Mary Catherine Bateson on How To Be A Systems Thinker


Most artists are not obsessed with art to the exclusion of the rest of the world; despite a common misconception of non-practitioners, it makes for better work to be curious about the wider world.

An aptitude for curiosity can easily lead to a lack of focus; without some self-curation, there lies madness, and no career. A little structure can go a long way. Practitioners in the arts world – really, any world – are cognizant to some degree how they fit into the system they operate in. This awareness gets better with repetition and self-awareness.

By default, this makes everyone a systems thinker, whether they do it well or not-so-well.

Mary Catherine Bateson is an anthropologist and author with something authoritative to say about all that. She has a singular take on systems theory and its better-known cousin, cybernetics, because her parents, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, helped invent them during the 1940s and ‘50s when they helped organize and run The Macy’s Conferences.

The Conferences were intensely collaborative experiences with a small group of big-thinkers, including artists and social scientists. Computers were never the focus; their work was really about systems theory, fueled to an extent by their sense that the world after WWII was going to be a different place, which, of course, they got right.

Bateson quite literally grew up in the company of this remarkable, highly accomplished group. Like her parents, she has the ability to put into ordinary language what in other people’s hands would be needlessly jargon-filled ideas.  You can see her in action in a video on  The video runs about 40 minutes, and because she is humorous and plain-spoken, it’s not a slog. “You don’t know have to know a lot of technical terminology to be a systems thinker.”

The ideas and processes she talks about apply to artists and creative entrepreneurs as much as any other profession. Truth-in-advertising, Bateson is a friend of mine through her father, who I knew well when I was a young man.

Mary Catherine Bateson on

How To Be A Systems Thinker