On complexity: me and the boxer from Northern Ireland

Part 1 of a series of reflections on complexity and my relationship with it
February 7, 2021

I think about complexity a lot.

I work in an organisation that is well over 100 years old so you can imagine a lot of legacy stuff, creating a web of interconnectedness spanning time and space; pluck one strand, and the vibration radiates across the whole system.

It's not just technical systems; it's the people and the relationships we build too. I can't remember the quote, but I'm sure I remember reading something about Systems Thinking is less about systems of technology and more about systems of people.

I'm no Zen Master of the System; I'm not an academic or an expert on the subject of Systems Thinking. If anything, there are smarter people than me thinking about systems. I'm lucky that I work with a few of them. But I think about complexity a lot because I have a desire to make complexity simple.

Why bother?

Because of my insecurities with my intelligence.  

I've always felt stupid. I wasn't clever at school, and I certainly wasn't popular, so I made it my mission in life to learn all I could about any subject to give me something that sets me apart. Each nugget of knowledge became a brick in a wall around my real ignorance. I was afraid that people would see me as a fraud.

This mission turned me into a bit of a dick: I became arrogant, and I started to revel in others' ignorance privately. It culminated in an ex-boxer from Northern Ireland threatening to punch my lights out.

The episode in the boxing gym in Belfast (amongst others events) made me reassess my behaviours. It became clear that the wall I was creating wasn't making me less ignorant at all. I still had the desire to learn, but I didn't make much of it anymore.

Fast forward some years and three career changes later, and I find myself in the world of Digital Design with ever-increasing magnitudes of complexity. I had no formal design training, and I felt the wall coming back up. Hello, imposter syndrome.

For a large part of my design career, I was stuck. I was not progressing—paralysed by the fear of not knowing my subject matter well enough. Then circumstances around me changed: I fell in with a crowd of people who displayed the growth mindset, and I started reading about vulnerability in the workplace. I had a paradigm shift.

I looked back at all those moments where I felt insecure about my intelligence, and I think about how it was stupid to believe this! Not only was I blocking myself from growing, but I was hindering others: we are all nodes for information to flow through. One selfish node and the system slows down.

So, I think about complexity a lot.

But not in the way of seeing the patterns in things and how data flows from one part of the system to the other; but how can I help other people not feel quite as stupid.