Chaos theory, in the simplest of terms, is the study of patterns in seemingly random events. It is utilized in mathematics and science to study large systems like economies and the weather. Some people perceive their life and career trajectories to be “chaotic systems” – collections of nonlinear, seemingly random events that are too overwhelming to understand and over which they have very little control – just like a series of unpredictable storms and sunny days. If we believe our lives are in fact chaotic systems, we may feel that we are off the hook for being responsible for how they turn out. The mind of an entrepreneur is oriented to think just the opposite.
As entrepreneurs we methodically, sometimes even emphatically and obsessively, try to make sense of, manage, and redirect the underlying chaos of our businesses because we understand that each and every decision we make running the day-to-day operations affects the outcome, and therefore, our likelihood of success. Backing this premise up is a critical and well-known component of chaos theory called the “butterfly effect.” It was identified by Edward Lorenz in a paper titled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas? In this paper he asks, Can a small event – like the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil – create a series of events that lead to a dramatic shift in the outcome of an event? The answer is yes. But the problem for all of us is that those small events – those tiny flaps of the butterfly’s wings –can be difficult to extract from all the data that is swirling around us.
In my book Shake the World: It’s Not About finding a Job, It’s About Creating a Life, I looked for the patterns that determine success. By interviewing highly successful young entrepreneurs, I identified the butterfly effects – the small changes that we can make in our own non-linear, chaotic lives in order to help enable our own success. Entrepreneurs know that success – however defined – like many other seemingly random events, is not so random after all. It is without question affected by the small flaps of our wings.
Consider the single statistical fact that success is highly sensitive to initial conditions. For example, if you analyze career data based on income and professional status, individuals who start careers in a recession are far less likely to achieve long-term financial success than those who began careers in up-ticking, robust economies. Just knowing this mathematical fact, we can attempt to compensate for it as we make decisions in our own lives. Entrepreneurs see opportunity where others see defeat; we believe that we can affect change. In fact, many of the most successful companies in the world have been started during poor financial times, and this will be true during the current economic downturn as well. After all, it makes sense. When companies aren’t hiring, some of us will embrace the poor economy as an opportunity to create our own jobs.
The broader question I look at in my book is how this butterfly effect will manifest on a macroscopic level; how will the flaps of an entire generation’s wings create a series of events that can lead to a dramatic shift in the outcome of global events? Can a single generation effect so much change through entrepreneurial endeavors that we can shake the world? Again, the answer is yes. And here are just a few of the ways I determined that we are accomplishing it:
- As a generation, we are recognizing that the gatekeepers of information have changed. And so has the timeframe to achieve success. While we understand the value of a formal education, we also embrace the fact that we can educate ourselves outside of colleges and universities. This is impacting the power structure and dynamics of business as a whole. There are highly successful entrepreneurs who have sold companies for millions, even billions of dollars, without a single degree – let alone an educational pedigree. And in many cases they are accomplishing this at surprisingly young ages – so there often isn’t any gray hair in the mix.
- We are assessing risk and taking it on more aggressively by making high-beta investments in ourselves. We are the generation who grew up being told that there is nothing we can’t do. And we are demonstrating this now, in droves.
- As a generation we are functioning as a disruptive force across industries by engaging in counterintuitive thinking and constructive, disruptive behavior. Technology and a generational mindset have primed the stage for corporate unrest. We are inclined to say, “How come?” and “Why not?” Rather than, “Yes sir.”
- Many of us are becoming Renaissance men and women by taking a polymath approach and applying it to our lives and work; we view our careers as evolving systems as opposed to staid and static events. This allows for the broad influx of new ideas into rigid spaces, which invites innovative solutions to address long-standing problems while allowing for far more intellectually-stimulating lives for ourselves to boot.
- Many of us are collectively involved in evolving capitalism and harnessing it to accomplish good in the world. You only have to look at the prevalence of for-profit companies building philanthropic dividends into their product lines and corporate DNA, and our generational preference for conscious consumerism. (Just walk through New York City and start counting how many pairs of TOMS shoes you see in an hour, or look at what FEED has been able to accomplish by creating a fashion-minded bag that is directly tied to feeding school children – 60 million plus school children at that – by structuring as a for-profit). Conscious consumerism will forever change the structure and the reach of corporations, consumer advertising, and global need as it blurs the lines between philanthropic endeavors and profitable companies.
So anytime I feel overwhelmed by the chaos that is swirling around me as I build and run my own business, I try to remind myself how much control we really do have over the events in our own lives and of those in the world around us – even if, at times, it would be easier to pretend that we don’t. And then I remind myself that the biggest and greatest impact can be generated by something as small as the flap of a butterfly’s wings.
James Marshall Reilly is an entrepreneur, journalist, and the founder of The Guild Agency Speakers Bureau & Intellectual Talent Management. His expertise lies in the branding and marketing of cutting-edge thinkers and connecting them with audiences worldwide. In November 2011, Reilly was honored at the White House as one of the top 100 entrepreneurs in the United States age 30 or under. His first book, titled Shake the World, will be published by Portfolio | Penguin on 12/29/11. For more info visit www.shaketheworldbook.com.