Aug 19, 2008

Law of unintended consequences

This weekend I met someone who made me wonder about the long lasting impact we have on people, often without our realizing it.

I attended a festival in my hometown of Sherbrooke, Québec. As I was watching a dance show, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey Whodini, how are you?”

I looked at the young man sporting mirrored shades and replied, "I'm doing fine thanks."

"You don't remember me do you?"

"Can't say that I do, sorry."

"Remember back in the 80s you used to work in a video arcade? Whenever you worked, you always played a lot of rap and hip-hop in the arcade. We loved it and you were the only guy we knew who listened to that kind of music and you made us a tape. Today I have a large collection of rap and hip-hop records, and it keeps on growing. For the past 16 years, my friend and I have been hosting a hip-hop radio show every week."

I was a bit taken aback that someone I had no contact with, other than seeing him once in awhile during a part-time job, would remember me almost 20 years later. I was even more surprised that a little gesture that I had forgotten about had had such an impact for so long.

I never would have known about this, had I not bumped into him quite accidentally. Then it got me to thinking: how many other people have I unwittingly affected, for better or for worse?

If I had to make a complete list of all of the people I have met, and had to evaluate all of the results of those interactions, what would the conclusion be? Would it be overwhelmingly positive? Negative? Somewhat positive? Or would I mostly have left them indifferent?

If you've ever read the book “Freakonomics”, you've heard about the law of unintended consequences. It's the law that says that any action will have some sort of unexpected outcome, such as what happened above.

I've been fortunate enough to know of (now) two unintended consequences of my actions. Someone else once told me that I had showed him what software I used to balance my chequebook. From there, he developed an interest in money management and today he has his own business. Who knew?

A more notable example is Facebook. It was originally developed to help a few college buddies keep in touch after school. Today, Facebook is the darling of the Internet and putting one's profile on site has much more impact than it used to.

How have you been impacted by unintended consequences? Or how have you impacted others in ways you did not expect?

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