The world is a complex place. It is made up of competing and often conflicting motivations which create different streams of varying momentum. Some of these are complementary and lead to greater cooperation and some are competitive and lead to friction and conflict.
Individually, perhaps, we could handle each of these streams; optimize our existence and live in a place of relative harmony. The scale of the world however defeats us. And isolating ourselves from it is never really an option as we rely on interconnectivity for development, evolution and survival.
The good news here is that we actually have brains that have developed to deal with complexity and uncertainty. Our decision making process is meant to take us from a state of dissatisfaction to a state of higher satisfaction. Every choice we make is then weighed through that largely emotional matrix where uncertainty and fear play a key role.
Dealing with it requires the ability to perceive patterns and gravitate towards fundamental guiding principles. Complex problems appear so because of the multiplicity of factors that guide them and variables that affect them. In reality however, even the most complex problem, has very few; simple impact points at a local level.
Locality is where we most directly feel the effect of what we perceive. We know global climate is a complex problem because we understand that climate change is difficult to solve. Yet, that is most driven home to us when we directly experience unseasonal weather outside our own doorstep.
Our natural reaction to complexity is fear. We understand that something is really, really difficult to control. Without some sense of control it becomes unpredictable. Unpredictability frightens us because we lose the ability to guide ourselves towards the future with any degree of confidence. Fear leads us to weird beliefs (like the Earth being flat) or weird behavior (like fighting a pointless battle against a system) precisely because such an approach dissolves the complexity we feel, either by utterly (and illogically) rejecting it; or by openly (and pointlessly) defying it.
Both approaches deliver a sense of relief as a clear course of action materializes before us and we can again feel that we belong somewhere where clarity guides our existence.
Losing clarity, feeling confused, not truly knowing how to behave are 21st century issues. They are inevitable when everything around us is a system and we lack a true strategy for dealing with it. Consider two things: A. The most successful solutions to complex problems are the result of trial and error. B. Complexity is the norm rather than an aberration.
We feel it more, right now, because we have the ability to access more data than ever before. We are not made to automatically cope with it. “Stepping up” and dealing with this successfully requires the admission of our own frailty, an awareness of the boundaries of our own abilities and a willingness to make mistakes, to be open to experiences, to be capable of working together not just with people just like us but with people. Period.
We are just smart apes. (Or, at the very least, smart primates). We are quite capable of acting against our own best interests because the self-destructive course of action we’ve chosen gives a greater sense of clarity and control than any other obvious choice available to us.
In the 21st century we must learn to work hard to engineer our choices. We need new strategies for a new century. The old ones are clearly not working any more.
I know, you know, just how smart you are. This means you’ve got coffee aplenty and something sweet (croissants, cookies, donuts and chocolate cake at least). Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.