If WordPress allowed for subtitles on posts, the subtitle would be: “How a person’s life can change drastically if they have a series of random events that push them far from where they were headed.”
The idea makes perfect sense; random events, or rather events that are triggered by something outside of a person’s life, can change their life forever. If there is a series of random events, it can move them considerably away from the path they were on. Perhaps an example is in order, although this is just for a single event that did not change the path of my life in any way that is obvious…
In 1986, I was working at a company called FutureNet doing graphic design work and other work for the documentation department. I was also learning to write software. One of the engineers there approached me and said that he was flying a small plane up the coast and had an extra seat. I said I would go although I have no recollection of actually agreeing or even of driving to the airport. He rented planes from San Val at the Van Nuys airport and I showed up there and we took off. I wish I had a better recollection of the whole thing but at least I remember a few moments of it here and there. I got to sit in the front since I was an adult male and the plane needed to be balanced properly. There were two women in the back and I suspect they were co-workers that I knew. At some point, John, the pilot, let me take the controls. He said something about me having a knack for it, or something like that, even though I didn’t do much more than keep us straight and level. When we get back to the office, I thank John and tell him that I had a good time. He suggests flying lessons. I say “ok, sure,” and forget the idea the moment I say that. An hour or two later, John walks over to my cubical and hands me a post-it note with a name, a date, and a time. He scheduled a flying lesson for me!
This single event didn’t lead to my becoming a professional pilot. But it could have. Life is full of “random mutations” that “evolve” a person’s life. The evolution isn’t like the evolution of species as Darwin so famously written about – there is no survival of the fittest – but there is still an evolution caused by seemingly random events.
I could also take the view that those flying lessons altered me philosophically in a way that would affect my life drastically. I did get a pilot’s license a year later and I have about 100 hours of time logged as pilot-in-command. I’m proud to say that I’ve landed a plane over 300 times! The physical skills were fun to develop but what was more significant was my learning to talk to air traffic controllers. I don’t know if it’s obvious or not, but to this day, I’m a bit uncomfortable speaking to people. I have a little bit of a listening comprehension problem and the practice I gained flying airplanes was invaluable.
Getting back to the idea of mutations and evolution, we can see that the event of that guy giving me a ride in an airplane could have led me on a path to another mutation event. A chain of events could have happened that ended up with me being a drastically different person than who I am now. Yes, in a way, even single events that don’t have obvious life-altering consequences will alter a person’s life. It’s the visible chains of events that are more interesting. I can honestly look back and see multiple times when something happened along a chain of events that led me here; I got to go on a group vacation with people I worked with and became friends with them. One of those friends helped teach me computer programming. Later, that same friend called me and asked for help starting a company (two guys in a garage doing engineering stuff) and I learned a ton of computer programming stuff in a short time. When the company failed, that same friend got us both jobs working at Lake Tahoe (for a company in Berkeley, CA). I later worked at a company in the same area and had a kid. A co-worker and I were walking down the street one day and noticed a playground climbing wall made from solid flat material with holes cut in for hand and footholds. He told me about having climbed a mountain in China and I made one of these walls in my garage for my kid. Since my garage is 16 feet tall on one side, I had to get her a harness and learn a bit about ropes and stuff. I got into rock climbing and eventually had the small achievement of climbing the tallest mountain in the continental USA. It was Mt Whitney and it was not all that tough of a climb. But I got the chance to do it because I had become friends with a co-worker many years earlier while on a group vacation with work buddies. Oh yeah, and on that trip, we got to do a bit of river rafting on the American river and then some spelunking in Moaning Cavern in the gold rush area of California.
I find it interesting that large and small events that seem random, like noticing a climbing wall at a school, can change the direction of my life in a way that seems significant when looking back. The single event didn’t do much but other random events, like getting asked to partner in a startup company, all seem to chain together.
Life is like this for everyone all the time. A flat tire can lead to picking up a frozen pizza for dinner which can lead to a neighbor complaining about the smelly pizza trash leading to someone becoming the CEO of a giant clean-energy company. The chains of events are constant. It’s the bigger random events that seem like mutations in life, like someone making an appointment for me to take flying lessons. It was a significant mutation; it was far outside of what anyone would have expected to happen.
I’m 57 years old as I write this. I have what I can only imagine are the normal feelings of getting a bit older. Thinking about this and writing this post is helping me understand why I might feel a little about my age; It would take some extremely random not-at-all-expected events to happen to lead me on a path that is unexpected and drastically different than what I see for myself now. When I was 20 years old, it seemed as if random events could have led me to be an astronaut, something I have no interest in but a good example of a weird possibility for my life. Life is a path up a tree and each branch leads to a completely different part of the tree where there are branches that can lead to yet more very different parts of that tree. Approaching the leaves means, and I hate to say it, less opportunity for branching off in drastically different directions. I, like all people, have a lessening chance at a life-changing mutation.
I’ve had some random events happen lately. There is a vanishingly small possibility of a big life change due to them. It’s unlikely that anything will happen but there is a chance, and it’s refreshing to have random good stuff happen. I’m not going to become an astronaut – that ship sailed without ever stopping at the dock – but perhaps I’ll find myself on branches that bend away from sitting around watching TV and talking shit about what’s wrong with young people today.