Everything compounds

On emergent phenomena and why it’s the engine of the universe

Every action, force, choice compounds.

Often we can’t see the compounding because the effects are infinitesimal.

This compounding can remain invisible, seemingly dormant or non-existent for days (lack of sleep), weeks (working too much), months (eating poorly), years (drifting away from your spouse, having a heart attack), millennia (global warming or extinctions). 

Regardless of scale or our ability to perceive it, compounding is the ever-present engine of the universe.

The vast majority of people are unaware of the power contained in all the seemingly innocuous daily decisions we make.

These decisions can compound for years without us noticing.

Because small decisions compound very, very slowly.

Right up until they don’t.

Here’s what it looks like if you plot the compound curve for a very small number:


The point where the graph, after a very long period of time, veers abruptly is often called a phase shift.

But I think a more intriguing way to see it as emergent.

Here’s a definition:

An emergent behavior or emergent property can appear when a number of simple entities (agents) operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviors as a collective.


It’s at that point of inflection that what has been compounding becomes something else entirely.

A seemingly flat and straight line becomes a steeply sloped and curved line. 
1000 cheeseburgers become a heart attach. 
A group of people become a crowd or mob.
Mass amounts of people become cultures and societies.
A $1000 saved becomes $10 million.
A flock of birds becomes a dazzling, dancing organism in the sky.
A trillion cells become you.

This is how economic crashes work.

Everything’s going great, right up until it isn’t.


Compounding sneaks up on you.

Often, by the time you’re able to see the effects, the outcome has long been set in motion.

In extreme cases, by the time you’re able to see the effects of compounding it’s already become emergent, something entirely new, and you can’t reverse it.

Another law of the universe:

Once something emerges, you can’t reverse it.

The universe only evolves in one direction: forward.

Just like once you see, you can’t unsee. Once something has emerged, it can’t un-emerge. 

That said, not all emergent phenomena endure or survive.

For example, there were many variations of humans in addition to homo sapiens. We are simply the only species of many variants to endure.

In more moderate cases, early signs are visible and emergent outcomes can be avoided by ceasing to compound negative activities and beginning to compound positive ones. Things like physical health or personal finance or your marriage are good examples.

Every moment provides a choice to compound something positive or something negative.

We get to choose which line on the graph we’re on.

The word “spirit” is another synonym for emergent.

It attempts to describe those moments when a song becomes indescribably more than the notes and the melody, when a moment becomes deeper than two humans hugging one another, when sounds pass from someone’s lips and become words that pierce the depths of our being, when an artist carves a statue that takes your breath away, when words become metaphors that are as wide and deep as the universe itself.

I often use the phrase “matter and spirit” when I talk about this idea because it captures the very real reality that our physical realities can become emergent, transcendent realities at any moment.

Often these seem to happen by accident because the ingredients are too small for us to perceive them.

But I also believe we have the ability to incite emergent realities if we have the care, patience, discipline, craftsmanship, vision, focus to compound our creative power and will.

Our lives can be emergent too.
Our lives can be transcendent—even eternal.

Our lives are the summation of a thousand different compounding categories.

The great sages that have pointed us towards the path for millennia, demonstrate the plethora of different ways to calibrate our energies, activities, and focus in order to create an emergent life.

The path is narrow, not because it’s not wide, but because very few are ever able to find it and stay on it long enough to trigger an emergent phenomena.

“Matter and spirit” captures the deep knowing that profound emergent potential dwells within every one of us. If we have the fortitude and fortune to find that unique set of conditions, abilities, and creativity, we too can live an emergent life that takes on a life, an identity, of its own.

🤝 Stay in touch

I send an email several times a year with a handful of the most interesting things I’ve written or uncovered at home, abroad, and on the web.

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