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Dr. Brian Klaas is an Associate Professor in Global Politics at University College London, an affiliate researcher at the University of Oxford, and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He[…]

How does your entire life change when you decide, one morning, to hit the snooze button? How did one vacation to a Japanese city prevent it from a national attack? 

“We control nothing but influence everything.” Political scientist Brian Klaas describes how every decision we make – both massive and miniscule – shapes our futures. Klass explains what is commonly known as “the butterfly effect,” the idea that tiny changes divert the trajectory of our entire lives.  

These “ripples” show us that while nothing happens “for a reason,” every single thing we do matters. One random choice has the power to alter the course of history. These invisible “flukes” influence our lives, societies, and the world as we know it.

BRIAN KLAAS: Throughout our lives, we are told that we're in control of our path through life. As long as we sort of make wise decisions, then everything will turn out all right, and when things don't turn out all right, the saying that we always hear is that, "Everything happens for a reason." Now, both of those things are untrue. There's a story of a seemingly unimportant vacation that a husband and wife took to Kyoto, Japan in 1926. Mr. and Mrs. H.L. Stimson. They came to Kyoto for about a week and they fell in love with the city. As they left, they sort of thought to themselves, 'This is one of the best cities in the world.' Now, of course, a vacation doesn't normally change history. But 19 years later, Henry Stimson ended up as America's Secretary of War. He was overseeing the decision of where to drop the first atomic bomb in 1945, and the target committee said, "Kyoto is the obvious target." Now Stimson gets this memo, and he springs to action to take Kyoto off the targeting list. Now, the second bomb is supposed to go to a place called Kokura, but when the bombers approach the city, there's briefly clouds that obscure their view, and they can't guarantee that they're going to hit the target. So instead they go to the secondary target, which is Nagasaki. It's a true fact, but a bizarre one, that the reason why hundreds of thousands of people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki rather than Kyoto and Kokura, is because of a 19-year-old vacation and a passing cloud. When we look back at our lives, when we look back at social change, we think about these big, obvious pivot points- what you don't think about are the invisible pivots. We're told to ignore the noise and focus on the signal- it's a huge mistake. The noise is where many of the most important and consequential events in life take place. My name is Brian Klass. I'm an associate professor in global politics at University College London, and I'm the author of "Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters." One of the most interesting realms of science is evolutionary biology, and it tells us so much about why things happen. Now, evolutionary biology has a major debate within it that I think is really useful for understanding change in our own worlds, in our own lives, and this is the debate between what's called 'contingency and convergence.' Convergence is where there's a set of order because certain things work and you can sort of have a little bit of noise, a little bit of fluctuations, but you eventually get to the same destination in the end. Contingency, or what I call a "fluke," is where a small change can have a profound impact. A fluke is often seen by people as a lucky or a chance event that changes the world. I use it in a broader sense for anything that is contingent. The flukes of life reshape our world, and yet we often write them out of the models or the imaginations we have when we tell the stories of why things happen. One of the ways I apply this to our own lives is with something I've coined called the "snooze button effect." It's a Tuesday morning, you wake up and the snooze button beckons to you, so you decide to slap the snooze button and sleep for five more minutes. Now, you imagine that the tape of your life rewinds 30 seconds and you have a slightly different decision, and you decide not to hit the snooze button. Now the question is: What changes about your life? Anything that would stay the same regardless of the snooze button, that would be convergent, because even though you have this little change, ultimately, you got to the same destination in the end. But if your life unfolds in a profoundly different way, then the snooze button would be a contingent event because that little tiny change has diverted the trajectory of your life. So I think that the right way to think about change in our lives and our societies is contingent convergence. We're somewhere between order and chaos, where we have these moments that may seem consequential, may seem completely invisible to us, that do change our path, but then once we're on that path, there are forces of order that do constrain the way that change unfolds. And I think these ideas of contingency and convergence allow us to structure our thoughts to understand the different extremes of how our lives can radically change or not change that much with every individual decision that we make. When you think about why things happen, physics tells us that there's an unbroken chain of causes and effects all the way back to the Big Bang. So there's all these reactions and things that are happening, and they eventually lead to you. Now, imagine your life as a sort of thread, we're all sort of tied together. Martin Luther King Jr. called this the "garment of destiny." The thread of your life is not individual, it is part of a tapestry. You pull one thread, the whole image of the tapestry changes, it's not like you can just unravel your little bit, and that's because your thread is part of everybody else, it's part of everything else, it's part of the way that we have come to be. Additionally, chaos theory tells us that if any small change happens, that over time it can lead to very big effects, and this is what we know as the butterfly effect. The idea that a butterfly flapping its wings can create a hurricane many days later. Now, of course, that's also true for us because we are made of physical matter; we're not some magical being that's separate from the rest of nature. We understand this when we think about the past, but we don't understand this when we think about the present. So when we watch sci-fi films, for example, that imagine time travel, the warning that is always issued is you shouldn't touch anything because you might accidentally delete yourself from the future or fundamentally change your present time.

- 'Don't talk to anyone, don't touch anything, don't do anything, don't interact with anyone and try not to look at anything.'

- The problem is that when we think in the present, we never think that way, we never imagine that if we squish a bug or if we talk to someone, we're reshaping the future. But of course, cause and effect patterns don't change whether they're in the past or the present, they operate the same all the time. And so I think the mentality we have towards the past is the correct one, that we are constantly reshaping the future, that what we do is important. It's so overwhelming to imagine that every single act that we have has unforeseen ripple effects that will change the world and reshape our futures- but it's also true. One of the things that happened to me while I was researching this book and writing it was I realized that I don't think I have a cosmic purpose. I effectively believe that I'm an accident. This is something that a lot of people have a hard time accepting because the idea that I don't have a cosmic purpose seems to be jarring and uncomfortable- I actually think there's significant upside to this. And I think the reason there's upside to it is because the idea of certainty, which we seem to crave, we want to be certain and have control, is actually really awful if you think about it. If somebody could tell you when you were born, here's everything that's about to happen to you, here's the partner you're going to find, here's the way your life's gonna unfold, I think that would be terrible. The sort of serendipity of life is where a lot of the joy comes from, the unplanned flukes are where our lives actually derive the most meaning. So to me, there's upside to uncertainty, not just in the serendipity of life, but also in the fact that we're just part of this cosmic accident that is existence, that we don't fully understand. And I think the lesson of that accident is to enjoy life. If you don't think that you have a grand purpose- if somebody else would've existed but for a millisecond change- then maybe the best thing to do is to just try to make other people's lives a bit better, and to enjoy being on the ride. And I think that's the way that I have sort of come to think of my own existence as a result of the revelation that I am quite literally a fluke.