The butterfly effect: how we can’t always know the importance of our choices as we make them

My job search continues. I’m a week into a four-week part-time consulting job, and a couple opportunities for which I’ve interviewed look very promising. I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, but best case, I could be back to work in a few weeks. Meanwhile, here’s a rewrite of this post from 2009 that tells of an important choice I made that seems unrelated to my career, but was actually critical to it.

I almost didn’t sign up for that Speech class in high school. Just seeing the box for it on the enrollment form made my heart splash anxiously. If I had to choose between dancing with an angry bear and speaking in public, I would have put my dancing shoes on. But in the last two seconds before the forms were collected I impulsively marked the box for Speech, and then it was too late to turn back.

Argus A-Four
The Argus A-Four

I gave probably 20 speeches that year, although I remember only a “why I took this class” speech and a sales pitch. For that one, I dug out one of my old cameras, the Argus A-Four, and extolled its virtues. I even demonstrated it, opening the lens up wide and snapping a couple of shots. I’m lucky any of them turned out. I’m glad for them not because the school building is gone now, or because the kids have all grown up, or because they make me remember how the teacher (in the very back) sounded like a post-puberty Kermit the Frog. I’m glad for them because they remind me of how violently I shook and how much my voice trembled the first time I stood there — but how effortlessly I spoke from there at the end of the year.

I operate very comfortably in my introverted skin today, but I didn’t when I was 15. I wished to banter easily with everyone, but I always stumbled and bumbled. I felt embarrassed, and it hurt. It was easier to keep to myself. I avoided contact so much that I stared at my shoes when walking between classes so I wouldn’t catch anyone’s gaze.

Actual photo from the speech

All of us in Speech were there to overcome our fear of public speaking. It built great camaraderie among us. I became especially close with the girl in the sailor hat in this photo’s lower right corner. We passed sarcastic notes to each other all year as we listened to our classmates speak. The girl in the red with the ball cap got into the act sometimes, too. They both used to crack me up.

It’s a darn good thing I overcame my fear of public speaking. That year I taught myself to write computer programs. When my favorite math teacher heard that I had written a program that used a formula to draw any polygon on the screen, he asked to see it. It was a big deal in the computing technology of the time. When he saw my program draw any polygon lickety split, he said, “Oh my gosh, that’s really something” — and asked me to demonstrate my program to our Geometry class.

I did it. But without having first overcome my fear of public speaking in Speech class, I would have turned him down flat.

Another actual photo from that speech
Another actual photo from that speech

The math teacher then asked me to write programs that illustrated other geometrical concepts, and I demonstrated them all to the class. At first it just felt great that one of my silly hobbies earned me some good attention. But then the teacher suggested that I could study this in college and do it for a living.

This was a pivotal moment in my life. It may seem astonishing now that the idea hadn’t occurred to me, but in the early 1980s software development was still an unusual career choice. I had no idea people got paid to write programs!

I applied to engineering school, where I studied mathematics and computer science. Shortly after graduating, I got my first job working for a software company. More than a quarter century and seven software companies later, there’s no other path I’d rather have taken. I can’t believe I get to do this thing I dreamed of at 15.

Who knew that a Speech class would be such a pivot point in my life? It’s the butterfly effect, which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Congo today can cause a tornado next week in Kansas City.


2 responses to “The butterfly effect: how we can’t always know the importance of our choices as we make them”

  1. Bob Dungan Avatar
    Bob Dungan

    Great post. Amazing how much a impulsive choice can affect your life for good or bad.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Bob! I’m aware of this choice’s effects — I wonder how many other choices that enabled other things in my life, but I don’t know it.

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