Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Butterfly Effect


This past week I had the good fortune to attend APSE’s 16th Annual Conference held in Mobile, Alabama. For those who may be unfamiliar with APSE–The Employment Network, it is a national organization dedicated to improving integrated employment services, opportunities, and outcomes for people experiencing disabilities. Many kudos to the Alabama APSE Chapter for its outstanding work in putting the 2005 Annual Conference together. It was a great time and wonderful opportunity to network with other like-minded, spirited people from around the country. Of course, the idea is to share information, learn from one another, and then go back home nourished with renewed energy and skills.
There were many outstanding speakers who came to Mobile to share their ideas about ways to improve supported and customized employment opportunities. However, one particular presenter stood out and captured my imagination. Interestingly, he didn’t talk to his audience directly about supported employment at all. There were no sophisticated analyses of public policies, funding strategies, staff training techniques, information about the emerging economy, or clever ideas about new service strategies to use. Instead, this speaker delivered a timeless message about the fundamental importance of every single person on this planet. He spoke with clarity about the delicate interdependency that binds all human beings in a shared community and quality of life.
The opening keynote speaker was New York Times best selling author, entertainer, and Alabama-native Andy Andrews. You want to talk about energy?! Andrews paced the stage, walked up and down its steps, barked at his audience, and wailed his arms like a man who had just been forced-fed massive quantities of double-espresso coffee at a cruel fraternity hazing. In the time space of an hour or so, Andrews had taken his audience on one incredible journey that included references to his own remarkable life story.
A highly skilled story teller, Andrews was wacky and funny. He was witty and logical. He was sensitive and insightful. He was self-deprecating and self-respecting. He was practical and spiritual. And he was painfully truthful about the fundamental nature of people and their relationships to each other. He was prophetic about the power of every person and how our individual actions and connectivity to one another can literally change the socio-political and economic landscape of the world as we know it.
Andrews shared the underlying theory of "The Butterfly Effect" to an attentive audience. The Butterfly Effect was first introduced by a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz in 1972 at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. According to the story, Lorenz was apparently running theoretical models to predict weather patterns. However, one day he was unable to replicate his own outcome data when he reintroduced basically the same, but slightly rounded figures back into his computer formula. Apparently, Lorenz had reentered the same data from his printout taken half-way through the study sequence, and he left the computer program to run. When he returned, he was quite surprised to see that his outcomes were radically different from data he had obtained from the initial run.
Lorenz concluded that even the slightest difference in initial conditions that are beyond a human’s ability to measure, made predicting past and future weather outcomes impossible. I am no meteorologist nor a physics scholar, but I understand Lorenz’s assumptions challenged the basic conventions of his time. He had entitled his presentation "Prediction: Does the flap of a Butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?" Many of his critics ridiculed Lorenz for proposing such an utterly idiotic theory.
The Butterfly Effect, as Andrews described it to his audience, refers to this notion of a sensitive dependence on initial conditions within a scientific "chaos theory." In this context, "chaos" means an apparent lack of order in a system that nonetheless obeys a particular set of laws or rules. It is a non-linear randomness that can be attributed to complex systems as well as interactions among systems. The better known "Domino Effect" is a linear phenomenon where a preceding event initiates another. However, the Butterfly Effect is non-linear in nature and amplifies upon each iteration.
The Butterfly Effect is sometimes used metaphorically in social and political sciences to describe how a small change or event can in turn trigger a much larger series of ripple effects or outcomes that are completely unexpected. With artful skill, Andrews weaved a series of compelling stories about somewhat obscure figures in history who had triggered human events that literally changed our country and world. He demonstrated how a sequence of human events is delicately interwoven and how virtually all human beings are essential to the dynamic fabric of our communities. In Andrews’ world view, no person is unimportant. And every person has a purpose and role in the bigger picture whether they realize it or not.
I was mesmerized by his simple eloquence and compelling truths. I had already understood exactly what Andrews was communicating to his audience through my own life experiences. It’s just that I had never considered the range of impact such random factors tend to play on a much grander scale.
Let me explain how the Butterfly Effect has impacted on my own life. I am getting old enough where people will sometimes ask me the question: "Don, who has influenced your life and professional career the most?" My pat answer is my Mom and Dad. And depending on the context of the question, I would definitely mention my wife. Further, I might mention a university professor and several icons who have made significant contributions to the field of work I have chosen to do. These are all very good answers. However, they are not the most accurate answer.
The truth is that I do not even remember the name of the person who had the biggest influence on my life. And I am absolutely certain this individual has no clue that he radically and permanently changed the direction of my life. Really! This person attended my high school and took a Spanish class with me in North Bergen, New Jersey more than 35 years ago. I did not know him very well and considered him a casual acquaintance. The young man was a year older than I was and graduated in the class just ahead of me. It was a modest but generous gesture on his part that changed my world. He did something that set in motion a chain of events that forever altered my life and for which I am eternally grateful.
On one fortuitous afternoon, I had a chance encounter with this young man at a local grocery where I worked part-time as a clerk stocking shelves. He noticed me at work on this day and approached me. After we exchanged pleasantries, I learned that my acquaintance was attending college in the State of Minnesota. I mentioned to the young man that my high school counselor advised that I consider going to a college in the Midwest. In fact, he specifically mentioned that I consider the exact same school attended by this young man.
Inexplicably, he offered to drop-off information about me at the registrar’s office of the college. So I wrote down my name and home address on a piece of paper and handed it over to him. Amazingly, this young man actually remembered to deliver my vitals. A few weeks later, I received a college application in the mail! I completed and mailed it back with the required fee. It was the only four-year college I applied to. And in a few short months, I was taking my first jet airplane ride to attend college in southern Minnesota. Wow!
I often think about this chance encounter and how a single event had completely changed my life. I went on to receive a B.A. and M.A. from Minnesota State University at Mankato earning degrees in both psychology and vocational rehabilitation counseling. I have worked in this career field as a rehabilitation counselor and manager for more than 32 years now. And more importantly, I met my wife of 31 years in school at Mankato. Today we have three grown daughters who either work or go to school right here in the Twin Cities.
I sometimes ponder those mysterious questions: What if I had not been scheduled to work on that day? What if I was looking the other way or working in another aisle? What if this guy did not go shopping on that day? What if he didn’t remember to drop off my name at the registrar’s office as he had promised? What if....? What if....?
Well, if you have stayed with me this far, I know what you are thinking. What on this good earth does this stuff have to do with supported employment? Well actually, it has everything to do with it! Think about it.
All people with disabilities do indeed matter. And the quality of our own lives are intricately and permanently linked to their’s as well as other citizen's in our respective communities. However, the roles people with disabilities assume socially and economically are often defined by the actions and behaviors of others. This not only includes our own direct actions but ripple events that are triggered by attitudes and behaviors of each and every one of us.
Whether you are a parent, relative, friend, neighbor, teacher, rehabilitation counselor, employment consultant, program supervisor, co-worker, employer, public official, or yes, even an acquaintance, every single action we undertake triggers other events that alter our future. Now here is the scary part of the Butterfly Effect. Our actions not only impact individual outcomes but they amplify future human events in ways that we cannot fully comprehend or measure. Yes, everything we do matters. Everything! Even actions that may appear to be insignificant or incidental can influence events that either support or detract from our ultimate goals.
If we truly believe in the values of an integrated community where people with disabilities work and have meaningful social participation, then we must be more discerning and economize each and every single action we choose to make. To illustrate my point consider the ripple effects of the following events. When we refer to our business as "rehabilitation, habilitation, day treatment, adult day activity, or sheltered employment," what future events are we triggering? When we enroll adults with significant disabilities into sheltered workshops and other segregated adult service programs, what future events are unfolding?
When we go to a private foundation and ask for money to support people in segregated work or service programs, how will this communication influence our funding environment? When we plan to construct new buildings to house our segregated service programs, what perceptions and future events are we triggering in our communities? When work is offered as a choice instead of an expectation of people with disabilities, what future opportunities might we be limiting? I think you get the idea.
Of course, the reverse is true. Every time the talents of someone with a disability is showcased in an integrated job in our economy, completely different events are triggered. When we go the distance to customize a job so someone with a significant disability is included in our workforce, we set into motion very different types of human events.
Let’s be clear here. I'm not talking about the positive life outcomes obtained for each individual who is directly affected. This is obvious. I am referring to everyone else! I am talking about family members, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances of this individual. This also includes business owners, supervisors, managers, and human resources professionals who are associated with each hire. It includes agency professionals who broker services as well as agency professionals who are providers of services. And it includes government officials and elected representatives who become excited by the idea that supported employment is one great public investment. The list of all future impacts, possibilities, and opportunities is never fully comprehended by the perpetrator of each defined action.
I believe the lesson learned in Andy Andrew’s presentation is this: Everything we do matters. It always has. And I might add this: It also matters how we do it, where we do it, and why we do it in a specific way. The sum of our collective actions will define the world we live and work in. Our future is really up to us.
For the first time, I had the opportunity to attend the APSE conference with a new colleague of mine, my daughter Kelly Lavin. Kelly began working as an employment consultant only three months ago at an agency in St. Paul, Minnesota called Kaposia. And she is very excited about the promise of supported employment and making an impact in the lives of others. During the conference, a number of long-time colleagues of mine were kind enough to stop by and greet Kelly. And some of them commented to me privately that I must be proud to have had such a positive influence on Kelly’s decision to become an activist in our supported employment efforts.
Well yes, I am proud of Kelly’s decision, but I have no illusion about who has had the biggest impact on her life and career. No, it wasn’t me. I guess it was some guy in a Spanish class that I took more than 35 years ago! Or was it a high school guidance counselor who recommended he take this Spanish class? Or how about the high school principal who hired the guidance counselor? Well, I guess I have no way of truly knowing the full chain of human events that led to my chance encounter at a local grocery store.
I do know this however--if it were not for a kind and helpful action of a mere acquaintance, I wouldn’t know Kelly. Indeed, my daughter’s life and career is a delightful result of this complex phenomenon that Edward Lorenz called the Butterfly Effect.

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