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“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.
The idea here is simple: Every month, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.
Okay, let’s get to the featured book: Thinking In Systems by Donella H. Meadows.
I follow a genre rotation in both my personal and work reading (I read one or two books per genre before moving on to the next), and my personal rotation includes “Be Smarter/Better.”
Well, Thinking In Systems was one of the best “Be Smarter/Better” books I’ve read this year because systems thinking is a powerful tool for gaining a deeper and more practical understanding of how you, others, and the world around you tick.
And with that greater understanding comes a greater ability for effective and meaningful action and change.
In fact, I’d go as far as saying that understanding how to envision and create productive and efficient systems is one of the highest-leverage life skills you can develop. So many personal, interpersonal, and social failures aren’t so much the result of inherently flawed individuals but of faulty systems.
To understand why, let’s first define systems thinking, which is the art and science of understanding forces and interrelationships that shape the behavior of systems.
And what are systems? Meadows defines them as sets of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.
You can find systems everywhere you look.
Our bodies and minds are systems, animals, gardens, trees, and forests are systems, businesses are systems, local, national, and global economies are systems, hell, even diet, exercise, and lifestyle regimens are systems.
Moreover, all of these systems (and all others) are comprised of different types of elements and relationships that can take an infinite number of forms.
In other words, all systems have common denominators that can be isolated, analyzed, and modeled, and the better you can do this, the better you can understand and influence the many systems you interact with.
This realization alone can have profound effects in your life as you begin to understand that many desirable and undesirable outcomes you experience are the result of functional and dysfunctional systems, not luck, fate, or randomness.
That is, many of the situations and circumstances in your life, both good and bad, are the direct consequence of systems with finite and knowable structures that are very good at producing exactly what you’re enjoying or enduring.
These systems are real, they’re there, and they’re working for or against you every minute of every day.
Thus, if you want to make your circumstances markedly better, you need to be able to consider more than just first-order actions and effects—the obvious, easy-to-perceive things—and think more holistically (systematically). Otherwise you can easily fall into the trap of chasing your tail and wondering why things aren’t going your way.
This helps explain why some people work very hard at goals yet make little progress. Oftentimes they’re pouring all their resources (effort, energy, time, money) into defective systems that have a low probability of success.
A simple example of this is diet and training. No matter how diligently you follow a poor system for diet or exercise, you’re probably going to wind up disappointed in the end.
Well, the same goes for literally any other goal and activity in your life, whether it’s getting a job, learning to play the piano, or finding a partner. There are many ways (systems) of going about these things, and some are far more likely to work than others.
Thus, once you’ve formulated a goal, the very next step should be careful meditation on the system that’s going to get you there.
This isn’t always easy, either—it often requires extensive study, creative thinking, and bright ideas—but it’s also the proverbial “aiming the arrow” moment where just an inch of miscalculation can all but guarantee you’ll never hit the target no matter how many attempts you make.
By continually working on the systems in your life, you’re continually calibrating your aim, so to speak, allowing you to eventually hit the bullseye again and again.
And so this is why I recommend you read this book.
If you want to live an orderly, productive, enjoyable life, yes, you have to be willing to put in the work, but you also have to know how to design systems that can transform raw effort into real results.
Let’s get to the takeaways.
My 5 Key Takeaways from Thinking In Systems
A system’s function or purpose is not necessarily spoken, written, or expressed explicitly, except through the operation of the system. The best way to deduce the system’s purpose is to watch for a while to see how the system behaves.
In other words, it’s safe to assume the purpose of any system is to produce the results it’s producing.
Think about that for a second in the context of many of our current social, political, and economic systems, which were purportedly created to do so many great things that never came to pass.
For instance, a school textbook might say the Federal Reserve System was created to provide Americans with a stable, safe, and flexible financial system. That’s nice. Let’s see how it has performed in this regard.
Well, it presided over the crashes of 1921 and 1929, the Great Depression of ‘29 to ‘39, the recessions of ‘53, ‘57, ‘69, ‘75, and ‘81, the “Black Monday” of ‘87, and 1,000% of inflation that has destroyed 90% of the dollar’s purchasing power, as evidenced by the fact that by 1990, it required $10,000 to buy what took just $1,000 to buy in 1914.
All that is to say nothing of the staggering level of government debt that would have never been possible without the Fed.
And so you have to wonder: were the people who created the Fed incompetent or have they actually gotten exactly what they wanted—has this system simply realized its actual purpose?
Well, considering the primary architects of our central banking system were six men who represented approximately a quarter of all the wealth in the world, including agents of the notoriously mercenary financial houses of Morgan, Rockefeller, Warburg, Rothschild, and Kuhn, Loeb, & Company, if you truly believe these guys just made a boo-boo that accidentally increased their wealth and power exponentially at the expense of the American taxpayers, please contact me about a highly profitable portfolio of Nigerian bonds I’d like to sell you.
Anyway, the point is this:
When you see a system working in a certain way and producing a certain result, your first assumption should probably be that’s its true purpose, regardless of what’s stated otherwise.
Similarly, you should also be very interested in who created a system and what their likely motives were, as well as who’s working to perpetuate it and what they have to gain as well.
[Language] can serve as a medium through which we create new understandings and new realities as we begin to talk about them. In fact, we don’t talk about what we see; we see only what we can talk about.
A story on this point:
Malcolm Little dropped out of school in the eighth grade after his teacher told him that his goal of becoming a lawyer wasn’t realistic as a black man.
By the time he was 13, he had lost both of his parents—his father died and his mother had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized.
In 1943, Malcolm was 18, living in Harlem, and involved in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, prostitution, and burglarizing the residences of wealthy, white families.
Then, in 1946, he was arrested for larceny and breaking and entering and was sentenced to eight to ten years in Massachusetts State Prison.
At this point, Malcolm was 21 years old and could barely read. “Every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might have been in Chinese,” he later wrote.
In prison, however, he met a self-educated man by the name of John Elton Bembry, a well-regarded prisoner. Malcolm would later describe him as “the first man I had ever seen command total respect . . . with words.”
The two became friends and Malcolm decided to educate himself as Bembry had. Painfully aware of his illiteracy, Malcolm started by getting his hands on a dictionary and copying every entry by hand.
It took him a day just to do the first page, but every day, he would copy out a new page and then read aloud each word and its definitions.
Slowly but surely, Malcolm began to remember words and what they meant, and he realized his dictionary was really a “little encyclopedia” that taught him about people, animals, places, history, philosophy and science.
As Malcolm’s vocabulary grew, so did his understanding of life and the world around him. He found that he could pick up a book “and now begin to understand what the book was saying.” And he was hooked.
“From then until I left that prison,” he said, “in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading in my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of a book with a wedge.”
Malcolm read and read and read. He devoured books on history and was astounded at the knowledge he obtained about the history of black civilizations. He read books by Gandhi on the struggle in India, he read about African colonization and China’s Opium Wars. He read about genetics and philosophy. He read about religion.
“Ten guards and the warden couldn’t have torn me out of those books. I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life,” he said.
Malcolm was paroled and released from prison in 1952, and this new course in his life led him to become Malcolm X, one of the most prominent figures in the American Civil Rights Movement—something he’ll forever be remembered for.
Think about this story for a minute.
By 21 years old, Malcolm’s fate seemed to be completely sealed: he was an illiterate, black, drug-dealing pimp stuck in prison, living in the harsh realities of 1940s racism.
Where “should” he have gone?
Nowhere, of course. His lot “should’ve” been a cold, insignificant death in the streets of Harlem. But, using the power of language, he literally re-wrote his destiny in a way that almost defies belief.
Who’s to say you can’t do the same? Or at least make things a bit better than they currently are?
Everything we think we know about the world is a model. Every word and every language is a model. All maps and statistics, books and databases, equations and computer programs are models. So are the ways I picture the world in my head—my mental models. None of these is or ever will be the real world.
Our models usually have a strong congruence with the world. That is why we are such a successful species in the biosphere.
However, and conversely, our models fall far short of representing the world fully. That is why we make mistakes and why we are regularly surprised.
This is one of the reasons continually educating ourselves is so important.
The more we understand, the more our mental models will accurately represent reality (how things really are and how they really work), and the more accurate our mental models are, the more we’ll be able to effectively interact with and influence reality.
And by the same token, many mistakes and missteps that people make come from perfectly good reasoning applied to faulty mental models.
In other words, we can only be as rational as the information we have, and if we’re aren’t actively working to not only acquire important information we’re missing but also to improve and often correct much of the information we do have, we’re going to be at a huge disadvantage in our lives.
At any given time, the input that is most important to a system is the one that is most limiting.
When we want to grow something—muscles, income, social capital, whatever—we tend to think in terms of merely strengthening factors that can drive growth. You know, do more volume, work longer hours, attend more meetups, and the like.
What can often go unexamined, however, are the factors that are most limiting advancement, which may not be volume, work hours, or meetups. Instead they might be eating too few calories, poor financial controls (if you own your own business and it’s not very profitable), or poor conversation skills.
Such bottlenecks can be insidious because if you’re unaware of them, you can expend a tremendous amount of effort for very little additional return.
Think of it like driving around with your parking brake on.
What’s more, growth itself can deplete or enhance limiting factors and therefore change what’s limiting. Thus, by learning how to pinpoint and address limits in a system, you can gain real understanding of and control over it.
If something is ugly, say so. If it is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsustainable, morally degrading, ecologically impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don’t let it pass. Don’t be stopped by the “if you can’t define it and measure it, I don’t have to pay attention to it” ploy. No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.
Criticism and intolerance of all that’s evil, ugly, immoral, and degrading is a contribution toward the preservation of high personal, social, and cultural standards.
This is one of the reasons I speak out so harshly against the charlatans of the fitness business, including fake natties, dishonest pill and powder pushers, phony gurus, and the like, and why I’m equally quick to denounce the elements of society I feel are most destructive to our collective well-being.
In this way, we all have a social responsibility to embody and uphold the virtues and values that are truly admirable, honorable, and beautiful, because if we don’t, who will? And if nobody does, a drift toward low performance will inevitably result (“goal erosion” in systems lingo).
Some people scoff at this idea. “Who are you to judge?” they say.
Well, many of these people who are so virtuously against “judging others” no matter how degenerate or depraved aren’t doing so out of compassion or tolerance per se but self-preservation.
That is, they’re degenerate and depraved themselves and want to live in a world that gives them a free pass, hence their insistence that everyone (including them) should just be able to do whatever they want “sO LoNg As It MakEs ThEm HaPpPPPyyyyYY!1!1!!”
And so I’m always highly skeptical of people who advocate for the acceptance of obviously rotten and dysfunctional ideas and behaviors under the guise of personal liberty, equality, and the like.