The Butterfly Effect: Personal Power and Global Responsibility

Andy Andrew’s The Boy Who Changed the World is a gem of a concept in a gem of a book. I have been talking about Andrew’s handling of the Butterfly Effect everywhere I go lately because it is a great way to illustrate an important and timely lesson for kids, especially teens (and adults for that matter). The idea is that every action you take, every decision you make, no matter how small and seemingly inconsequential, has a ripple affect that goes immediately beyond you to those around you…and then beyond to those around those around you… until it impacts everyone on earth for all time.

This book for children so wonderfully illustrates the truth of this concept. I think I especially love the stories Andrews tells because they involve George Washington Carver, a brilliant and productive American whose work ethic I have a special affection for. Andrews relays the story of Carver’s tragic childhood, and then as an adult, how he in turn influences the life of another promising young man.

The truth is that every single person has promise. And not just promise, every single person is changing the world in their own way. The things we say to others; the actions we take; the actions we don’t take—we may never know the long trail of influence and consequences that come from what we do, for better or for worse. I think helping kids wrap their heads around their own personal responsibility to the world is so powerful. Think about the some of the  issues in the news headlines involving juvenile behavior—like the increasing incidences of suicide due to cyber-bullying (the Rutgers University incident of the two college students  broadcasting a video of a roommate’s sexual encounter without his knowledge, for example). I don’t believe for a minute that those students thought about the possible outcome of their actions. I don’t think they contemplated that the victim might kill himself by jumping from a bridge; that they might end up all over the news as hate-crime criminals who might serve long jail terms.

And what about the other people impacted—what about the other victim on the video? What about all of their families? What about the other students in the dorm? What about other men and women who are just discovering their own sexuality and are unsure and perhaps insecure about it? I could list the trail of people profoundly hurt by the actions of these students. But none of us can begin to know of all the people who hear about the story worldwide and what this will mean and cause them to feel and/or do. These two student’s actions have set in motion a wave of consequences that has and will forever change the world. Is that an over-statement? I honestly don’t think so.For one thing, the victim was an accomplished violinist. No one will ever witness his music live again. His contribution to the world of music is now forever cut off. All of the people he might have inspired, or whose lives he may have brightened, or the people his music may have helped fall in love or just help to make it through another day. That wave of influence will never happen—ever

On the other hand, this accident will likely cause laws to change, and curricula to be put in place, and counseling services and support groups and tolerance initiatives. Perhaps people will become more careful and minds more tolerant.The same is true for other unfortunate stories in the news, like the Brooklyn teen who hit a deliveryman while she was texting on her phone. I am sure she did not expect to render brain dead the innocent man who was a recent immigrant from China. But she has forever changed and redirected many lives—not just those of his three children and wife–but an ever-widening circle of beings spanning all the way back to the victim’s homeland and beyond.

This lesson about the incredible power each of us has to change the world has a very bright side, too. When people pursue their passions and interests, their capacity to impact the world with their efforts is endless, literally. Like George Washington Carver and his long, long laundry list of inventions and patents for the uses of ordinary things like peanuts and sweet potatoes. All the while that he was doing his thing, he was touching and teaching and inspiring people—some he knew and many, I am sure, he never met or knew existed. This is still true far beyond his death. Some people he touched would and will go on to be great, like Henry Wallace, mentioned in Andrew’s book, and some in areas totally unrelated to anything Carver’s ever done.

When you know that your choices and decisions are rippling out into the universe, seems to me you are a bit more careful, perhaps a little more deliberate. For teens, just the tiny step of realizing that their choices are not t just about them—that tiny step is progress. Carrie James’ research results (as Director and Principal Investigator of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) involving young people’s use and approach to technology, speaks to the need for this understanding of personal impact. Her and her colleague’s studies have found that young folks are lacking in ethical thinking when they use the Internet. They really do not think of the consequences of their actions beyond themselves and to some degree those people they know. And since much of the Internet involves interacting with people you do not know, it’s significant that young Internet users don’t really consider the worldwide audience potentially looking on when they are doing what they do online. This explains the proliferation of cyber-bullying, sexting, and the dangerous over-sharing and over-exposure that is going on among the young online.

At the risk of being idealistic and overly simplistic, I think there is a profound need to share this butterfly effect concept espoused by Andrews to explore how we must be responsible for how we are contributing to the world. We really can’t guarantee that our intentions will always end up to be beneficial, but we should at least start with that goal. And if we could just begin to teach our kids about the reality that their community is global (according to Butterfly Effect principles, it always has been global. The Internet has just made the ripples travel at the speed of light), perhaps we can help them make better decisions and think beyond themselves as much as developmentally possible.

This book’s premise is so effectively laid out. It tells the story of how a small group of young men change the world in interrelated and unexpected ways. I read it to my kids and they were mesmerized by the interconnectedness of these great people in our nation’s history.

I strongly recommend The Boy Who Changed the World to families. Andrews also has another book, The Butterfly Effect, which covers the same ground for an adult audience. This may be a more appropriate choice for teens.

Disclosure: I was given these two books free of charge to read and review. I don’t do this kind of thing often—promote others in exchange for free stuff. But I am so very glad to have had an opportunity to experience these books. So more than a disclosure, this is an expression of gratitude! Thank you, Mr. Andrews. Your books will be a permanent part of our family library!



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