What’s Your System? (Part 2)

Photo by Linh Ha on Unsplash. Some systems are beautifully chaotic.

I promised a follow up to my previous post “What’s Your System (Part 1)“. Here I present Part 2!

These two posts combined contain suggestions for how we might navigate this world in the knowledge that we cannot control and predict everything. (Besides, even if we could, it wouldn’t matter because we are incapable of understanding everything too.)

Sure, this sounds like bad news. But what it actually means is that our creations and our futures have the capacity to extend beyond our imaginations. Like when we imagined Jetsons-esque aerocars and got the internet instead. I’ll leave you to decide whether that was the better deal.

The 14-item list I have been exploring was created by Donella “Dana” Meadows in her article Dancing With Systems. Dana was outlining general concepts and practices that apply to systems theory, but these are perfectly capable of being applied to general living (as she indeed foreshadowed).

I thought it would be fun to take that list and give it a life coach and general living slant. The additional benefit being that this list provides a structure to my posts that even I can follow.

So, let’s continue that journey and start with item 8 (because 8 comes after 7…).

8. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.

Dana says, “Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure.”

The ugly side of our obsession with numbers is playing out in political and social debate every day. It is why we focus more on cost and less on dignity and compassion when considering welfare reform. Why we are tempted to outline the economic benefits to support a case for diversity, when it should be enough to say that discrimination per se is dehumanising. It is why our political leaders defer action on climate until it is market mandated or they feel secure of their numbers for the next electoral cycle. Call me simple, but I would think that the threat of extinction provides all the justification that is necessary.

Besides, our obsession with measuring doesn’t always do us good. Think about what happens when we seek to attach a reward to a measure. As anthropologist Marilyn Strathern states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Take what happened when the French colonial government in Hanoi, Vietnam created a bounty program in 1902 to kill rats. The result? Population increased. The rat catchers simply lobbed off rat tails to collect the reward, setting the rats free to procreate and reproduce.

And when the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) offered carbon credits in exchange for plants eliminating harmful gases, they expected hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – one of the most damaging types of greenhouse gases – to decrease because they offered a very high price for them. Instead, plants switched to coolants which produced HFCs as a by-product, which they could then destroy and get paid for. After spending millions and seeing the use of HFCs increase, the IPCC scrapped the policy.

How does this look like in everyday life? This is what you can do:

  • Notice to what you give your attention. Are there areas in your life where you are focusing on numbers to the exclusion of values? Take this small example. Sometimes I feel I should write snappy blogs on less random subjects, perhaps absent all the snipes against the climate destroyers. Then, probably, more people will read this blog. But if I focus on numbers, suddenly this blog has an agenda – pander to the mainstream – and I find myself writing about things I care little about. I would lose the respect of the readers I am really writing for – you.
  • Consider using your values to guide your decisions. It sounds funny to use something which is unquantifiable to help make your decisions, but that is precisely the gift! It helps you navigate unfamiliar terrain and situations for which there are no laws or rules telling you what to do. There is no law that makes you listen to your partner, but if you value developing a caring relationship with that person, you will be prompted to nod at intervals and make the all the right noises. Following your values helps you support and create things you actually care about.

And so this rule reminds us to pay attention to those things which defy neat definition and measurement, which cannot be captured as a KPI and which will never be dressed up as a pretty piechart. Personally, I’m glad there are things which defy quantification; this gets closer to the core of who we truly are. We are beyond an external metric and we can rise above manipulation by numbers.

9. Go for the good of the whole.

One day I went for a walk with my mother around a lake and we passed a big group of runners, all men and of all ages. Then, after a substantial time and distance, we encountered some stragglers. My mother commented that they might have to hurry to catch up with the others. To which one replied, “Speed is a young man’s game – we have endurance!”

Going for the good of the whole might mean that you pace yourself. Or that you play your own game, not somebody else’s. It is the ability to step back and consider the entire picture. The immediate problem will still be there, but it will have a proper context. It may even cease to be a problem if you decide that things must unravel for the good of the whole.

I think what often gets in the way is our inclination to view everything as separate. We have been trained this way. As in my work is separate from my family is separate from my friendships is separate from my hobbies is separate from my health is separate from my spiritual practices is separate from my coffee habit. It is hard to consider the whole when you don’t consider the arm to be attached to the body.

Separateness is a pleasant fiction which helps us to organise our lives, but the interconnections are as numerous as they are obvious. Even something as simple as a food choice will impact my energy which will impact my work which will impact my mood which will give me mental bandwidth to give up coffee (hah – never!) You might be fixated on your work, but sometimes going for the good of the whole means that you give love and attention to something wildly different, knowing that this will feed back in some way at some time. It might give you renewed energy, perspective, subconscious processing time or inspiration.

And you might just find that how you do one thing is how you do everything.

My decision to quit law was disastrous for my short term financial health. It was a blow to my self-esteem because it attracted criticism both internal and external; prior to that point I had always been the good girl that works hard doing serious stuff. And there are parts of Australia that react to my being a life coach as if I had suddenly declared that I see fairies. But I truly believe it will be for the good of the whole because I can see its value and I will be supporting myself in a more sustainable way, doing something that I love and which allows me to get all the sleep that I need.

10. Expand time horizons.

We give the short term the most attention. Of course we do. It shouts loudest. It seems impossible to look at the long term without dealing with the short term first.

Yet Dana looks at this differently. She reminds us that actions taken now will have long term effects. And what we experience now is the consequences of actions set in motion yesterday and decades ago and centuries ago. There is no long-term/short-term distinction.

Put another way, actions will have both a short-term and a long-term effect. And any experience will be both the short-term and long-term effect of a past action.

How does this help? I think we can be less hung up on the distinction. Investing in the long-term is actually an investment which will be felt in the now, but one day in the future. Which means we should pay attention to both. Focus on the good of the whole.

For most of us, paying attention to both usually means paying more attention to the long-term.

To give the long-term its due acknowledgment often requires a plan with a follow through. This is hardly groundbreaking news, so why do we struggle so much to go to the gym, knowing that it is a good long-term investment in health? Well, you may be experiencing the effects of the “scarcity trap”.

Researchers Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir identified the phenomenon and explored some of its impact in their book The Scarcity Trap which was released in 2013. They explain that scarcity comes in different forms; you might be hungry, lonely, time-poor or broke. And yet, when suffering under a pervasive feeling of scarcity, the impact is the same; scarcity will diminish your mental capacity. Capacity which you need to support your concentration, self-control and long-term planning. The mind is hijacked by the object of the scarcity, leaving less for its other functionalities.

This is why arguments that the poor should just work harder and better are simply cruel. It is like two energiser bunnies running a race, one having depleted batteries. It is a matter of limitation, not effort. And arguments that the poor are rightly so are even crueler. It is not about inherent capacity; it about the ability to access that capacity.

I’m not going to pretend that it won’t take hard work to put yourself in the position where you will start to reap the benefits of your long-term planning. But you can plan so that your reduced capacity is taken into account. So if you know your willpower will be low, don’t take that credit card shopping or keep loads of junk food in the house. And you can catch your thinking so you are not confusing a lack of access to capacity with a lack of inherent capacity. You are not dumb; but put anybody in your situation and they would act dumber.

Extinction Rebellion has adopted a Native American principle which helps them to take the long-term into account when making decisions. They aim to create a world that is fit for the next seven generations to live in. I believe the original principle was to make every decision with the next seven generations in mind. So my question for you is, who or what do you want in mind when you make your decisions?

11. Expand thought horizons.

This part is tricky. Our life experiences will lead us across interdisciplinary lines. You may be an expert in one field but this will not provide the container for your life. Life is too messy for that. Your work, your experiences and your passions will lead you into new realms.

In this place the challenge becomes how to learn from the experts. This requires humility because we have to admit what we do not know. It requires perseverance to fully grasp the depths of their knowledge and contributions. But it also requires the ability to see the limitations of the expertise. To not get dazzled by the fancy badges and slick-sounding words. Experts have approached a problem using a specific framework which may or may not be appropriate. Their confidence can masquerade as knowledge. They are also sometimes downright wrong. Yet if we make the effort to truly understand what they are saying, and they do the same on our points of expertise, the result can be magical.

We are starting to understand now that crossing interdisciplinary lines can be enormously fruitful. It does not just represent a sharing of technical know how; it can also be the sharing of a worldview. This can cause you to revisit foundations which were previously beyond question. Or perhaps you mash things together to create something new. Like how Stephen Hawking was able to combine the theory of relativity and quantum theory to arrive at Hawking radiation.

12. Expand the boundary of caring.

Expanding the boundary of caring is an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of all living things. We suffer chronically from the myth of separateness. Of course, it is a useful ideology because it supports our capitalist structure. We must compete to get what we want! It is a dog eat dog world! Only the strong survive! Yet connection is so important to us that without the company of other humans we literally go insane. And we cannot survive independently of the ecosystems which support us.

Why is this a problem? It isn’t. Unless you are a sociopath, you can give up the myth of separateness and celebrate connection instead.

The boundary of caring is capable of expanding in all directions. Frequently, I find that my clients have neglected to expand the boundary of caring to themselves. Often it is done for the admirable purpose of self-improvement (as in if I constantly criticise and harass myself, I will be properly incentivised to do better).

Unfortunately, those are not the results. We simply respond better to kindness and understanding. Try this for an exercise. Take a moment in which you screwed up or were going through a difficult time. Then try to truly see yourself in that moment. See the places in which you were really trying, remember what you were believing and what you didn’t yet know and everything that was swirling around you. Then, from that place, see if there is anything to learn. Learning will be more valuable from this space because it is not laden with judgment.

Do we give up being practical to be moral? Dana puts this best when she says, “…most people know about the interconnections that make moral and practical rules turn out to be the same rules. They just have to bring themselves to believe that which they know.”

For instance, if you were to become a vegan you might do so for moral reasons; your concern for the environment and your objection to animal cruelty. But you could end up healthier, financially better off and leave a smaller carbon footprint. A practical result.

Switching this around, say you pollute a waterway because the legal penalties are less than the profit you stand to gain, which is frequently the case. What seems like a financially sound decision is in fact a disaster; you are reducing the available clean water in this world to drink, water which you require alongside everybody else. And you fuel civil outrage, perhaps even unrest, which will ultimately make your business unsustainable and perhaps even strip you of your spoils. And unless you are a sociopath, you have just polluted your own conscience.

I’m not sure whether I am saying that what is good for the Earth is good for humans. Perhaps I am saying that what is truly good for humans must also be good for the Earth because of our interconnectedness (leaving another category of things which are good for the Earth, but not humans – say if all humans were to leave). What I do know is that if you expand the boundaries of caring, you are more likely to find those rules which are both moral and practical.

13. Celebrate complexity.

We bend over backwards to make order of this messy, chaotic world. In our quest for an orderly society we have more legislation and regulation than ever before, form-filling has become the new skill of our age and our buildings are increasingly less decorative.

Some of these efforts are immensely valuable. Take scientific inquiry – each time a prediction proves to be correct or incorrect, we can build on our knowledge.

But there is also a part of me that feels sad every time I see an overly manicured garden. Functional shopfronts. And a form that is so desperately trying to categorise your answers that all your answers become an explanation of how you don’t quite fit within a category.

I think the part of us that is obsessed with order, to the exclusion of everything else, is dangerous. It doubles the university fees for art courses, while dropping those for STEM subjects (which is what the Australian government has done). It makes it impossible for any one citizen to know all of the laws and regulations they are subject to; leading the way for selective enforcement (as former Chief Justice Gleeson comments in his speech made on 9 July 2001, The Growth of Legislation and Regulation). It delivers a society which will one day tell us that implanting a chip in our arms will keep us safer and make it easier to pay the household bills, a logic we will find hard to resist.

Dana suggests that we celebrate complexity because it is the source of many beautiful, strange and interesting things. My sense is that we have become a little scared of complexity. Perhaps because our society is more individualist than ever before. We feel unsupported. And so we conclude that the unknown is more likely to hurt than to help us.

On a personal level, I think we can celebrate the fact that you will spend a lifetime and never quite find a way to impose order on your life. It is in the space of the chaotic elements interacting with our knowledge, filtered by our curiosity and humility, that we create beauty and meaning.

14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness.

How many times have you heard, “that’s just the way humans are – without rules, they will [insert horrible activity]”. Really? I think there is a disconnect between what we are shown and what we experience. I mean I know that my family cheat at cards sometimes, but I don’t truly believe they will collect the ears of their enemies if left to their own devices.

Sure, there are some genuine sociopaths out there. Sometimes we make them CEOs. But these aside, I think circumstances tend to create the rest of the dysfunction that we see. I also believe that these circumstances are sometimes created by our assumptions that people are inherently dysfunctional. Which then strengthens the assumptions, creating a vicious assumption-dysfunction loop. If you treat somebody like a criminal and cut off their opportunities, what do you expect?

This is not the popular view. We are taught to believe that rules are required to curb the worst excesses of our bad behaviour. Like the rule at a nature trail in my neighbourhood which prohibits cyclists from going over 15kms per hour. Without that rule, cyclists will run down the runners whenever they can. Because clearly they have the impulse to be monsters.

Here is the trap. We forget to weigh in the good, or don’t do it adequately. It may even be an impossible task, because how do we give due recognition to the noble deeds which are by definition unconditional and ego-free (i.e. usually not posted on social media)? Also, I would like to know how many of us refrain from murder because it is not something we feel like doing – and how many of us simply follow the rule telling us it is bad.

Perhaps I am hopelessly naive, but I will say this. Decide for yourself. And as you do, consider whether we have done enough to set up the conditions for harmonious living. You can be mindful that fear and tragedy sells because we are biologically primed to pay acute attention to matters which threaten our safety. Look within and around. Because no matter which view you ascribe to, you will find the evidence to support it. Personally, I would prefer to notice more of the good stuff.

Looking at the world’s many misdeeds, you may be tempted to lower your standard of goodness. This is what Dana urges us not to do; she asks that we keep the standard absolute and not weigh the bad more heavily than the good. Hold fast and hold strong. A timely reminder.

So there you have it. A set of guiding principles which factor in our lack of absolute knowledge and inability to fully predict and control our lives. None of this is to say that you cannot create a life that is personally meaningful, that is aligned with your integrity and values. In fact, these principles will help you to shake off the paint-by-numbers lifestyle in exchange for something messy, beautiful and utterly beyond the limitations of your imagination. Many thanks Dana!

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