Tuesday, December 27, 2011

There May Be Side Effects

Don't you love the pharmaceutical commercials that end with that guy who's able to compress more words into ten-seconds than should be humanly possible. It starts with something like, "Common side effects include dry mouth, sleeplessness..."

I listen thinking, "Wait, did he just say 'death?'" or "Was that 'in some cases, cancer was reported?'"

More recently, advertisers have wised up to the fact that consumers might be paying attention and changed the method of delivery. Now the it's the characters in the commercial who casually deliver messages like, "If your head swells to twice it's normal size, discontinue use immediately and contact your doctor."

From their tone and delivery, they might have been suggesting alternative places for dinner.

How Silly
In the end, warnings about side-effects (at least as they're typically presented) are kind of silly.

First of all, complex systems always experience side effects when changes are made to them. You twiddle something here, and something way over there twaddles. It's the practical side of chaos theory.

Second, without a notion of frequency, a list of side effects is pretty much useless. Does the side-effect occur once in three cases? ...once in ten cases? ...once in a million cases?

Third, even if you have frequency, all that's typically reported is coincidence of the change and the side-effect; you don't know that the change actually caused the side-effect; you just know that they occurred about the same time. A good question would be, "How did the frequency of the side-effect compare to cases where the change wasn't made?"

Side-effects are an unavoidable part of life. Quite often, the side-effect usurps the original reason for making a change or taking an action.

Unintended Consequences
My love for math, science and programming is a side-effect of seeking a day gig that provided healthcare benefits. I never set out to develop a love for technology.

When Iris began taking Adderall for her ADD, she became more focused and aware of her environment. Interestingly, when she was less aware of her environment, she was more distracted by it.

A side-effect of her increased awareness is that Iris has become more caring. She notices things to be done and acts upon them. She'll see dishes piled in the sink and clean them. She'll hear the drier complete its cycle and fold the clothes. She'll show up behind me with a fresh cup of tea. None of these was an intended consequence of her taking Adderall.

At no time during high school or college did my daughter Eila say, "One of these days, I want to be the general manager of highly successful restaurant!"

My daughter Eila, who is strong both academically and artistically, pursued the paths that one pursues when being a good steward of her talents. Even though she did well, she didn't find the activities satisfying. So she stopped to figure out what to do next.

To make money, she began waiting tables. She found that she loved the energy of a large, busy restaurant. Within a few weeks, her boss promoted her to be a trainer. When she asked him why she was promoted so quickly, he responded, "You seem to be happy all the time, like you really love what you're doing."

Her entire career is a side-effect.

Coursing Through Life
Many of us more or less live our lives according to a plan of sorts. At early ages we identify our strengths and weaknesses. If we don't, others do it for us. Like rain runoff slowly etching channels in places where the resistance is weakest, our strengths (finding the least resistance from life) begin etching channels.

As water etches channels deeper and wider, two phenomena occur: the resistance to the flow decreases and the strength of the flow increases. The symbiotic relationship results in acceleration of both phenomena: the resistance decreases, faster and faster; the flow-strength increases, faster and faster.

The streams and rivers that define our lives evolve similarly. The skills and talents identified early as our strengths become stronger. The resistance to our using them becomes weaker. The contrast to dormant skills and talents becomes so great, that we never develop them. Our lives flow along the paths of least resistance.

That is, until something happens and there are side-effects. Something happens that disrupts the flow creating the opportunity for new channels to be established.

These side-effects are sometimes called "serendipity". That is, if you choose to see them as such.

Happy Tuesday,
Teflon

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