Thinking Systems

Obon Festival, Los Angeles. Photo By Barry Schwartz

I was pretty lucky during my teenage years and early twenties.  Aside from poor fashion choices and paralyzing emotions (sometimes related), I credit entering adulthood to peers and a few generous, smart adults who steered me toward an ecological view of the world: everything is connected with everything else.  I began to learn how to manage strong emotions; a work in progress.  Better fashion choices came later.  Aspiring to and achieving a level of self-knowledge was awe-inspiring and comforting while, via psychology, biology, and art, I was introduced to systems thinking.  Then came epistemology: how you know what you know.  I was twenty-one.

These days, lots of people are becoming comfortable with the idea that everything is interconnected through climate change. No one needs to be a biologist to comprehend how pressure on one part of a system inevitably affects the rest.  

Systems thinking is not limited to biological processes.  In my role as an educator, teaching professional practices for creative entrepreneurs, I explicitly teach systems thinking as a guiding principle because awareness of the context they operate in is what it takes to successfully run a business or any kind of endeavor, creative or not.  It gives the process a fighting chance.

Students are constant in their desire for simple answers: yes or no, right or wrong, a waste of time or time spent usefully.  Answers are the goal, the thing to get. Rather than aiming towards that kind of certainty I suggest that embracing process is the better goal. Wrestling with complexities will be far more useful career-wise because the answers change and the goalposts shift.  They can accept this state of affairs or not, but that’s how the world, inside and outside of careers, works.  Younger students are more comfortable with the idea.  Older students, except those that have experienced multiple failure and success, are not.

What follows are links to articles addressing how systems thinking and embracing process enabled these folks to move in the direction they wanted to go – and that wherever they landed, they won’t stay there forever.

Tavi Gevinson got started early and was famous by the time she was 11.  She wrote about fashion, then founded a magazine, “Rookie”, before finishing high school. Then she went on to commissioned writing and working on the New York stage as an actress.  Gevinson is one of the first people to prove you could make a living – and start a career – on social media.  She was always smart, and the process made her smarter.  And a good writer.  From The Cut:

After Rookie folded, I watched my follower count drop from 544,000 to 509,000. I saw in my analytics that I have more followers in the 45-to-54-year-old bracket than the 13-to-17-year-old one. When I first noticed theseshifts, they felt significant, and I was struck with the feeling that I still“need” to use my account for work. But my job now is to finish writing abook and a movie. Any sense of obligation I feel toward sharing myself onInstagram is more out of a fear of being forgotten or of missing out on theopportunities granted to those with strong personal brands. But not wantingto keep up a personal brand is part of why I folded Rookie. Not payingyears. When the thought that I need to get back into the game grips me, Irefocus on my work. Being paid to write and perform is what I wanted this whole time.

Kris Kristofferson is famous for many things: songwriter, actor, singer; but not, perhaps, for his knowledge of Blake.  From Austin Kleon, quoting Kristofferson:

I love William Blake…. William Blake said, “If he who is organized by the divine for spiritual communion, refuse and bury his talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, shame and confusion of face will pursue him throughout life to eternity.”

He’s telling you that you’ll be miserable if you don’t do what you’re supposedto do.

Austin Kleon writes often about how to be a successful creator, and loves that “mishearing” is a creative activity.

For years I have held the strong belief that you should never look up the lyrics to your favorite songs because the lyrics you think you hear are usually better than the official ones.

You can imagine how delighted I was to learn that Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, felt the same way, and wrote about it in the foreword to the band’s complete lyrics:

“I’ve generally found that the words to songs I thought I heard in the works of others were more colorful and enigmatically apt than the words I eventually discovered were intended. More to my personal taste. I assume the same is true of my own work. Mishearing can be as much a strength as a liability. People, accidentally overhearing their own thoughts, are inclined to like what they hear, self-recognized at a distance and mistaken for another.”

In this epic New Yorker profile of Bruce Springsteen, E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt remembers recognizing Springsteen’s “drive to create original work”:

In those days, he said, you were judged by how well you could copy songs off the radio and play them, chord for chord, note for note: “Bruce was never good at it. He had a weird ear. He would hear different chords, but he could never hear the right chords. When you have that ability or inability, you immediately become more original.”

The Nielsen Norman Group consults with people who build and design online communities (websites and newsletters) to help them recognize and respect that it’s ordinary people who use websites, not just engineers; moreover, that ordinary people are, in fact, never really all that ordinary.  Absent this recognition turns out to be the short road to failure, confusion, and inefficiency, even regarding simple (and ordinary) activities.  Much of what the NN Group does do is to simply suggest: Pay attention, or else.   From Nielsen Norman:

Instances of this tendency abound in every ancient culture’s mythology. For example, oceanic storms and earthquakes were destructive and unpredictable to ancient Greek sailors. But if they had an explanation (Poseidon’s anger), then they could exert control on the outcome of the situation (through prayers and sacrifices).

Technology myths seem to arise in the same way. Users don’t have a clear understanding of how a system works, so they generate possible explanations that seem logical to them, based on existing knowledge and experience. This phenomenon has been occurring since the early days of personal internet use. In 2000, Andy Cockburn and Steve Jones found that only one participant out of eleven had a correct understanding how the browser’s Back button works. For the rest of the participants, their misunderstanding caused navigation issues as they browsed the web.

Milton Glazer is a designer and educator, articulate about art – not just his art – in a way that never fails to startle me awake.  Glazer has done superb work in many contexts – influencing everything in the world of design. He always stresses there is a through-line that began before he even had a career – at 90, he’s remains a working professional.  From Surface Magazine:

Still, I never describe myself as an artist. One of the problems with art is that it is self-anointing: Anyone can be an artist by simply pointing to themselves and saying so. The truth is that there are very few artists. [Making the world a better place through art] is the highest attainment of the specialization. It is to recognize that it is not all about you, and that you have a communal function you can serve to help everyone get along. This is important for people to understand, especially in a capitalist society.

You can distinguish between art and design by talking about the art experience, which is the transformation of the self. You are no longer the same after experiencing art. In the applied arts, craft, and design, you are answering a series of problems, or trying to sell something. Art does not attempt to sell anything. The role of an artist, and this idea of using art to find what is real, is almost an enemy to the idea of “I am in it for myself and I can make a lot of money by selling this.”

The mythology about fine-dining is that kitchens which produce high-level food depend on people with supreme skill, daring aesthetic choices, and a blue-collar level of physical strain.  There is much sacrifice involved and perhaps a certain rock-and-roll lifestyle.  Years of training and multiple mentors.  This of course is true in some cases, but it’s not a requirement. The training to achieve those fabled heights does not always come from years of learning from great masters.  Sometimes it’s just learning how to work.  From The New York Times:

The influential Southern chef Sean Brock loves eating at the Waffle House chain so much that he took Anthony Bourdain to one for Mr. Bourdain’s television show “Parts Unknown,” and explained how much the restaurant had taught him about hospitality. Even Jacques Pépin, the French chef best known for his TV cooking shows, values the 10 years he worked in research and development for a signature American chain restaurant: Howard Johnson’s.

Ms. [Kia] Damon, who did not attend culinary school, said a chain experience can be just as valuable as schooling, especially considering the high cost of education.

“You have people teaching you how to sauté and store foods, and it is strict because there is a whole nationwide system,” Ms. Damon said. “And a lot of the curriculum in culinary school is not reflective of what is going on in the everyday world.”

Nick Cave, of the band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, is one of my favorite writers; lately, this is because of his newsletter, The Red Hand Files, where he answers questions from fans.  He groups the questions at the top of the newsletter, and they range widely in their request for answers; some representing serious spiritual inquiries; some process-based, asking how songs get written; some so striking and internal as to be like lyrics themselves.  Cave’s answers are direct, subtle, poetic, using the ordinary speech of someone sitting across a table, revealing much about himself, and with an empathy that sometimes makes me tear up.  He always signs his responses with a version of: “Love, Nick”.  

In its entirety, from Issue #37, April, 2019:


It’s Wednesday, 21.49 and it starts to rain. I light a cigarette and smoke
on my balcony and listen to a vinyl. I contemplate the rain and realize
that despite all the shit and cruelty in this fucked up world of ours, some
moments are so precious that there must be a God or something greater
than me, you, everyone. How do you feel about God? Really.

Do you smoke?


Dear Dee and Susan,

A couple of Bad Seeds tours ago, when I was trying to stop smoking, I limited myself to one cigarette a day. After the show, as soon as I came off stage, Jacek, my assistant, would escort me to a solitary chair in the back alley of the venue, where I would sit and roll a cigarette. With immense anticipation, I would light that little white stick of joy and inhale. There, in the Zen-like supremacy of the moment, on the road and adrift in this world, the nicotine would enter my bloodstream and with a blissful rush of pure meaning God would declare Himself to me – just as He did to you, Dee, on your balcony, at 21.49, on that rainy evening in Rosario, Argentina. That five minute interlude, puffing on a cigarette, in the deranged chaos of our lives – you on your balcony and me in some alley in some foreign city – was, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, the crack where the light came in.

So, how do I really feel about God? Well, the more absent He feels, and the more indifferent the cosmos appears to be, the more fervent and necessary my search for meaning becomes. For me though, the actual existence of God is beside the point – the argument between belief and disbelief does nothing to assuage the sadness and emptiness I sometimes feel in the face of existence. Prayer and meditation, however, do help me hugely, even if I am praying to a phantom or a memory or an invention. These acts of devotion, and investment in the unknowable, define my life. Whether God is my witness or whether He is not is not of my concern and has no real impact on the spiritual nature of my life. For me, the search itself is where the action is.

As the Bad Seeds tour progressed I predictably began to seek my communion with God before the show as well, then in the middle of the day, until eventually I was jamming a cigarette in my mouth the moment I woke up, till the moment I went to sleep and I was back to a pack and a half a day – equally predictably God vanished and all I was left with was the age-old, fiendish cigarette habit, as I coughed and wheezed my way across Europe. After the tour I simply gave up and haven’t had a cigarette since.

Now, I sometimes think I have discovered God in other situations. Sometimes I feel a certain divine presence and sometimes I don’t – but I still long for meaning and I still search. A fool’s mission maybe, but wherever this journey may lead, please Dee, next time you sit on the balcony with the rain coming down, put on a Bad Seeds record – something loud or something soft, it doesn’t matter – and light up a fag for me. I am with you in spirit.

With love, Nick