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Making Sense out of Chaos

I had an epiphany recently while having coffee with a friend. We were discussing why some people were successful at work and family and others were self-destructive, and tended to fall back into negative habits. Why some were kind and others were cruel.

This was a complicated topic, no doubt, and I am certainly not an expert, but I related our conversation to something I studied in graduate school called Dynamical Systems Theory, which I have mentioned in previous articles.

Dynamical Systems Theory is also known as Non-linear Dynamics or, more commonly, as Chaos Theory. It involves multiple disciplines of study and is a way of explaining complex, apparently random things by finding underlying patterns, connections and repetition in what on the surface seems chaotic.

The roots of this theory date back hundreds of years, but its modern version came about in the mid-1960s from MIT professor, Edward Lorenz. Its original intended use was to determine mathematical patterns and was later applied to things such as predicting weather. My own association with this theory was its use by my graduate professor in determining movement patterns in a field of study known as Motor Development. Specifically, we studied gait patterns in senior women.

If any of this sounds familiar, that is because almost everyone has heard of it by one name or another. Chaos Theory has been, albeit incorrectly, highlighted on everything from the “The Simpsons” cartoon to movies such as “Jurassic Park,” where Jeff Goldblum portrayed a mathematician and expert in the theory.

In the movie, Golblum’s character expressed his concern that chaos would find a way to emerge and that man’s control over dinosaurs, genetic engineering, and nature was just an illusion. This is of course a complete misrepresentation of Dynamical Systems Theory, but admittedly no more of an abuse of my own recent incorrect usage. Still, for the purposes of my coffee conversation, and this article, I believe my application will suffice.

My hypothesis was that people turn out the way they do because of a complex mix of genetics and experiences. Nature and nurture. Even people that seem to beat the odds and emerge from poverty to run Fortune 500 companies have something going for them and reasons for their success that go beyond simply hard work. This was why some people break their backs and have little to show for it, and others seem to fall into success. Why some people are loving parents and raise responsible children, and others are irresponsible.

I am certainly as guilty of judging people as most are, but the way we turn out is complicated. True, at some point we make choices as adults and need to live with the consequences, but we are nudged along certain paths. I am not making excuses for poor decisions, I simply find it interesting that, upon reflection, I can understand in broad terms why I have taken certain turns and ended up where I am — with which I am very happy.

A smarter person might actually use this and be able to make predictions. In fact, it’s done every day.

For example, a teacher or manager might look upon a student or subordinate and spot talent. They may site work ethic, intelligence, and a good character, but I believe it goes deeper than that. I believe that on some level, they are able to predict the future success of this person based on the intangible things they are observing such as verbal and non-verbal cues, choices that person made in certain situations, even the way they look. Furthermore, I believe the act of kindness and small favoritism can influence that student’s success by encouraging them to make other choices later on. So, in the end, we have this big soup pot of genetics, nurturing parents, friends, supportive environment, and influences that lays the groundwork for choices we make.

My message, however, is simple — do not be quick to judge. Ultimately, the choices we make are ours, as I am a huge believer in free will. However, how we turn out as adults is complicated and ever changing. Some people have advantages that others might not. Whether they are large, such as loving parents and a strong education, or small such as receiving a kindness at a critical moment. Our intellect, health, neighborhood, friends, family, work, etc., all are small pieces of a much larger puzzle called life. That, combined with both small and large choices we make, nudge us on an ever changing path, and we should not judge others until we have taken a deeper look.

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