The Speculist: Alternative Lines Through Time


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Alternative Lines Through Time


When Stephen asked me to do an update to Lines Through Time, I demurred. I want to check in on that one in 10-year increments. But I got to thinking about the reasoning I employed in laying out the meandering course of my life, and it occurred to me that I don't (necessarily) agree with myself on this thing. That is to say, Phil 2008 disagrees with Phil 2003. Of course, once that sort of thing starts going on, look out. Anything can happen. I may do an update after all when Phil 2009 decides that Phil 2008 was overly fond of the decade as a measuring increment, or that he was just plain lazy.

Anyway, Phil 2003 tracks us through 20 years of decisions that led him to be sitting in his bedroom, looking out the window one fine autumn morning and wondering how he came to be sitting there. At each stage, he shows how a different decision or happenstance would have resulted in a completely different outcome. The problem with this approach is that each of these changes would have only changed the probability of one thing happening vs. another. Nothing is really excluded.

All of which is to say that Phil 1983 could have followed a very different course than the one outlined, and still ended up right where Phil 2003 picked up the narrative. Let's see how that might work. Phil 2003 writes:

After I graduated from college in Kentucky in 1983, I decided to move to Denver to go to law school. Had I not decided to go to law school, I might not have moved to Denver.

This one starts out kind of mushy. I might not have moved to Denver, but then again I might have. I chose Denver in the Law School time line because I had always planned to the live here as an adult. Why would that have changed?

I dropped out of law school a couple of years before starting my master's. If I had stayed in law school, I would never have started my master's.

Well, this is just silly. My wife went to grad school after getting her law degree as did (I think) my co-blogger. One does not necessarily exclude the other.

Mike and I met in grad school in 1986. If either of us had decided not work on that particular degree at that particular time, we would have never met.

This one is harder to get around. Unless we met later on the job (which would not have been as likely if I went ahead with the law degree) it seems unlikely that I would have befriended Mike had I not been in that degree program at that time.

My friend Mike started working at U S WEST a few months before I did. If Mike had not taken a job at US WEST, I would never have learned about the job opening there and would not have applied for it.

Unless, of course, I learned about the job via other channels. Of course, had I finished law school I probably wouldn't have been looking for tech writing jobs. Then again, I might have ended up working for U S WEST as a lawyer. A lot of folks did back in those days. In fact, years later I was going through orientation having been hired back at US WEST (once again by Mike) after returning from overseas, and lo and behold, joining the company the same day as I was my old study partner from law school.

On the other hand, I might have stayed in law school another year and then quit. Or I might have finished and then decided -- as apparently quite a few law graduates do -- that I had no interest in being a lawyer. There are a lot of possibilities, and none of them preclude my being hired on at US WEST. It's kind of hard to imagine me finishing a law degree and then taking a $40K-a-year technical editing job, but then again...I've done lots crazier stuff than that. (Plus, 17 years ago that was more money than it sounds like now.)

I was hired on a technical editor at U S WEST Advanced Technologies in 1991. If I hadn't taken the job with US WEST, I would not have been able to take over Cap's project for him.

This one is true as far as it goes. I can't see a company like US WEST putting me in charge of a project of any size if I wasn't working for them in some capacity.

If I hadn't become lead facilitator, I would never have recommended using tools from the quality management system for the Russian start-ups.

Says who? I would have been familiar with the tools even if I never became the lead facilitator. I might have come up with the idea anyhow.

If Cap hadn't gotten sick (or if he had asked someone else to cover this project for him) I would never have taken that first trip to Moscow.

True, but so what? Maybe I would have taken a different trip to Moscow. See below.

If I hadn't suggested [using the TQM tools as the basis for rolling out new ventures] I would not have made several trips to Russia in 1993 and 1994 helping to outline the business roll-out process.

Right. Or maybe I would have had some other, equally good or better idea that was also well-received. Just because that idea worked doesn't mean it was the only possible solution. And it's not like that outfit was exactly swimming in creative, out-of-the-box suggestions.

Or let's try this one on for size. I finish my law degree with an emphasis in international law (which was an area of particular interest) and take a position with US WEST Overseas Operations. In the course of this job, I become aware of the problems they're having with the roll-out of these joint venture companies. I put a proposal together for how to address the problem and pitch it to execs in charge -- this is exactly what I did anyway. At this point, assuming they liked my idea, these divergent timelines would more or less meet back up.

Or at least they could.

If I hadn't done so much work in Russia, I would never have been called down to Malaysia.

I'm not sure about this. A lot of people got sent down to Malaysia who had never been part of the Russia stuff. Malaysia was, in some ways, a bigger project. So my stroke of brilliance comes later, and the timelines meet up when I go to Malaysia.

If I hadn't taken both contracts, I would never have met my girlfriend.

The point is that I needed to be in Malaysia, working where I was working, in early 1997 in order to meet her. There are a lot of ways that could have happened. Plus, I could have met her later and under different circumstances. Even if I hadn't taken the second contract, she and I knew a lot of the same people.

If I hadn't met her, I wouldn't have tried to stay longer.

Well, probably not, but on the other hand -- I liked Malaysia a lot. I might have stayed on anyway if the right opportunity presented itself.

If I had allowed the company to rotate me back in at the end of my contract, I would have taken a job in either Europe or California in 1997.

Those two offers were the most likely, but I might have tried hard to find something in Denver anyway. I might have settled on Denver so that my daughter (who I had custody of at the time) could be near her mother.

If I hadn't moved back, she wouldn't have been here visiting me.

There's no arguing with that.

If she hadn't come to see me, she never would have met her friend.

She met her friend by making cold calls to telecom companies until she had a few connections. She would have probably done that upon coming here to live even if she had never visited Denver before.

If it weren't for the help of her friend, she probably wouldn't have taken that particular job.

Unless, as with my US WEST job, she found it through different channels.

Commuting from where we were living in Boulder County was arduous for her, so we moved. If she hadn't taken the job, we wouldn't have moved there.

Of course, she could have taken a completely different job down in the south part of town, which would have put us in exactly the same position. Things could have worked out very differently indeed-- with changes at every turn -- and yet I still might have been looking out that same window on that same morning I wrote that blog entry.

Or one tiny thing might have changed back in 1983 and the whole story would be radically different.


Just one question -- did you stumble off the path and step on a butterfly at any point? ;^)

Well, yes. You may have ended up going to grad school anyway, at some point, but not at the same juncture-- not concomitantly with the other "events" going on at that point in time. And nothing can be meaningfully taken out of the context of everything else going on. In other words, even if you did finish law school and then go to grad school, it would have been a different grad school. Just as Phil 2003 is a different person than Phil 2008. And the events that occurred while you were "there" would be very different, so they would interact and combine in completely different ways. Just being delayed from catching a bus for two minutes can theoretically set one on a completely different life path altogether. Phil 2009 doesn't exist apart from the rest of the universe, and no part of that universe exists independently of any other. Watch an ant walking around on the ground. What motivates its actions? Its "decisions"? The presence of food, or an approaching hand, or an obstacle, or other ants. Without a particular constellation of circumstances and structures around it, the ant can't "behave." Change the sequence or timing of events even slightly, and the behavior will be completely different. And that will change the environment as well. SOOOO... maybe Phil 2003 knew what he was talking about after all. Maybe he wasn't so dumb...

So, in case the point I was trying to make wasn't very clear (which I strongly suspect)... what I was trying to say is that-- even if you were to repeat all of the major "events" of your life exactly (to the extent that that was possible), unless you did it in exactly, precisely the same sequence, and in chronological synchrony with all the other events that were going on at those times-- everything would be different. Fundamentally, utterly, absolutely, and unequivocally different... for the most part.

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