David Amerland
Stability in an open system


Over the past nine months I’ve been to twelve countries and two continents, covering some 50K plus air miles. Speaking to audiences as diverse as businessmen and lawyers, solopreneurs and top company executives I’ve been thinking, in my in-between airports and cities transit time, why is it so easy for all of us to accept negative states: give in to pessimism, feel anger and frustration, decide (against rationality) that aggression; all out-war; the-burnt-bridge approach is preferable to discussion, compromise and cooperation.

I am not the only one thinking about all this by any stretch of the imagination. As you’re reading this neuroscientists, social psychologists, social and cultural anthropologists, political scientists, behavioral economists and social analysts are asking themselves the same or, very similar questions.

My training has been in Chemical Engineering. While I flit across disciplines and their research, particularly when I wrote The Sniper Mind at the back of my mind the prism I apply is guided by physics and thermodynamics, chemistry and mathematics. These are disciplines that try to discover the truth about the world and understand it. Their basic premise is that things we can understand are things we can begin to, ultimately, control and it holds true across the entire range of human activity.

When we apply physical logic to the world we really ask that things make sense at an existential level. It’s a basic shift in point of view that can fundamentally change the way we see a lot of the things we do, including marketing, branding, selling and SEO. To avoid getting too technical I will try and simplify things as much as possible without losing cohesion.

Consider first that everything is a system. Consider also that the universe we are in, in its majority, consists of open systems of which we, as individual beings, are one. Open systems are in a constant state of flux. This generates a constant dynamic tension whereby they seek to exist at a level of harmony with their environment. In getting to that level of harmony they need to expand energy (i.e. do some work). The maximum amount of work that any system can do (be that an automobile or a human) is called the Gibbs free energy and it represents that amount of energy available to the system that allows it to work.

In a human that is the amount of energy available to run a marathon (as an example), eat an apple, compose a symphony, write a book. Once fatigue sets in the system has exhausted its supply of available Gibbs free energy (which took its name from John Gibbs).

What we know as “fatigue” in a system is its lowest stable energy state beyond which it tends not to change unless outside intervention happens. In an automobile, for instance, the moment the gas runs out the car tends to stay put, in perfect harmony with its environment, unchanging (and unmoving) unless we put in more fuel. In a human the desire to remain in a state of stasis represents the perception that we have reached a point of satisfaction with ourselves and the environment and we do not want to change any longer (fatigue after a marathon; possibly followed by the “runner’s high” is a good example).

Obviously no car can be allowed to be at ‘peace’ with itself and its environment by standing still and never moving again. Each vehicle is there for a reason and it represents a sizeable investment in engineering, time and money which means someone has a vested interest in making it move again by putting fuel back in it; in which case its ‘struggle’ to attain peace and equilibrium starts all over again.

We are no different. Walk ten miles, punch a heavy bag for an hour, solve a really difficult math problem, run a marathon. These are all activities that will deplete the available energy in you. But you still need to survive because you have a family, friends, dependents or (at the very least) no real reason to die. So you eat, work, think, evolve, change and the whole cycle starts all over again.

What has this got to do with anger, frustration, pessimism, all-out aggression? As it turns out, everything. Negative thinking triggers our alert system. Being alert requires physical and mental resources, especially as our neurobiological system goes from a passive to an active state of being. If we do this enough we end up using on a daily basis more energy than we should. Do this sufficiently and we compromise our long term survival.

The brain finds it way easier to employ premade mental schemas that represent negative thoughts. That means two things however: A. That we find it easier to jump to bad conclusions in the absence of information and B. That we find it easier to entertain negative thoughts about other people and the world because there is less effort involved in doing so.

This is where our brain and evolutionary history work against us. What made perfect sense to the long-term survival of beings needed to, somehow, be kept alive as they came out of the caves and roamed the world, makes a lot less sense now when we have to take on-board latent causes, and complexity in a world where uncertainty has reached an all-time high and yet continues to rise each time we adapt to it.

We prefer action to long-term thinking and planning because action activates the primary emotions of survival, reaction, fight or flight that we have long evolved to understand. Action provides clarity in a way long-term thinking and planning do not.

Consider how, for instance, the hurdles that have to be overcome in order to avoid all-out war with a neighbor over a parking space that belongs to neither of us but whose possession may be the cause for dispute. We’d have to get together, agree that we both need it so each of us has to consider the other person’s need as well (first major hurdle), we have to agree that truly it belongs to neither which means whatever justification we each used for our initial claim to it was wrong (another major hurdle) and then we have to try and work out and agree on a plan of action that partially satisfies both of us, takes into account as many of our particular circumstances as possible and provides a transparent system of oversight so neither of us feels the other person can cheat or, in our agreement, got the better deal.

All that for a parking space!

How much easier it would be to simply yell and threaten the other person until they back down. And, if they don’t then how much clarity comes into our reaction to their reaction to our initial threat. Suddenly it’s not about the parking space any more; and it becomes about power games, abuse of power, the need to negate a direct and obvious threat (the neighbor) and establish peace and order and the rule of law (a lower energy state and therefore desirable). Because the action/reaction game is immediate, can be quickly threat-assessed and we are wired to respond that way it feels more real, more satisfying and even more productive and desirable than the long-term, frustrating and more complex rounds of negotiation, communication, assessment and repositioning we’d have to engage in in order to get partial access to a parking space we feel we are entitled to, anyway.

I know it’s tempting to think, right now: “We’re doomed.” That too is the brain’s attempt to simply summarize all the complexity detailed here into a quick soundbite that helps you make sense of the threat and puts you on a constant, low-level alert so you can survive. Resist that temptation. We’re not doomed. Neither is everything magically amazing, beautiful and safe.

Ultimately we create the world. It arises out of our actions and it is shaped by our thinking which is informed by our values which are mirrored in our actions. Get comfortable with discomfort and you suddenly have the ability to deal with things differently and achieve better stability in your life and business than short-term solutions can ever provide.

And that is the start required in order to function better in an uncertain world where ape brains (and sensibilities) are required to perform at spaceman level.

You have coffee (I know) and lots and lots of sweet things (donuts and croissants, cookies and chocolate cake). All of these are of the senses. There to satisfy an immediate desire. Yet, they also affect the way our brain, attention and concentration work. Coffee and sugar are also brain food. The Sunday Read requires them. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.

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