The Power of Systems Thinking: Beyond the Reductionist Mindset

Featured

It is unfortunate that it often takes a crisis for us to become acutely aware of how interconnected the world really is. We see how everything is immersed in a web of interlinked systems ranging from the economy, natural environment, health systems to our own personal wellbeing. Each input is a unique part of the puzzle, and is connected to the system at large through a series of information flows and interdependent feedback loops.  

Systems are everywhere. We see them in the complexities in our own bodies to the harmony that exists in natural ecosystems. Every unique organism has its role to play in the sustainability and continuation of our vast and diverse natural habitats. The success of a well-functioning system is dependent on how well its parts are organized to achieve a common goal.     

In nature we never see anything isolated , but everything in connection with something else, which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe
Photo by Lachlan Ross on Pexels.com

Despite this, as a culture we have a tendency to be fixated on reductionist and mechanistic systems of thought. Take for instance how we structure our education systems. Knowledge is sliced into specific disciplines which an individual gain expertise in through their specialization.

However, the world is often messy, dynamic and in constant flux. Information can not fit into neat discrete boxes like we would like to imagine. Rather than focusing on the linkages and dependencies between the disciplines, educational institutions create specialists who don’t have the incentives to look beyond their narrow subject matter expertise.

The boundaries that we implement are of course important to organize society. They help us ensure that our institutions can work effectively and efficiently. Nonetheless, nothing exists in a vacuum and the borders we impose on reality aren’t as clear cut as they may seem on the surface. 

As systems thinker Donella H. Meadows mentions in her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer

There is no determinable boundary between the sea and the land, between sociology and anthropology, between an automobile’s exhaust and your nose. There are only boundaries of word, thought, perception and social agreement – artificial, mental-model boundaries.  

While these artificial containers provide us with stability and flexibility, a fixation on these mental constructs can blind us, making us naïve to the broader context and interdependencies of the situation. As the world continues to increase in complexity, our social systems and institutions need to be both adaptable and flexible to rapid change.

Thinking in systems forces us to examine things more methodically, and encourages us to avoid polarized ‘us against them ‘or ‘winner take all’ types of reasoning. We can see that problems don’t exist in isolation, and that quick fixes only lead to system instability or collapse in the future.  Moreover, this incentivizes us to think more deeply about issues to address root causes instead of symptoms.

Systems thinking compels us to ask the questions, why is it that the same type of economic, social or political crises happen again and again throughout history? What underlying behaviors and thinking is responsible for this type of ignorance?

 Our wellbeing is intrinsically linked not only to others but to the sustainability of the natural environment. Under this logic, we can see that relationships are the fundamental aspect of all life on earth. Everything which exists in this world is deeply integrated into a set of systems.

As social beings, we humans derive our identity through our interactions with families, friends, social groups, society at large and the natural environment. If we really appreciate and understand this concept, the narcissism and rampant individualism that drives our culture starts to fade. Egotism begins to seem illogical and contradictory as the ‘self’ is influenced and shaped by the quality of our connections with others.

Addressing the ideology of ‘short-termism’, greed and instant gratification which pervade our society and institutions is no easy feat. It all begins however with a shift in our thinking, an evolution of our values to understand how our lifestyles and choices are shaping the welfare others, as well as our future ancestors.

In a way we are the bridge between the past and the future. Our success is not entirely ours to boast. Each generation ‘stands on the shoulders of giants.’ As David Mitchell beautifully writes in his book Cloud Atlas,

Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

To paraphrase Alan Watts, we are all just one wave in the midst of a boundless ocean.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Featured Image Source

Embracing the Art of Play

Featured

We often look back on our childhood with great reverence and adoration. A time when we were not yet burdened with the responsibilities and demands of adulthood. When the only limitations and boundaries we faced were the limits of our imagination.

Learning about the world and experiencing things for the first time we were often in a perpetual state of awe and wonder. A state of play.

This essence of euphoria and enjoyment for the world however starts to fade as we transition into adulthood. We are no longer able to find joy and awe in the mundane aspects of everyday life.

Life transforms into something that must be taken seriously, and the idea of play becomes trivialized. Something we only feel justified engaging in if we have spare time after completing our work, responsibilities and obligations.

Furthermore, we are told that time is money and conflate ‘busyness’ with importance. Thus, we feel guilty in indulging in leisure or any sort of ‘unproductive’ activity.

Every minute must be planned and calculated. No time must be wasted.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

Instrumental vs. Intrinsic Values

We can divide our motivations for pursuing certain activities/things into two categories – instrumental and intrinsic values. 

Instrumental value is something that we pursue to achieve some other goal. To illustrate this point, we can look at our incentives for work. Many of us work not because we enjoy doing so[1] but rather out of necessity – to earn a living and survive.  Other examples of instrumental thinking include:

  • Getting an education to get a good job;
  • Working a prestigious career because it brings you high status;
  • Jogging for the health benefits it brings you.

I want to emphasize that these are all valid reasons for pursuing worthy goals. The point is however is that they are not done for sake of themselves. They are simply means to ends.

The logic is, only after achieving X {dream job, promotion, a certain salary, marriage etc.} I can be content. Happiness is deferred to the future.

On the other hand, intrinsic value is something that is appreciated in and of itself. These are the core reasons why we pursue certain goals. One way to get at what is intrinsically valuable is to ask a series of questions which get at the root cause of your motivations.

Suppose your life is made up of things you do for the sake of something else — you do A in order to get B, and you do B only to get C, and so on. Therefore A has no value in itself; its value lies in the B. But B has no value in itself: that value lies in the C. Perhaps we eventually encounter something — call it Z — that’s valuable for what it is in itself, and not for anything else.

Mark Rowlands, Tennis with Plato

For Aristotle, his notion of eudaimonia, roughly translated as happiness or human flourishing, is something that has intrinsic value. Things such as having a successful career where one enjoys their work or having financial freedom are sought after because they allow for one to attain happiness.

Let us look at some other examples:


The Rise of Machines

So how does this tie into some of the current issues we face today?

The prominent sociologist Max Weber claimed that modern societies were trapped in an ‘iron cage’ of rationalization. With the loss of traditional values and social ties, the modern era is governed by the ethic of efficiency and rationality.

The ideal of material progress has allowed us to create effective and innovative corporations and bureaucracies which have enabled significant increases in our living standards. However, it has come at the cost of the stripping away of human sympathy, emotion and dignity.  We are transformed into numbers on a spreadsheet, cogs in the machine and mere instruments required to keep the system running.

Consequently, we become more akin to robots or machines than sentient human beings.  The intrinsic value and dignity as a human being is all but lost.

Weber’s critique of modern society is that it is governed by instrumental reason and utilitarian values.  For the sake of greater efficiency and productivity, we transform human activity and interactions into something measurable and quantifiable. Social media fosters intense competition for status as we chase after more likes, comments and shares then our peers.  

A consequence of this mode of existence is that our relationship to the world becomes primarily extractive. Our focus becomes consuming or having things rather then experiencing them in and of itself.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering on Pexels.com

Reclaiming Play

It’s a cliché in our culture to hear the phrase ‘do what you love’, what does that even mean?

On a deeper level I think it is connected to play. We play when are deeply engaged in something because we truly enjoy it, irrespective of any reward or social benefit it may bring us. It awakens us to the present moment.

 Diane Ackerman in her book Deep Play discusses moments of play when we are completely immersed in the moment. It bears resemblance to the concept of flow which I have written about before.  She writes,

Deep play arises in such moments of intense enjoyment, focus, control, creativity, timelessness, confidence, volition, lack of self-awareness (hence transcendence) while doing things intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding for their own sake…It feels cleansing because when acting and thinking becomes one, there is no room left for other thoughts.

Diane Ackerman – Deep Play

This is not to say we must detach from our obligations and responsibilities as adults. Rather, it is to emphasize the importance of carving out a space or time to immerse yourself in play. A space where you can temporarily forget about expectations and the world around you.

Where you can feel alive.

When you can to let go, be in the present and be free.

Photo by Daryl Wilkerson Jr on Pexels.com

Play, you see, in the sense that I am using it is a musical thing. It is a dance. It is an expression of delight

Alan Watts

[1] According to a 2017 global Gallup poll, 85% of workers surveyed were not engaged or actively disengaged at work.

Featured image source

The Torchbearers of Flow: A Mind like Water

Featured

Interview with Silvio

‘Mushin’ is a term in Zen Buddhism which roughly translates to ‘no-mindness.’ It shares similarities to being in flow in that it describes a state of consciousness in which an individual experiences full concentration and mental clarity. In this state one is liberated from emotion and thought, and fully awake in the ‘now’. The movie icon Bruce Lee expands on the importance of flow in martial arts: 

“Flow in the total openness of the living moment. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Moving, be like water. Still, be like a mirror. Respond like an echo.”

 I met Silvio in university, and after watching some of his karate performances online I immediately connected the dots between the practice of karate and flow state. Success in martial arts requires the delicate balance between surrender and discipline. Only through hard work and a dedication to one’s craft can a martial artist fully be present during their routine. Intuitive action and the flow of the routine relies on the muscle memory developed through extensive training.  

In this interview Silvio touches on the importance of karate in his life, how he approaches a competition and the connection between the flow state and his practice.

Silvio’s full responses were provided below.


  1. How did you first get into karate and how long have you been practicing?

I first started training kempo karate when I picked up on the fact that my father was always going. I naturally wanted to follow in his foot steps at 4 years old, and fell in love with the art ever since. I earned my blackbelts in both the styles of kempo and shotokan since then. I would train quite frequently when I was younger, on average 2-4 times a week. It was difficult to keep up at this pace during my university years, hence I would try to attend 1-2 times a week. My martial arts training has therefore expanded across 23 years.

2. What do you find most enjoyable about karate?

There are many aspects about karate I enjoy, however it really comes down to my personal journey of seek-perfection (the primary rule of shotokan karate’s dojo kun – rules of the training facility). I have used the skills and disciple of martial arts at various stages of my life, it just does not start and stop from one moment to the next. For example, the capacity to learn numerous katas (forms) is an incredible gift that allowed my mind to expand at an early age. Karate has also given me the confidence to break out of my bubble whenever the time has called. I have been blessed to also have lifelong friendships with people from a variety of backgrounds. Lastly, the tournaments are always a fun time where I can put my skills to the test, and travel across North America as I have done.

3. The flow state, other wise known as being ‘in the zone’, requires a delicate balance between surrender and discipline. With the high pressure of your routine, how do you exercise control and remain grounded in the present moment?

The more work and preparation I have put into performance has always produced great results. One has to accept standards, and work towards the level of basics that is needed to go beyond them. I like to work backwards and vision the goal ahead of time. I build on the foundation from there because the work you do prior to being in the zone will show. Whether it is a day, week, or months, your time and practice will speak volumes and says a lot against more naturally gifted individuals when the time arises. The practice of control and grounded naturally come the more and more I train, similar to anything.

4. When your in peak performance, and everything goes according to plan, how does it feel both during and after your routine? Does this relate to any of the ‘flow state’ characteristics?

Absolutely amazing to know I performed a strong, well-balanced routine with the right amount of kime (power), which has developed from the last performance as well has an abundance of energy and confidence. This can be related to many of the flow characteristics:

 Challengeskills based: My martial arts performance seems most relatable to this flow characteristic because it is important to accept the challenge (ie competition), and not feel overwhelmed by who is there. It is also engaging to test oneself against senior, advanced students as a way to improve.

 Clear Goals: It is very natural to have both short and long term goals in karate. One could be achieving different ranks of blackbelt, while striving to always get better at competitions. Regardless, one has a good awareness of what to do next if these goals do not go according to plan. 

Unambigous feedback: Unambiguous feedback, is quite common a lot because the sensei (instructor) are there to teach, provide feedback as one progresses. There are also judges at competitions that can provide feedback and what to improve on following the end of the competition.

 Concentration of the task at hand: Martial arts involve a great deal of concentration at the relevant moves and their appropriate application. It is common to see one who does a move and understands the purpose behind it, compared to one who does something for the sake of just doing it.

 Autotelic experience – It is not unusual to get lost in one’s performance. It is easy to understand whether one is just doing it for the sake of doing it, while bringing an abundance of energy and power to their routine.


Many thanks to Silvio for sharing his experiences. I have a couple more interviews in the “Torbeaers of Flow” series coming up soon.

Till next time,

AA