2019-05-20 concepts

Organized complexity, kayfabe, workism

Hey all -

+ mental models

* Organized complexity

Over the last year or two, I’ve grown a bit fanatical about complex systems (as you may have noticed!). But why?

I think new ways of viewing the world often emerge from a visceral dissatisfaction with the old ways of viewing it. We see that the old ways don’t always work as they claim to: they’re outdated, impractical, inapplicable, or simply wrong.

For example, after the Scientific Revolution, scientists began to view the world as simple, decomposable systems.

x + 2 = 4. Solve for x.

That’s a simple equation, a simple system[1]. There’s one free variable, so solve for it.

Formulating problems in terms of simple systems proved to be incredibly useful. But of course, it wasn’t enough. People grew dissatisfied with it. How could you understand a system with a great many variables?

And so came statistics. It proclaimed: don’t focus on all the little individual variables. Focus on the aggregate properties of the entire system, the behavior which occurs on average. Then we can understand systems, even if we don’t understand all the mechanics underneath.

Formulating problems in terms of statistics proved to be incredibly useful. But of course, it wasn’t enough. People grew dissatisfied with it. How could you understand a system when behavior didn’t occur on average? When the system constantly mutated, contorted - sometimes predictably but at other times violently and unpredictably?

And so came complex systems analysis. It proclaims: focus neither on the little individual variables, nor the predictability of the entire system. Instead, focus on how and why the system is unpredictable. Why does it deviate from our expectations, and under what conditions?

Just like algebra and statistics before it, I’m optimistic that complex systems analysis will apply equally broadly: to organizational behavior, business strategy, science, psychology - and even art or music!

Complex systems analysis helps us understand why the world is sometimes predictably unpredictable.

I won’t regurgitate all the stuff I’ve written in the past about it, like here or here or here or here. But I will say that complex systems analysis isn’t the beginning, nor is it the end. It’s like the iPhone of systems analysis - new, shiny, and I predict equally transformative over the next few decades.

* Kayfabe

Why do people watch professional wrestling?

We know it’s fake, we know it’s scripted, we know it’s theatrical. And yet - for a few hours - we all escape into this world of the make-believe. We want it to feel real, even if we know it is not.

Isn’t that interesting? We as humans will knowingly choose to live in a reality that is obviously not real but instead feels real. This reality is fun, entertaining, exciting - it’s where our fantasies thrive, our dreams come true!

And that reality - the one where we go to work every day, and have obligations, and have problems and worries and anxieties - well that one’s not so nice. Why would we spend our time there?

This is escapism. We escape from the real world into the world of the make-believe. Not because we know it’s true - but because we want to feel it’s true.

Kayfabe seems to explain a lot of why people do what they do, and why they believe what they believe. Sometimes, we’d rather live in a pleasant disreality than an unpleasant reality.

And if you assault people with the “truth”, “facts”, “reason” - the constraints of the real world - you are puncturing the reality they live in. They like that world - even if it’s not true - and you’re destroying it.

In effect, you’re imprisoning them within the real world - a world which is often punishing, unfair, thankless and ruthless. I don’t think people take very kindly to this.

Of course, too much escapism is a bad thing. But so is too little.

We all need a bit of self-delusion, a bit of make-believe, a bit of fantasy. And I think the more people try to destroy this world - well, “they will do so at their political peril.”

* Workism

Why do we Americans work so much? Is it really for the money? Is it to acquire more stuff, to have greater “means”, to have greater economic security?

I think that’s part of it. But not all of it.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic argues that a lot of it is in fact because work has become a religion.

As traditional religion increasingly loses ground to science and reason, we as individuals are forced to find meaning somewhere else. For many of us, that somewhere is work.

The workplace is where we spend a huge portion of our time, and it’s where we often find our community, our friends, our livelihood. We are forced to accept to the founding doctrines of our workplace, their corporate values, their gospel - or else we lack “cultural fit.”

Of course this is very convenient for corporations! The more we find meaning in our work, the more we can be compensated in meaning, and not cash.

But this meaning does not come cheap. In fact, we often trade things we value quite a bit for it: our health, well-being, hobbies, relationships - well, even our happiness!

And like any good religion, different degrees of piety confer different degrees of status. A priest is more devout than you, and also more respected.

In the workplace, piety takes many forms. Have a good job. Work long hours. Tell everyone you’re busy. Pretend you don’t like it. Society has persuaded us that these are in fact high status activities. We respect people who follow these tenets. But should we?

I think this corporate mythology has played on our natural desires to feel respected, validated, loved by the people around us. It has paid us in status and meaning, and cost us - well, everything else. Obviously, I’m not a huge fan of this.

At the same time, I think there is something to it. Sometimes we genuinely enjoy working hard. We like to feel needed, to create, to add value, to feel productive. There is genuine satisfaction and fulfillment there.

The problem, in my opinion, is that we’ve conflated work with the workplace.

We can still work hard, do what we love, and create things. But it doesn’t all have to be tied to the workplace. We can work hard on our relationships or health or hobbies - and no longer equate work with the workplace.

And I think, in doing so, we can liberate ourselves from a very convenient narrative that tends to serve corporations at our own expense.

Thanks for reading,


[1] As a historical point of reference, even the idea of an equation - that “=” sign - was invented in 1557!