Are you blind to the systems around you?

Don't think you're exempt from systems thinking just cause you're a writer or artist or creative

Are you blind to the systems around you?
Photo by Ahmed Zayan / Unsplash

The goldfish don't notice the water

I say that enough around here.

That saying isn't just about noticing the trivial details around you. Like the dust on your bookshelf, a chip of paint missing from your wall.

It has to do with paying attention to your most basic assumptions and beliefs.

You may have heard this talked about as "mental models".
That's a popular idea these days. There's something right about the idea, but the concept of a model or a map is only the beginning.

It's good to have an accurate map of the world around you.

But before you get on to talking about maps and models, it's an even better idea to understand...

Who's holding the map and for what purpose?

A mental model of the world, or some important part of it, belongs to somebody.

It might be your understanding of how to write a good story...

Your most elemental beliefs about the business of writing...

How to make a full-time living with your writing...

And so on.

Maps and models are fine and dandy...

But what aren't they showing you? For starters, these mental entities don't have anything to say about who is using them.

It helps to step beyond the image of a mind holding up a map to navigate the world around it.

That's a model of a sort. But it's more than that. It's a point of view. It's a commitment to a way of understanding yourself and other people.

That's the water that the goldfish don't notice

In other words, the concept of a mind holding a map is a framing assumption that's as common as the air you breathe.

It's a guiding vision that helps you make sense of the people, places, things, objects, and ideas in your world.

A map of a place breaks down a complex object -- all the stuff in your physical environment -- into a clear and easy-to-read image.

Maps work by abstracting away all the details that are unimportant, or getting in the way, and showing you exactly the information you need to get where you're going.

Handy enough, but that's a tool with usefulness limited to special situations.

If that's the limit of your thinking, you're falling into the same tired old traps of thinking that transform the human mind into a machine. Don't buy the hype.

Thinking with maps and models encourages bad habits of abstraction.

Replacing the real stuff in front of you with concepts and ideas and thoughts. As if these were more real than the things directly in front of you.

Only physicists believe in that theology.

Not only that...

The parts aren't more real than the whole

Models and maps present whole objects as a collection of parts.

That's what abstraction does.

Using the tools of numbers or concepts, a real-live thing becomes wispy thought-stuff.

Your attention is drawn to the parts of the whole thing. What's it made of?

Understand how the parts work -- their functions and properties -- and you'll understand the whole thing.


If you understand the mechanics of internal combustion down to the movement of the last atom...

Have all the design specs for your car's engine...

What do you know about traffic jams?

Organizational scientist Russell Ackoff once said that a system has these three properties...

  1. A system is a whole that contains two or more parts, each of which can affect the properties or behaviors of the whole.
  2. None of the parts has an independent effect on the whole. How any part affects the whole depends on what the other parts are doing.
  3. No matter how you group the parts of a system into sub-groups, any sub-group of parts will have an effect on the whole, and none will have an independent effect.

Summing up the three:

A system is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts

Take the case of a living organism.

There's no one part in a living animal that is "most important" for its survival. Brain, heart, liver, kidneys, and lower intestines each affect your entire body's well-being. None of them operates independent of the others.

You can divide up a body into its parts, as any autopsy or severe car accident will teach you...

What you can't do is understand how that living body works by starting with the parts and putting it together piece by piece. How the parts function individually doesn't tell you anything about how they function in the whole system.

When a physicist tells you that you are "nothing but" particles and equations, you're right to notice that particles and math don't have any of the properties of living human persons.

When a neuro-geek tells you that your mind "just is" your brain, you'll want to notice that neither your brain nor any of the neurons in it have the attributes of a speaking, acting, living person.

The parts of a whole aren't the whole.

You don't get to the properties and attributes of a person, or the people and things around you, by "adding up" all the parts.

It works in the other direction. You get to those parts by using abstract concepts to dismantle the whole thing.

Mental models and maps lead to total System Blindness

Locked into this attitude, you cannot see the forest for the trees.

Systems Blindness hides goals, strategy, mission, purpose, and chief definite aims...

It locks you into low-level tactical thinking, tinkering around to optimize the parts instead of acting for a clear, specific, vivid, and concrete result.

You'll run around putting out fires instead of focusing on the major goals, the biggest levers, the highest and best use of your time.

Marketers, self-promoters, creatives, artists, and writers aren't immune to this.

In fact they may be the worst sufferers.

What can you do about it?

Act first and figure it out later

You won't get arrested for moving without finishing.

But many creatives get caught in the attitude of believing that you can't start a project until it's done.

Done in your mind, anyway.

It's the tyranny of the map all over again.
Unless you know where your heroes start, where they're going to end up, and how they're going to stumble and bumble their way, step by step, to the bad guy's forbidding fortress, there's no point in putting the first word on the page.

The psychology of procrastination tells us one thing:

Motion beats meditation, every time.

Don't get it backwards...

There are no maps without explorers to make the journey.

Forget about the parts and focus on the whole

If you're trying to get from A to B, you aren't going to make much progress by looking at your feet.

You keep your eyes on B and don't worry too much about the means to get there.

When self-employed artists talk about getting to B, they're usually obsessing over...

The latest promotional tools...

Staying on top of all the blogs...

The new writing-craft books...

The conferences and events and writer's groups...

Whatever platform's getting attention on social media this week...

Looking at their feet, chasing tactics, putting out fires.

Everything except keeping their eyes on the result.

Focus on the whole and the parts take care of themselves.

Create your vision in your mind and then go to work

If you're trying to get from A to B it helps to know where B is and what it looks like.

If you don't have a clear idea, how would you know if you arrived?

Before you worry about tactics, platforms, techniques, "hacks" and all the gimmicks...

Have a clear, vivid, and definite outcome in your mind... and let that vision drive every decision you make.

Maps are fine things but they can't show you where it's worth going (or why you should care)

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