The Tao Te Ching is a 2500-year-old text that has provided wisdom for decades. It has been referred to as the wisest book ever written. It uses paradoxes (opposites) to break down common thinking to show flaws.
Studying systems thinking, I have always been surprised by the similarities between the Tao and systems thinking principles. I’ve written about this and recently found a book that molds these two together in a very insightful way.
The book is by Michael McCurley and is titled “The Tao of Systems Thinking: Exploring the Parallels Between Eastern Mysticism and Systems Thinking.”
In the book he reflects on a common mistake that people make. He says, “Flows within and between systems connect all things effortlessly. Flows interchange matter and energy through space and time. All systems work in this way, though we come to understand them through their different manifestations.”
He goes on to state, “People may not make choices which are optimal because they don’t understand how the systems which affect them actually work.”
I see this all the time. With my personal goals I may misunderstand an element of the system and create a short term win with a long-term fail. Every time I skip a meal this happens. I may be busy and work through lunch and think, “well at least I might lose a little weight from missing lunch.” But what actually happens is I get hungrier and hungrier until I finally grab whatever I can (usually unhealthy) and overeat.
At work I see this too. I see someone try to shirk responsibility for an error to save their reputation but then it is discovered that they were, in fact, responsible and it hurts their reputation more than if they owned up and helped come up with a fix to the problem.
Part of the problem is that emotion tends to interfere. We get anxious over a mistake we made and it clouds our thinking. We are filled with fear, which then looks for any way to alleviate that negative emotion. It doesn’t look for the best solution; it looks for the quickest way to reduce the stress.
So how do we get past this shortsighted thinking that is heavily driven by emotion?
The first thing we need to do is pause. We need to be able to stop and take a breath and think before responding. Most of us aren’t in situations where split seconds mean life and death. Most situations in our life are treated that way but we actually have time if we just calm down our thoughts.
There is a saying that I heard while learning about the Navy SEALs. The SEAL that was explaining it (Rorke Denver I believe) talked about a time when they were training and the leaders in the group were not thinking clearly and starting to let their emotions dictate their actions.
The trainer stopped the exercise and pulled the guys together and simply said, “Calm is contagious.” That was enough to snap these elite warriors out of their panicky ways and get them back on track.
Stopping to take a break and think is similar to taking it slow in order to gain speed. By focusing our thoughts we can make better decisions that may seem to take longer but are necessary to take the best path.
McCurley explains this in his book. He says, “We may often upset the balance of systems because we don’t recognize that certain small variables can have great impacts in the long run.”
Recognizing those “small variables” is the key. Find small leverage points in the system in order to gain maximum long-term benefit. This often means making the difficult choice now because you can see that in the long haul it will become more powerful and give you more success than choosing the short-term solution that will quickly alleviate the anxiety but will not help beyond this.
So learn to calm your mind and reduce the impact stress and anxiety has on your decisions. Then learn to start choosing the best option over the long term, not the short-term option ripe with side effects and long-term consequences.