The Big Idea: small choices can bring big consequences.
“Even when we think one wrong move will snowball into an avalanche, God’s working behind the scenes to weave our fears and failures into something beautiful. With his design and in time, even something as ugly as death can result in a full, rich life.”
My wife and I recently escaped an avalanche that raced down the Rockies and onto the Colorado Interstate, swallowing up cars commuting back to Denver.
Okay, “escaped” is a little dramatic, but had we started our drive just fifteen minutes earlier, we would have been engulfed by a massive pile of snow.
An unbelievable 24 inches of powder fell during the prior two days, which made for the perfect ski (and avalanche) conditions. We didn’t want to squander perfect fields of champagne powder, so we chose to forgo breakfast and hit the slopes early.
That tiny choice ultimately had an enormous impact on the rest of our day. Had we left just a short while later, we’d have been swamped by snow. Now, I can’t say for certain that our day turned out better than those who were trapped by the snow. Perhaps the avalanche was someone’s snowy savior, preventing them from sliding off a cliff later on the drive.
But, what I think we can all say for sure, is that small choices can carry big consequences. Even routine, run-of-the-mill decisions can snowball into much more significant outcomes.
This is really quite alarming if you consider the implications of it. It’s plain to see that something major like signing a mortgage or proposing marriage will alter the course of your life. On the other hand, nobody thinks twice about lingering over a bowl of cereal. And, how could we? We couldn’t function like that. Just imagine the mental energy required to get into the office on a Tuesday.
Life is simpler, and easier, when small decisions feel contained.
However, fortunately or unfortunately, small decisions don’t always stay in their silos. There’s an interesting (and scary) branch of mathematics called Chaos Theory that unpacks this. Chaos Theory states a tiny change in the initial conditions of a certain system can result in massive differences later on, and over time. You may have heard this called the “Butterfly Effect.” That’s the name a mathematician, Edward Lorenz, coined after studying a real-world example of how chaos affects our lives.
Lorenz’s butterfly-based example discusses weather, and how “a butterfly flaps its wings in China and sets off a tornado in Texas. Small events compound and irreversibly alter the future of the universe… [he then refers to a line chart] a tiny fluctuation of 0.00001 makes an enormous difference in the behavior and state of the system 50 generations later.” (See here)
When applied to your life and mine, that’s really a remarkable concept. We like to believe our lives are comprised by limited and linear cause-effect relationships. In other words, life is easy if one decision produces one direct and apparent outcome. However, our lives are far more dynamic than this. An immeasurable number of variables coalesce to influence the trajectory of our lives, and there’s a multiplicative effect when you consider we don’t live on an island. Our lives affect others around us, too.
I tucked a sketchbook into my backpack and slipped out from behind my desk. My co-workers were starting to talk about options for lunch, but I already had plans, and I preferred to leave the office without explaining them.
You see, I’d grown weary of my job as a consultant. I was working for a reputable, well-paying firm at the time, but I didn’t feel fulfilled. I wasn’t interested in working for high-flying law firms, or the prestige and security that a consulting career afforded me. Instead, I wanted to watch an idea sprout into a full-fledged company. I wanted to build a startup.
I began setting up lunch and late-night meetings with other entrepreneurs around Chicago, and I kept the beginnings of a company in my sketchbook – a name, a logo, concept drawings and a revenue model. I was trying to track down someone to go into business with.
I figured my co-workers would second-guess my loyalty (and my sanity) if they discovered I had been ducking team outings to attend meetings with people I barely knew, to pursue an idea that, statistically speaking, was likely to crash and burn. So, I crept to the elevator uninterrupted, and I charged out of our skyscraper’s grand foyer to where my bike was waiting for me.
I had waited until the last possible minute to leave the office so I cranked on the pedals and weaved in and out of noontime traffic. I glanced at my watch as I came to a skidding stop outside a noodles shop. I had just enough time to lock my bike and fix my hair.
I spotted who I was meeting as soon as I walked inside. Despite the lunch-time crowd, he was unmistakable. He looked just like his LinkedIn picture, and nobody else wore wood-trimmed glasses.
“Hi, I’m Brian,” he rose to shake my hand.
“I’m Nate, good to meet you, Brian,” I replied.
“So, you have an idea?” He asked as we sat down in a corner table. “How can I help?”
I explained my idea – a platform to help small nonprofits raise money – and Brian listened intently. He asked good follow-up questions, inquired about my motivations, and was genuinely curious about my background. When I was finished, he nodded, complimented my creativity, and leaned in a little closer.
“Here’s my idea,” he began.
Brian had been working in and for small nonprofits for the past decade. He knew what makes them tick, what keeps them up at night, and how they raise money. He developed a beautiful vision in my mind, drawing lines from the motivations I spoke about, to the nonprofits he knew about. He connected the platform I wanted to build, with the skills I’d acquire while creating his idea.
I ate my noodles and listened with rapt fascination. He wasn’t just talking about a hobby, or even a business. He was outlining a mission. There was an undeniable charisma and a sense of purpose behind his words.
“I have someone doing operations, and an engineer. You should meet them, too,” he suggested as I picked up our empty noodle bowls. “You know, ask them questions, see what you think.”
“Sounds great to me,” I agreed. “I’ll email you later today.”
Two weeks and two meetings later, I decided I was in. I’d dive headfirst into building Brian’s idea, and I’d give my consulting firm my two-week notice. I knew it was a weighty decision to make. I was leaving a stable salary and an established firm for a significant pay cut and an uncertain future, after all. But I didn’t think of it as a truly life-altering decision. I only saw the next day in front of me, not the years’ worth of major life milestones that would shift as a result.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I can say meeting Brian for that bowl of noodles was the best choice I ever made. Through it, I found a partner who shaped me as a startup co-founder, and developed me as a person, too. We’ve ridden out five years of ups and downs, and we’ve watched an idea spreads to thousands of nonprofits across hundreds of cities.
Best of all, I met my wife. I had always planned to leave the city and head west, but the business planted me right where I was able to get to know Erin. I don’t mean to gloss over the finer details here, but long story short, that role kept me in the city long enough for us to start dating and fall in love. Right before we got engaged, our company was bought, we ended up moving to Colorado, bought a house, adopted a dog, and as they say, the rest is history.
Without that bowl of noodles, I don’t think my writing would even exist. It really did put me on a totally different life path. It’s strange to think that I was just one meal away from a very different life, but maybe you can relate. Do you have a bowl-o-noodles story?
If you don’t, who knows? Maybe it’s right around the corner.
Mercifully for us, the trajectory of our lives isn’t left to random chance. There’s a divine patterning in the fabric of our lives, and it’s woven together a truly miraculous existence. It’s no less miraculous when we feel disappointed, depressed, or dejected, either. The fact is, we wouldn’t even know what it is to feel sorrow, much less joy, if our reality was built upon happenstance.
The scientific revolution was supposed to reveal why faith is obsolete. Instead, one of science’s most salient discoveries is how our world’s natural laws conspire to uphold the necessity of divine design. We’ve discovered more than two dozen parameters that must be precisely aligned for our world to sustain life. The physical and astrological conditions that allowed for our world’s beginning were so impossibly strict that the probability of us walking and talking is equivalent to you dropping a pin from the International Space Station and hitting a one-inch target on Earth’s surface.
No kidding. Every day we rise, eat cereal, and sit in traffic is so rare it’s an ordinary miracle. Nobody would accept these odds when buying a lottery ticket, so how could we bet our lives on them? What’s more, without design, Chaos Theory really does equate a stressful existence. There cannot be a loving, caring creator who orchestrates our finer details and unknowable futures. We must control all the tiny conditions and circumstances of our lives, which may result in massive consequences down the road.
In the Gospels, Jesus talks about this theory. He says God prefers to use tiny beginnings to bring about the majestic fullness of his kingdom. He equates God’s kingdom to a mustard seed, “… which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)
A mustard seed would have been a shocking choice of imagery to an ancient, agrarian society. You see, the typical mustard seed is just 0.05 inches wide. With time and fertile soil, it produces a plant up to nine feet tall. That’s 2,160 times its original size. And once planted, it quickly germinates to produces multiple plants.
The people Jesus was speaking to would have known this, and for that reason, they would have planted mustard seeds in fields – not gardens. While a mustard seed seems inconsequential, they would have expected it to grow into a massive plant sprouting all kinds of branches and roots upwards and downwards.
In the event someone missed the meaning of the mustard-seed parallel, Jesus reinforced his message by talking about yeast. He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33) Three measures was equivalent to 60 pounds of flour, so clearly, a small dose of yeast would result in a whole lot of bread.
Through each of these parables, Jesus was cluing us into God’s strange approach of forming big things from humble beginnings. This is an ideal Jesus embodied as, from his start in a stable to his humiliating death on the cross, he would have appeared wholly unimpressive to most people.
As a result, nobody would have expected the massive growth of the early church. Many assumed his movement would die out, and his diehards would disband. Everyone believed they’d buried someone insignificant, and rightfully so. If Jesus was truly the Messiah, the anointed one sent to save the world, how could he die? Yet, what most didn’t see until the church took root was that they’d buried a mustard seed.
For you and for me, I think this means that although small choices can yield big consequences, we don’t have to worry. There’s no need to dread chaos. Even when we think one wrong move will snowball into an avalanche, God’s working behind the scenes to weave our fears and failures into something beautiful. With his design and in time, even something as ugly as disasters or death can result in a full, rich life.
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