The Burden of Small Chances

Tonight I rewatched an old war movie classic with my Dad: 1976’s Midway, starring Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, and a who’s who of 60s and 70s stars, with a score (very much like the same year’s Star Wars) by John Williams.

Sometimes war movies are blunt, explosive affairs. This one had violence, but it was much more focused on the many, many moments leading up to the conclusion of this battle, which turned the tide in the Pacific theatre of World War II.

If the movie is to be believed, a number of small chance occurrences spelled the difference between victory and defeat for the two fleets.

Because Admiral Halsey was dealing with a skin disease, a capable more junior commander was given charge of two of the US carriers at Midway.

Because the Japanese spent precious time re-arming their bomber planes with contact bombs, then again with torpedoes, they slowed their deployment.

Because the Japanese launched one of their observation planes late, they didn’t discover the presence of American carriers in the area of Midway.

Because some engineer back on the Soryu didn’t check the instruments on a scout plane, the Japanese didn’t learn until it was too late that the

These are small things – all of which could have played out differently had one or a few people made different decisions.

We often underestimate the importance (and therefore the burden) of small chances and small decisions. As the old proverb goes:

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

What we do matters for the course of our own lives. We may never know when it will matter for the course of millions of lives.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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