Here’s the deal. We cannot control or predict what will happen to us; nor can we fully understand ourselves.
Some find this most irksome. Others are less bothered and perhaps agree with Joseph Campbell when he says: “We must give up the lives we were planning, in order to have the lives that are waiting for us.” And I am sure yet others would disagree and say that we can control, predict and fully understand ourselves (stretching themselves admirably, no doubt, to control toddlers, predict the next Trump and understand dark energy). To whom I say, good luck and farewell, this post is for the other groups of people just described.
If you are still reading, you are probably thinking “uh, what next?”. Which is to say, how to move forward if you cannot control or predict the outcome and you might be wrong about virtually everything?
Don’t worry, we have options! You could set yourself adrift and see what happens. As you drift, you could make interesting shapes, like circles. But it does take a surprising amount of energy not to care…
You could also select a position that you like and then hold on tight. How you make sense of things and what you consider important will never change. Bah to growth. But you will have to aggressively reject any evidence which contradicts your view. And you might end up as popular as a climate change denier…
The third option I stumbled across when reading an article by Donella “Dana” Meadows – she says, we can dance with our systems! Because when we give up the struggle to control and predict everything, there is room for something much more wondrous.
Dana was an influential environmental scientist and systems analyst. In her article Dancing with Systems, she identifies a list of general concepts and practices which can be applied to systems theory. Dana accepts that we cannot predict and control everything, and yet concludes that our discoveries, the properties of our systems and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone. And as foreshadowed in the article, Dana’s list is not unique to systems thinking and can be applied to everyday life.
In this post, I will share 7 of Dana’s list of 14 (a second post to follow) and apply them to general living with a dash of life-coaching. Her insights are marvellous and I hope you will think so too. They might also be timely; it is becoming increasingly obvious that our prevailing structures, reflective of our inner thinking about who we understand ourselves to be, are meeting some alarming limitation points. When you cannot even rely on the weather to continue as before, it helps to have an approach for handling shifting situations, new information and uncertainty.
And for those interested in checking out just how bad my paraphrasing is, you can find a copy of Dana’s article here.
1. Get the beat.
Before you take any real world steps, examine your thinking and behaviour.
Effective introspection has immense value and will be reflected in the quality of your being and any subsequent acts. But given it does not produce something that contributes to the GDP right now – our Western obsession – there is huge pressure to gloss over this step and simply to go out there and do things.
So let me (with Dana’s help) tease out the benefits. When you examine your thinking – thinking which will impact how you feel and then act – you will be able to to separate the facts from the theories. Because there can be a world of difference between the circumstances and what you make those circumstances mean.
Say my sister does not contact me on my birthday (a fact). I could make this mean that she does not care about me (a theory). But there are other theories. Perhaps she is a scatterbrain and just forgot. Maybe she chooses other ways to express her care for me. Perhaps it is a combination of reasons – she cares only a little but is mainly a scatterbrain. It is very difficult to say that my theory is absolutely and completely true. (To be clear, this was an example and my sisters do care and contact me – I am the scatterbrain). A clear separation between facts and theories keeps me from being blinded by my own narrative.
Observing your behaviour and thinking also shifts the focus from a static to a dynamic analysis. Which increases the quantity and quality of the questions you can ask. Rather than simply fixating on what is wrong right now, you could ask “how did I get here?” and identify the pattern that landed you in the position you now seek to change. You could ask “where will this lead me?” to assess whether your every day acts are aligned with your values. And so on.
Getting the beat also means being mindful of our misconceptions. Unfortunately, we have quite the fallible mind. Take monocausotaxophilia: our love of single causes that explain everything, when in reality everything is much more complex. Then there is ease of representation: what strikes us most strongly seems more widespread than it really is. There is confirmation bias, self-serving bias, hindsight bias, optimism/pessimism bias, negativity bias (sadly different to pessimism bias), the decline bias and in-group bias. Just to name a few. And my favourite: our tendency to follow confident people, even though the above suggests that we probably shouldn’t.
I will add this though. We cannot take the beat forever, as we sadly shake our heads over our many psychological shortcomings. This item must be read with number 3, which requires real world steps to fast-track our learning and to share our gifts with the world.
2. Listen to the wisdom of the system
To use Dana’s words: “Before you charge in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there.”
We are very good at noticing what is wrong, but what about what is right? There will be elements in your routines, attitudes, behaviours and perceptions that will be simply perfect for you, right now. Sometimes we are so eager to “fix ourselves” that we want everything to change. But this trashes our hard won treasures; years we have spent learning about how we work and how we work best.
For instance, over the years you would have gathered a wealth of information on what truly nourishes you. This is information you can act on. Unfortunately, this might mean admitting that even though you would like to be an extrovert, you are actually not. And that sometimes you would rather converse with a houseplant than a human being. But surprisingly, people tend to take this okay as long as you are being truthful. Put another way, would you rather a friend make up a lie to excuse themselves from a party, or simply say that they need some time alone.
Certainly, if you are prone to beating yourself up then you will be overlooking value somewhere. So I dare you to actively search for that value.
3. Expose your mental models to the open air
How can I say this… You need to get out there and do stuff.
That is, do the things you care about and be seen by other people to be doing them.
I will not belittle the guts that it takes to do this. You will feel excruciatingly vulnerable because you are revealing something deeply personal and taking a stab at something dear to you. As JRR Tolkien said, when submitting the manuscript of The Lord of the Rings to a publisher, “I have exposed my heart to be shot at.” And, just to pile on the bad news, doing something that you consider important does not shield you from failure. It might even make it more likely, because you will have to persevere at your cause.
So why do we do it?
Interaction with the opinions, knowledge, life experiences, values, insights and even prejudices of others will supercharge your learning on a scale beyond imagining.
To truly learn you will have to let go of your ego. Admit your uncertainties and correct your mistakes.
You may even find yourself being criticised or attacked. If this happens, become the creator and not the victim. Again, not easy. Take Thelma Plum, a talented Aboriginal singer-songwriter who has been subjected to years of racist and misogynistic abuse. After a particularly nasty onslaught, she even considered giving up her career. What she went on to do instead was to use that pain to create music, including Better in Blak (the song and an interview can be found here). What happened (and is happening) to her is truly unacceptable, but it illustrates starkly your choices if you are on the receiving end of something ugly; give up or create. And for the sake of this world I hope you create.
This is also how you gather data about your right path. Although I like to use my imagination as the starting point for trying out my various mad schemes, sometimes there is no substitute for reality.
You might be able to think of a time when you had an idea which sounded absolutely wonderful in your head. Like becoming a lawyer. It just sounds like YOU and it is PERFECT. Then you do it. And come to realise, like many law students do, that your chosen career is less about the flashy courtroom objections and more about correct comma usage. (Sadly, I was attracted to the correct comma usage part.) That real world feedback is needed so you can select the ideas worthy of development and to resign the others to useful data points.
You can avoid a lifetime of regret by coming to the realisation that you don’t want the thing that doesn’t want you. All it requires is some humility so you do not conflate quitting with failure; it is merely redirection after all.
4. Stay humble. Stay a learner.
My first post discusses the difficulties of beginning and the advantages of a beginner’s mindset. What I will add then is encouragement to learn from sources which go beyond the rational mind.
Have you ever thought about what your emotions are trying to tell you? Are you anxious? Be curious about why. Keep drilling down to locate the source, and once you do, work out your basic emotional need. Then set about meeting it, even in little ways. For instance, if you need more support, try supporting yourself by getting a good night’s sleep before you tackle your huge scary project. You can use your emotions to dig into the areas which you were previously just tolerating, creating something better.
Ever wondered how lie detectors work? Well, the body hates to lie. There will be a measurable physical response. Even if you are lying to yourself. So if you feel terrible you can question whether you are believing something that is not true. Sometimes these beliefs can be foundational and yet extremely unkind, like believing you are not worthy of love. The mind is easily tangled but the body will be able to guide you to your deeper truths.
I love to use intuition, because the more I do so the more accurate it becomes. You might be given a clear prompt about what to do or not do, a message which has no apparent or logical source. Perhaps you have an animal response and feel wary around the person that is smiling and saying all the right things. Other times there is a sense of what wants to happen, bridging both time and space. Like any gift intuition can be developed, but it starts with resisting the cultural pressure to write it off as nonsense.
5. Honour and protect information.
Ask yourself: is there information that I need and don’t have? What is the quality of the information I receive?
Sometimes we are in such a rush to remove the uncertainty from our lives, that we rush our decision without checking the information that we have or waiting for the information that we don’t have. Sometimes good decision making is knowing when you have enough information to make a decision without spoiling the objective.
Of course, waiting can feel mighty uncomfortable. My suggestion? Make a decision not to make a decision until x event happens or you receive y information. It makes it slightly more bearable.
It is also worth considering what information you are being exposed to. For instance, if you regularly watch News Corp (Murdoch run Australian media conglomerate) you might start believing that the world is full of horrible people doing terrible things. That you should panic because swarms of killer bees are on the prowl in your neighbourhood. And if you already have these beliefs, News Corp will help them grow. Of course, there are some horrible people doing terrible things and perhaps we should worry about some killer bees, but an oversupply of negative and panic-inducing news will invariably lead to the impression that this reflects the reality for all people everywhere. But it doesn’t, it is simply information selected for a commercial purpose; to sell news.
Basically, you want to feed your brain a healthy diet of balanced, high quality and relevant information that ultimately empowers and emboldens you to face this world, even if it contains some confronting facts. We can take hard truths, but panic for panic’s sake is exhausting.
Perhaps the most important way to honour information is to act on what you deeply know to be true (and your truth will feel liberating, not imprisoning). Take the belief that you are not worthy of love. It may feel terrifying to consider that you actually are. Even more terrifying is then to act on that new information. If you believe you are worthy of love, what would you do differently?
6. Locate responsibility in the system.
Ah, it is so much easier to blame external forces for our internal experience. I like to blame neoliberalism, fossil fuel companies and the narrowness of our thinking in not being able to give up the chronically dysfunctional beliefs which sustain phenomena like racism and sexism.
Although it feels immensely satisfying to rage against the bad guys, it is ultimately more impactful to locate the places where you are empowered to act. You might not want to take responsibility for your dissatisfaction and unhappiness, but you are best placed (ahem, the only candidate) to address them. This is because the solution will be uniquely you. And here’s the gift; once you locate areas of responsibility then you can put in the hard work to change things for the better. Otherwise you will be stuck, raging spectacularly and pointlessly. Continue to call out bad behaviour, but do not be so blinded that you neglect to address your own problems and pain wherever you can.
7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems.
This means to design learning into your life. I know this sounds basic but sometimes you will learn something that has profound implications or it will require you to admit that you were wrong. It will take courage or humility to act on that information. Most importantly, however, you will only receive the information if you remember to check the mail.
That is, are you paying attention to what needs to be updated?
Are you comfortable (or resigned) to the fact that change is the one constant? How is this accommodated?
Are you creating a false dichotomy e.g. concluding that because fossil fuel companies pollute the earth that they are incapable of any decency? Perhaps they are capable of some decency and they pollute the earth.
Would you be aware if you were writing blog posts that were rather too long?
On that note, this concludes the first half of Dana’s list. I will follow up soon (well, by my standards) with a second post to give you the remaining seven items, which I think are even better. Of course, if you dislike suspense, just read Dana’s article. In the meantime, have fun with the above!
Also, if there is something you would like me to write about, make a request in the comments section and I will give it a shot. Let me know if you would like to remain anonymous (in which case I will not publish the comment).
Happy Holidays when you get there!