the books I wrote.
As you scan this list, please remember that I’m not Oprah and this isn’t my book club. These are the ones that worked for me, that’s all. But you could do worse, and a good many of these might show you some new ways of doing your work. Even if they don’t, they’re apt to entertain you. They certainly entertained me.
There are about a hundred books that entertained and taught him, but here is Stephen King’s reading list. (Think combinatorial creativity applied to writing – You’re not going to be a great writer if you only read books from one genre.)
Jon Winokur, author of the bestselling The Portable Curmudgeon, gathers the counsel of more than four hundred celebrated authors in a treasury on the world of writing. Here are literary lions on everything from the passive voice to promotion and publicity: James Baldwin on the practiced illusion of effortless prose, Isaac Asimov on the despotic tendencies of editors, John Cheever on the perils of drink, Ivan Turgenev on matrimony and the Muse.
Here are some words of wisdom found inside:
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” — T. S. Eliot
“A character, to be acceptable as more than a chess piece, has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure of what he’s supposed to be doing.” — Anthony Burgess
“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” — Kurt Vonnegut
“People read fiction for emotion—not information” — Sinclair Lewis
“The bad novelist constructs his characters; he directs them and makes them speak. The true novelist listens to them and watches them act; he hears their voices even before he knows them.” — André Gide
“The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.” — Raymond Chandler
Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Keep away from books and from men who get their ideas from books, and your own books will always be fresh.” — George Bernard Shaw
“Listen carefully to the first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like — then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” — Jean Cocteau
“The artists who want to be writers, read the reviews; the artists who want to write, don’t.” — William Faulkner
“Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” — Stephen King
“Listen, then make up your own mind.” — Gay Talese
“Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” — Mark Twain