A doctrinal thesis published in 1963 by a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz, in short the Butterfly Effect states that a butterfly can flap its wings on one side of the world and set in motion molecules of air that in turn set in motion other molecules of air and eventually create a hurricane on the other side of the world. Ridiculed by the scientific community for more than thirty years, the Butterfly Effect nevertheless persisted in myths and urban legends until physics professors in the mid-1990’s proved it, not only with butterflies and air molecules but with every form of matter…including people. Eventually, the Butterfly Effect became a scientific law called the Law of Sensitive Dependence upon Initial Conditions. When applied to people, it essentially means that all of your actions can shape far-reaching outcomes spanning generations. It means that everything you do matters.
I was reminded of how this law applies to personal branding during a talk I gave as a guest at a local B.N.I. (Business Network International) meeting several years ago. The story begins in Traverse City, Michigan during the summer of 1982 between my junior and senior year of college. My girlfriend–who is now my wife–had just flown in for my sister’s wedding and my parents invited us to join them, my sister and two of my brothers for dinner downtown. Five months earlier, my dad had purchased a Buick dealership in town, taking a small, under-performing franchise and turning it into the top selling dealership in northern Michigan. It was the height of summer in this beautiful, scenic Lake Michigan resort town and our entire family was coming together for a much-anticipated wedding celebration.
After a wonderful dinner we hopped in our cars to head home. While backing out of the parking space, one of us–I cannot recall who–inadvertently sideswiped another car in the cramped parking lot, leaving a 6-inch crease in the rear fender of the parked car. By this time it was nearly dark and there was on one else in the lot. We could easily have pretended nothing happened, hopped back into our cars, and driven away.
Instead, noticing what had happened, my dad jumped out of his new Buick, surveyed the damage to the other car, pulled a business card out of his wallet, wrote a short message on the back along with his home phone number, and left it on the windshield.
Having witnessed my father’s leadership and personal responsibility my entire life, I was not surprised by his response and never thought about the incident again–until the morning of my B.N.I. presentation nearly 30 years later. Following my brief speech (I can’t recall the topic), each B.N.I. member delivered their customary introduction along with a few comments on my talk. After the first few members spoke, a woman introduced herself and, after some kinds words about my message, proudly mentioned that she and her family had purchased every car they owned from us since the early 1980’s. Then she explained why.
“I had recently moved to Traverse City back in the early 1980’s and had spent the evening shopping downtown with some friends when I returned to my car and immediately noticed a pretty big dent in the rear fender,” she said, adding that this was the first brand new car she had ever owned and really wanted to keep it looking great. “Frustrated and angry, I walked to the front of the car and noticed a business card stuck in my windshield with your father’s name, phone number, and explanation of what happened. I called him the next day and he was so gracious and apologetic. He not only arranged to fix the dent but he gave me a car to drive while it was in your body shop. To me, the integrity that your father displayed was huge, something I have never forgotten, and as a result, my entire family has done all of our business with your company ever since.”
I was shocked. That was the first time I was reminded of that incident since it happened–it seemed like a lifetime ago.
What does this have to do with the Butterfly Effect? Everything. What was to my dad a simple act of doing the right thing–his response would have been the same whether anyone had seen it or not–was, to this woman, a rare display of integrity that resulted in lifelong loyalty. And for a big ticket purchase like an automobile, that’s a lot of revenue.
The lesson? The quality of your life–the strength of your personal brand while you’re alive and the legacy you leave after you’re gone–is driven not so much by the major events and big decisions you encounter at key times in your life, but by the seemingly small, everyday decisions you make, both good and bad. If the flapping wings of a tiny butterfly can affect meteorological events thousands of miles away, imagine the impact of your everyday decisions.
My questions for you: How can you apply the Butterfly Effect to improving your personal brand? What seemingly small decisions have you or those close to you made that have had significant long term consequences? How can a deeper awareness and understanding of this principle impact your life?
This post has been adapted from my 2013 blog post.