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Look for the pattern

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.  

Look for the pattern

Scott Miker

Patterns in life are important yet often ignored.  They unlock meaning when we might misjudge something as coincidence or happenstance. 

But most people are horrible at spotting patterns.  Since most of society is very event-based and thinking linearly, they miss important nudges that something is wrong.  Instead of seeing the pattern and then making a change, they simply continue to find some scapegoat instead of really searching for the root causes of these events.

I started my career as an audio engineer.  I would work with musicians and help them record their music.  I would have to take individual sounds and put them together to make a great sounding album.   

What I realized when I first started studying audio engineering is that music is simply patterned sound.  If we take a random sound, such as a door slamming, and then repeat it in certain intervals it will instantly start to sound like a song. 

But if the interval isn’t a fixed interval or if we just isolate one instance of this sound without any other sounds it starts to sound completely different.  I would listen to a full song from a band and press the solo button to hear just the snare drum.  Then I would isolate just one strike of the snare drum.  Then we can do all sorts of editing to clean up a song or adjust the tone of the drum. 

Anyone who has ever recorded music can attest that this suddenly changes how the snare drum sounds.  What makes it musical is the fact that it is part of a pattern of notes and within a larger pattern of instruments playing patterns of notes.  Take all that away and you are left with something that has much less meaning.  The meaning comes from the combination of many elements and the patterns that are overlapping.  Meaning comes from the spaces between the notes as much as the sounds. 

But in life most people are constantly evaluating things that happen throughout their life in isolation.  They don’t look for the pattern or the overall connection to other elements going on in their life. 

Linear thinking is like pressing solo and listening to just one note at a time.  Systems thinking is listening to a full band and being able to hear how the bass guitar makes the electric guitar seem more full and robust or how the kick drum is fighting with the bass guitar for space in the mix.   

But when I first started I couldn’t do any of that.  I couldn’t decipher these elements of a song.  When I started studying audio engineering we spent years working on these skills.  Over time I started to unlock a completely different ability to hear music. 

I would even grab an old CD from my childhood and listen to a song I’ve heard thousands of times.  But suddenly the song sounded completed different.  For the first time I heard the reverb or delay they put on the vocals or the way they added slight percussion sounds to the bridge.  I would hear a second vocal harmony that I never noticed or the fact that the piano was panned to one side. 

This really messed with my mind.  I was baffled at how the song completely changed.  But really it was exactly the same.  What changed was my ability to hear more about the song.   

When I transitioned to teaching audio engineering students I loved to share insight that would open up their ear.  I would play a song from the Californication CD from Red Hot Chili Peppers that had a lot of distortion in it.  The distortion was due to pushing the limits of the compressors and limiters in a new way to create more volume.  But the downside was that it created distortion. 

Once I pointed this out and played the song a few times, they would suddenly hear this distortion.  Then they would say that they couldn’t listen to the song and not hear the distortion.  Once this was opened up to them they couldn’t go back.  They could never listen to that song the same again.

Systems thinking is the same way.  Once we start to put the elements of life together with the connections, structures, repetition, patterns etc. we start to think differently about life.  It is like speaking a new language or learning to read.  Suddenly random lines and shapes have incredible meaning. 

If we apply this to our daily life and our goals and ambitions, we can see that we unlock a better understanding that will enable us to improve at a greater pace.  We can start to make sense of things that previously went unnoticed.  The excuses we applied to many failures suddenly loses any weight and we realize those excuses were really just factors that we used to defend our ego by putting the blame on them instead of taking responsibility.