The god of small change

A former professor of mine, Paul Schoemaker, co-wrote a book on decision making. In it he tells a story about calling a friend in Australia. The friend unloaded on him, “My job sucks. My marriage sucks. My life sucks.”

He sounded so despondent that Paul called him back a few days later. To his surprise, his friend was downright cheery.  When Paul reminded him of his mood the previous week, the friend said, “Oh yeah. Last week was bad, but then I bought the Harley.”  Schoemaker’s point was that we all try to compartmentalize decisions, but that’s not the way our brains work. One thing flows into another.

When one thing sucks, everything sucks. And when one thing is great, life is great.

But I think there’s another point to that story. Small changes can have big effects.

That’s consistent with my experience. My first quarter back at university after Peace Corps, I was miserable. It was a typical gray, gloomy winter in Athens. I didn’t like any of the people I’d met there, including Fred, my waiter at the El Dorado (later famous for his role in the B-52’s.)  I didn’t have any friends, had just broken up with my first great love, and didn’t really like the two women I was dating (and they weren’t all that crazy about me.) Somehow I’d managed to take physics before taking calculus, and physics without calculus is frustrating gibberish. I thought about quitting school, moving to Wisconsin and begging my ex-girlfriend to take me back, etc, etc.

Instead, I decided to try to do something simple to change my life. I decided to start picking up rubber bands. I know it sounds silly, but my logic (if it can be called that) was that by doing some small, random thing, I might break out of my rut. For example, if it took two seconds to pick up a rubber band, maybe that would mean I’d catch a different bus, get to class at a different time, sit beside a different person, etc, and the cumulative effects might be enough to break me out of my funk.  I didn’t tell anyone about my plan, both because I didn’t have anyone to tell, and because I did not want people to think I was a full-on nutcase.

I don’t know that’s why my life improved, but it did improve. I met the love of my life, my current wife (only wife, actually.) I made friends with Bill “Renaissance” Loughner, still one of the most interesting people I know, and Dee Lane.  I moved to a farm, which I loved. And I took calculus, probably one of the great treats you can give a human mind. I also amassed an amazing collection of rubber bands.

I know it sounds trivial. Problems are real, despair is real, and it seems almost insulting when someone tell you how miserable they are to suggest a cooking class. Or buy a motorcycle. But sometimes it works.

Indeed, I think sometimes small changes work much better than big changes. The writer John D. MacDonald had this great hero named Travis Magee, a big handsome guy who lived on a houseboat, slept with twenty pages of women per book, and spent the rest of the time righting wrongs and fishing. Each year, at least one pasty-faced, middle aged guy would show up on John D.’s doorstep in Sarasota and proudly announce he’d left his wife, sold his house, and wanted the address of the marina where Travis lived so he could buy a houseboat there. The writer said they were always dumbfounded, and usually angry, when he tried to explain that he made it all up.

Maybe those guys should have just tried picking up rubber bands.

Categories: Scholarship/Theory

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  1. In Chaos Theory it’s called “Sensitivity to Initial Conditions.” Most people know it as the “Butterfly Effect.” And it’s very, very real.

    Still, how is picking up rubber bands and meeting the love of your life going to help me?

    Baby steps….. 🙂