Unintended Consequences


This week’s column is intended to help us think about unintended consequences in a different way. In the spirit of the topic at hand, I will not try to anticipate how reading this column might affect you (although I do hope you’re not overwhelmed by boredom, or nausea for that matter). Instead, I will simply share a story from my own life about how I discovered some surprising connections between seemingly unrelated things.

When I first moved to Arizona in 2015, I lived about one and a half miles from campus as the crow flies. Because I am not a crow, my trip was closer to three miles each way. (Note: I didn’t say I can’t fly; I’m actually a paraglider pilot. Pretty neat, right? Ask me about it sometime.) So, I was cycling six miles nearly every day when I took the fastest route between home and campus, which was usually along Alameda Drive and College Avenue.

This bike ride has some obvious implications, such as regular cardio exercise and joint strengthening. A recent study has also linked regular cycling to the development of a stronger immune system relative to non-cyclists with similarly active lifestyles. Nevertheless, it is difficult to determine the cumulative effects of these two years of cycling, but I will speculate a couple possibilities based on my knowledge of myself.

I suspect that my knees really benefited from the regular low-impact strength training, which probably helped prevent knee injuries I might have sustained while playing ultimate frisbee. I also think that the cardio regular cardio kept my cholesterol lower than it otherwise would have been given my genetic disposition and a diet that is high in eggs and cheese (mmm, cheese). I also increased my ability to integrate meditation into my morning and evening rides, which is for me quite a different experience than controlling the particularities of my contemplative practice.

I also have some less obvious suppositions. For example, by cycling regularly across Rural Road and Apache Boulevard immediately after having moved to Arizona from New York, I quickly learned a lot about the various dimensions of traffic here. The traffic lights in Tempe have variable timing throughout the day, but they tend to follow the same pattern of right-of-way. This probably helped me become a more pedestrian-conscious driver in an unfamiliar city faster than I would have otherwise.

These are just few of the unintended consequences from having chosen to live in that house and bike to campus. But what’s of particular interest to me are the ideas I would get as I cycled home from campus. After a long day of classes and research, I would often leave campus with a dozen interesting ideas and unanswered questions buzzing in my head. About halfway through my bike ride (mid-way between College and Rural on Alameda, just past a large pothole) I would have moments of clarity with comforting regularity. Sometimes when the ideas were especially significant, I would actually stop and jot down notes in my phone, or make a brief voice recording while waiting for the light to change at Rural. When I arrived home, I made a habit of sitting down and elaborating on them further. Many of those writings have contributed to the current state of my research, and some have significantly changed my perspectives on myself and the nature of various things.

In August, I moved to a new house near College and Broadway that is much closer to campus. Now my bike ride is a little less than half the distance it used to be, and sometimes I’ll walk. With a much shorter trip, the moments of clarity vanished, but I didn’t notice at first. After all, I still thought about things while I rode, just with less brilliance. Up to that point, I was aware of the significance and regularity of those former moments of clarity, but I hadn’t attributed them to my distance traveled. I certainly didn’t consider their absence as related to my recent move.

One day in September, I needed to mail something, so after leaving campus I continued down College toward Southern Avenue. As I approached the post office, I was struck by a small bird! Just kidding. I was struck by two ideas, near-simultaneously. The first had something to do with a lesson plan I was working on. But the second was the realization that I hadn’t had any ideas like the first one since I moved closer to campus. It occurred to me that my time on the bike was an important factor, so for the rest of the week, rather than returning straight home, I cycled passed my house and tacked on a roughly two-mile circuit. It worked; about half-way through the extra leg of the ride, I started feeling those familiar moments of clarity.

I will admit that they were not entirely familiar. There is something about the artificial inflation of the bike ride that makes the ideas feel a bit constructed. They’re still insightful, but they seem to lack a certain authenticity that comes from emergence through routine rather than intention. This is an important distinction, although I haven’t yet figure out why.

At any rate, it was fascinating for me to actually recreate this seemingly obscure and intangible thing with some certainty. It makes me see unintended consequences in a new light. What kinds of things are relevant when I am considering a lifestyle change? Given the idiosyncratic nature of my moments of clarity, perhaps I should include a whole new category of considerations when I am deliberating between different futures. As with any big change, significant things can unintentionally get lost in the shuffle.

If you have a story about unintended consequences or an experience of shining light on hidden connections, feel free to share it in the comments below!

About the Author: Matt Nock is a third-year PhD student in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. His research is at the intersection of sustainability education and public pedagogy, and focuses on the ways in which the dominant discourses of social and environmental oppression are reproduced or challenged through formal and informal learning processes.