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System Thinking and The Tao Te Ching

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

System Thinking and The Tao Te Ching

Scott Miker

Flawed Thinking

There is an incredible flaw in the way humans think.  Our brains function in a way where we naturally look for cause and effect, before and after, start and finish, pre and post, beginning and end.  We think linearly.  This makes sense for learning and evolving.  In order to survive we have to learn what to do and what not to do and learn from our mistakes.

But the problem with this way of thinking is that it doesn’t follow nature.  It oversimplifies things and misses important aspects.  Looking at cause and effect eliminate all of the other factors associated with that situation.  But similar to throwing a stone into a pond, the ripples move outward in all directions from where the rock splashed into the water.  Yes the cause can be the stone and the effect could be a small boat moving from the waves but that is only one tiny aspect of the situation.  We eliminate everything in order to focus on how it directly impacts what we are interested in.

There are advantages to this type of thinking.  Being able to focus in this way allows us to cut out the overwhelming data and information that our brain is too simple to comprehend.  If we didn’t think this way we wouldn’t get anything done.  We would simply try to understand too much.

But the biggest disadvantage in linear thinking is that we cannot truly grasp all of the effects of our actions.  We miss so much information and that information can be extremely important.  

We look at a new business and focus on the benefits to the economy and the individuals working for the business.  But we ignore the fact that the business creates a product that isn’t part of nature.  It is something that may take centuries to break down from plastic to a natural state.  We miss the impact that having the economy grow ultimately will mean that it will eventually decline.  We don’t realize that now the workers will be using their car to travel to work, creating exhaust and burning through nonrenewable energy sources. 

As you can see every situation has complexities that we cannot truly comprehend.  Even doing intense evaluation we miss things.  We miss that having this business may mean that a smaller business cannot survive.  That owner may move from a job that they are passionate about and work hard at to a general labor job where they simply go through the motions for barely enough money to support their family.  

We miss that hiring a large number of employees also means that some won’t make the cut.  This will impact their self confidence which may then impact their relationship with their children who then pass on negative behaviors for generations.  It may be a good thing to have this new factory but we will never see how it impoverished a family for generations.  

I understand that most of these things get labeled as trivial and are not “important” enough for us to worry about.  There will always be things outside of our control so we shouldn’t spend time evaluating every possible ripple that could come from every possible situation.  I agree.


Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching over 2,500 years ago.  The Tao explains that there is good in everything and bad in everything.  There really isn’t one without the other.  Even though this simplifies things, it does so it a much more logical way.  It takes out our labels of good and bad and shows that things are much more complex than what we usually understand.  A layoff may mean eventually finding an even better job.  Falling on hard times gives us resilience that we otherwise would never obtain.  The horribleness of September 11th, also brought a new era of patriotism and togetherness in the United States.  

Every possible situation has good and bad mixed in it and if you evaluate it enough you will always find something good and something bad.  As you follow the ripples you will see that so much is impacted that to label it good or bad is really just trying to summarize and categorize something.  But it still doesn’t begin to tell us everything.  

Human thinking is flawed.  We see things linearly when the reality is that it is a three dimensional sphere.  We cut out as much as possible to simplify the situation so that we can make judgements about it.  In the early days of evolution this allowed us to spot danger and react.  If we tried to evaluate all of the ripples associated with a saber tooth tiger approaching us we would not be able to come to a conclusion and react in time.


System Thinking

Another way of thinking has been discovered.  Now that we usually don’t need to make split second decisions and can evaluate complex situations, some have learned to think in systems.  Systems presents a much larger view of the sphere but still misses much.  Thinking in systems provides a circular view.  Donella Meadows outlines this type of thinking in her book, Thinking in Systems.

Looking at systems we can start to understand many of the ripples associated with each situation.  We do this by looking at repetition.  Instead of cutting out most of the ripples we start to look for patterned responses.  We start to look at behaviors that happen every time a similar situation arises.  We start to see things differently.  

The best way to understand systems thinking is to ask yourself one question.  If you could change anything in this universe to make this world a better place, what would you change?  The catch is that it can’t be a one-time situation, such as I would live forever.  It has to be a change in the rules.  Instead of having one person live forever, you would have to say that people will live forever.  

Whatever move you would make the ripples tell the full story.  If people live forever then the world would be overcrowded, we would not be able to have children in an attempt to preserve resources and we wouldn’t truly appreciate life, we would take it for granted.  

If you would like peace on earth, then you cannot have an advancing civilization because history has shown that many of the biggest steps we have taken in technology and medicine came from war.  We would also not truly appreciate peace because we would never have experienced war and it wouldn’t exist.  

Whatever change one thinks they can make to positively impact things, the reality is that there are too many ripples to truly understand all of the good and bad aspects of that change.  There is simply too much.

That is why Lau Tzu writing about this 2,500 years ago is incredible.  He understood this on a level far beyond most of us today.  Instead of trying to understand the ripples he subtly acknowledged they were there.  He didn’t try to describe everything in life, he simply called it the 10,000 things.  He simplified, not in an attempt to manipulate, but in an attempt to understand.  He refused to label it and only said that it is the great way.  


Understanding the Ripples

For one to move further along in understanding, one has to better understand the ripples.  The next step is to understand the system.  By evaluating things in a systematic way we can start to see repetition.  We see recurring aspects and immediately know more.  

We see a new governmental regulation that changes the way a business operates and automatically know that certain things will change.  Business will have to adjust.  Stock prices of these companies may fluctuate.  New roles in that business may be created to account for the regulation.  

How do we know these things?  Because they are repeating situations.  When someone is  hired many more are passed over.  When a store is robbed those in the neighborhood will be more nervous.  When a child is kidnapped those watching the news will hold their children closer.  When the economy bubbles, it will ultimately pop.  When a civilization feels invincible it somehow crumbles.  


It Is What It Is

We can try to spin off every judgement possible and try to determine if it is ultimately good or bad but that doesn’t matter.  Judgement is part of the linear-thinking flaw that says naming it somehow eliminates the other ripples.  Judgement simply colors the reality that it is what it is and nothing more.  

The more I learn about systems thinking the more I see the genius of Lau Tzu and his paradoxical way of explaining things.  Being able to see things and communicate them in the way that the Tao Te Ching does is astonishing.  The more I learn about the ripples the more I realize that it doesn’t matter.  That is why I feel the starting point to learning about this is the Tao Te Ching.  That provides the basic foundation.  Everything from there moves us to a better understanding of the high level view he provides.  

Thinking in systems does have advantages.  In our personal lives we can start to see repetition in our behaviors.  We can see that eating this cheeseburger is good and bad.  The good comes from the enjoyment of eating it but the bad comes from the long term health risks associated with eating unhealthily items.  By better understanding the system we can start to adjust our behaviors. 

We also start to better understand our habits.  Habits are simply our patterned responses to situations.  This means that we can identify the patterns and make adjustments.  We can learn about how habits are formed and use that knowledge to create the habits that will take us where we want to go.   


Using System Thinking to Improve

Improvement becomes possible.  We can slowly move closer to who we want to become.  We will be able to adjust as we progress because we will better understand the systems and habits in our lives.  We can start to develop a relaxed, yet motivated approach to life.  We will see the counterpoints and know that success will come with a price.  

The most telling verse in the Tao Te Ching is verse 29.  It says:

    “So you think you can control the world and improve it?

    I do not believe it can be done.

    The world is sacred.

    It cannot be improved.  

    If you try to control it you will lose it.

    If you try to grasp it you will not succeed.


    There is a time for being ahead and a time for being behind.

    A time for being in motion and a time for being at rest.

    A time for being vigorous and a time for being exhausted.

    A time for being safe and a time for being in danger.


    The master sees things as they are without trying to control them.

    He lets them go on their own way and resides at the center of the circle.”