Nexus Points and Butterfly Wings

People often like to think about the “what ifs?” in life. Some are small (“maybe I should have gotten the side salad instead of fries”), and some are big enough to be nexus points: big, pivotal moments that have shaped your life so far. I want to muse more on the notion of nexus points, how broader “what ifs” relate to the famous butterfly effect, and what that means for present day.

What if you went to a different school or college? What if you quit the Track team vs. quitting orchestra? What if you had grown up in a different city or country?

Of all the “what ifs”, there are a few key events that people see as major crossroads in their lives. After all, environments do play a factor in how you choose to live your life. Maybe if you had attended a different college, you would have joined a different friend group, and decided to major in something else, and gotten a job in another field, and moved to a different city across the country in order to go to that job, and… the list goes on. While these major points are fixed in the past, they do allow us to reflect on our unique circumstances.

“What ifs” in your life can also be viewed through the lens of the famous butterfly effect: small changes leading to big change in the world. The classic illustration of this effect considers how the wingbeat of a butterfly — so small and insignificant in the moment — that, through a series of escalating events, triggers a disaster halfway across the world.

A butterfly flaps its wings up, instead of settling down on a flower.

Because of the butterfly’s movement, the seagull just barely misses the butterfly, and ends up eating leftover crumbs at a nearby stall instead.

Because the seagull swooped in to eat the leftover crumbs, the mouse ran away and found refuge inside a docked ship at the harbor.

Because the mouse hid on the docked ship, it was ferried to another port, where it disembarked and chewed through a wire.

Because the mouse chewed the wire, a crane malfunctioned and dropped a box.

Because the box was dropped, the measuring equipment inside it was destroyed.

Because the measuring equipment didn’t arrive on time, the factory continued to rely on its current equipment until they could secure a new shipment.

And because the factory relied on its current equipment, it failed to detect dangerous levels of dust particles that ignited a week later, burning the factory to the ground.

All because of the wingbeat of a butterfly.

Chances are you’ve encountered a variation of this in your life, for better or worse. On the positive side, maybe one small note from your elementary school teacher inspired you to apply yourself in school, which led to you going to a top university, which led you to meet an alum who became a great mentor, which ultimately led you to join and lead an international NGO focused on reforestation; or maybe a mix-up in your class schedule led you to discover your true calling in a particular sport, culminating in an Olympic medal a decade later. Perhaps you’ve created a massive chain for good without knowing it from something as simple as holding the door open for someone carrying heavy groceries in both hands.

Thinking about your nexus points can be an interesting exercise, but it does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live.

It’s a common trope in sci-fi that a tiny change to the past can have massive ramifications on the future. At the same time, so many people act like the tiny changes they can make day-to-day have no impact on the grander scheme of things.

If all the “what ifs” you can think of have significantly changed your life, and the lives of many others, then can’t the choices you make today have the ability to significantly change things for the better?

We live in the present, and we look to the future. Learn from your past choices and crossroads to prepare yourself to make good decisions as you move forward, and never forget that small kindness can have outsize change on the world.

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