The Global Recession of 2008, the Challenger disaster, the battle against poverty, the shooting of Malala, the monster success of Apple; All of these are instances in the recent past where curators of argument have been furiously engaged in a battle to find cause.
Curiosity is one of our more natural instincts, yet one even greater than that is the insatiable desire to fix. If something breaks and goes horribly wrong, we want to fix it; we want to find the leak so we can slap a band-aid on it and then this sort of thing won’t ever happen again. Or we care about the inverse: if something has gone terribly, unbelievably, inconceivably right, we want to know why, so that we can bottle it, slap a label on it, and make it happen again and again.
Whether we are trying to find the leak or the magic dust, as curators of argument we tend to form it around two main suspects: People or Systems.
What made Apple so ridiculously successful? Was it Steve Jobs or was it some giant happenstance? What caused the economic instability of 2009? Was it the Big Banks that messed up or was the system inherently broken?
The case for people
Let’s look at the case for people. People are drivers of change; we are hard-headed, soft-hearted, very curious, slightly self-destructive, and possess a deep desire to affect the world around us. People drive outcomes; we are dissatisfied with something so we try to change it, we can’t find what we are looking for so we build it, and we refuse to accept a norm which ends in us creating a new one.
In fact, the entirety of the Unreasonable Institute is driven by George Bernard Shaw’s opinion on exactly that:
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
There is something to be said for the power of unreasonable people; people who are motivated by missions and ideals, and who get satisfaction from coloring outside the lines, “working outside systems” (i.e. rejecting systems, or claiming fidelity to no system at all), or even better, creating their own.
Potter Palmer lost everything in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but he was able to receive millions in loans to rebuild his enterprises and the iconic Palmer House, due to the power that his mere name and signature could harness. Elon Musk’s SpacEX was on the brink of bankruptcy and he had used up the third and final chance his backers were willing to give him; he managed to secure enough funding for a fourth chance that he was not technically allowed to have, on a promise and a prayer.
The case for systems
Systems, are by definition, well, systemic. A system is an aggregation of set processes that allows for some outcomes, while disallowing for others. Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, can be interpreted to make a case for systemic causes for the success of modern celebrities. Bill Gates had access to the technology that allowed him to program as a teenager in high school; access that only a handful of multinational corporations could boast to have at the time. This access was granted and received through a system. The education system created a platform for the access, the social and network system that allowed prominent members of the school committees to advance chance and install items into the school, allowed the object of access to be transacted into the institution, and finally, the broken system where professional programmers found themselves needing aid from amateurs provided the incentive that Gates needed in order to spend hours and hours honing his skill as a programmer.
And it was putting in those hours that made Bill Gates as good as he needed to be, to become an industry pioneer.
There is countless literature on the case for systems, and on the over-inflation of the power of individual people (the most well-known being the Fundamental Attribution Error). Researchers and social scientists have provided much evidence to connect the causality between success and systems.
Systems are responsible for success in the following ways:
- Successful systems allow creativity and autonomy to thrive and provide the channels through which motivated individuals can leverage their ideas and make them corporeal.
- Successful systems create an environment of awareness and possibility, and this is the plane upon which the seeds of ideation, change, and edition can be planted.
- Successful systems motivate and incentivize individuals towards action versus inaction
- Successful systems allow strong ties to form between like-minded and/or useful individuals that begin as trends and can coagulate to form the critical mass of action needed for an outcome to occur, or at least, for an outcome to become desirable.
- Successful systems allow access to the people and links necessary to execute a plan of success.
And finally, my favorite:
- Unsuccessful and broken systems are responsible for allowing individuals to visualize what isn’t successful, and thereby providing with them with the comparative evidence to discern what is. Failed systems are worth a lot for the flaws they allow you to see, and it is seeing the flaws that allow you to fix them.
So, after analyzing the closing statements where do our loyalties lie? Did Coco Chanel forge and blaze the path to her success or was it paved for her by a complex system that was ripe for the picking?
My belief and opinion is that the truth is quantum. It is neither, and both, and each is individually also valid.
Systems provide the capacity for innovation and change. They are the framework, the fabric, the bed upon which one must lie to dream. Systems are the soundtrack to our hero’s montage. They need to exist just as much as we need to exist in order to exert our influence onto the places and people around us. We have never experienced a true ‘lack’ of a system, we have always operated within one, broken, unbroken, or slightly disgruntled. The only world we know, is the one that the systems around us allow us to experience, and therefore, our actions are a product of these systems.
However, mere capacity is not enough, never enough, to actually accelerate change, flip a mindset, or start a revolution. Just because something can do something doesn’t mean it will. It is tendency that drives us to actually pick the apple from the systemic tree. Unless we have the tendency to look for loopholes, to persist in the face of failure, to try just one more time to make something happen, and to ignore the temptation of a rudimentary and mundane life, we shall never realize the potential that the system has the capacity to provide us.
Just as mere capacity is not enough to overcome inertia, tendency is not enough to induce an object that will succumb to it. If one wants to roll a ball to a location, one needs three things (i) the ball, (ii) a plane to host the ball,and (iii) someone/something/multiple someones willing to push it. The ball and the plane are the product of a system that allows both to exist, be accessible, and be manipulable. These are the capacity of the outcome x: x = “The ball is moved”. Without someone to push it, the ball will stay stationary, and so the tendency of the outcome is as important to the outcome x. If either is absent, x will not be true.
I conclude with this: the trick therefore, is the match between capacity and tendency. Bringing together those with the personality, passion and proactivity that will act upon the cues of the system, to the plane of the system itself.