Life is complex: an ever-changing tangle of joy and pain, failure and success, beauty and despair. Sometimes it sucks, like watching your mother fade away into dementia, or losing a beloved dog. Sometimes it is so beautiful it brings you to tears, like dancing with soul friends under a sky set aflame.
I’ve written about complexity for several years now. These last three years have brought a different perspective — a lived experience of “the full catastrophe”. I am even more convinced of the need to make the wisdom of complexity available more broadly, and yet I am increasingly frustrated by how we obfuscate it with big words, theoretical constructs, and intellectual debates. (I say this with full awareness that I have been part of these patterns myself!)
Complexity is not new. And it’s not something separate from our lives. We all already know how to be in, and navigate complexity. However we have a uniquely human ability to create pockets of order and predictability. And while this has led to incredible progress, our love affair with certainty and control has become a trap. Now, the challenges of our times invite us to reconsider, to reframe our learned dislike for complexity and reconnect with our innate ability to be dance with it — or as Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Carolyn Caughlin calls it: our complexity genius.
The last three years has been an excellent teacher … I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned during these exceptionally hard times.
- You can’t avoid complexity (and you don’t want to).
We ARE complex beings, embodied as complex organisms embedded in webs of complex relationships. We know complexity in our bones. Yes, our need for certainty, comfort and control has led us to create elaborately ordered structures that provide comfort and a measure of predictability. But we all know that raising children is not like fixing a car.
Deep down, we know there is no certainty except for continuous change.
And while there is truth to it that change is happening faster and faster, we face potentially existential challenges (like intelligent machines), and life can feel precarious … it is also true that humans are creative and adaptive; we know how to dance with emergence. Trying to opt out of the uncertainty only ends up creating more. And if everything was sure, how boring would life be?
2. Complexity is everywhere, but not everything is complex.
Think more granularly, i.e., tasks, problems or challenges I encounter (vs systems). Some tasks are routine and straightforward — I can just get on with it, e.g., if a hose pipe or tap leaks in my garden, I fix it. Some tasks are more complicated, but I can figure it out or refer to someone with expertise — like installing an irrigation system. Nurturing a garden ecosystem, raising children, navigating the death of loved ones, forming new friendships … these require learning, improvisation, experimentation and for me to show up in my full (in)glorious human complexity.
3. Mind your language.
Language helps us frame our world and make sense. New language can help us see the world differently, AND it can become a stumbling block. So, if the language and labels become hindrances, drop them. I have become increasingly aware of how our language de-animates our world. The nouns that flow from our need to name and categorise can strip out life’s essential ambiguity, nuance, and mystery. Once I label a tree as a pine or a beautiful bird as a pigeon, they disappear into familiar categories. Only suitable for logging, a pest or a nuisance. I don’t bother looking twice; I miss the beauty and potential to be more. Many opportunities for innovation are lost because we can’t see past our definitions and spot new and unexpected affordances offered by familiar objects or processes. The same happens with people and relationships — they become imprisoned in rigid categories. So, instead of labels, see if rich descriptions help — it’s not about getting it entirely right or finding a suitable category — it’s about changing our relationship to the problems and systems around us.
4. Think of yourself as always waysfinding.
In familiar places, we find our way using familiar landmarks and pathways. In unfamiliar places where others have gone before, we follow a map, a GPS or someone’s storied directions. When we are in uncharted places where no one has been before, we follow our intuition; we look for patterns; we find co-journeyers and reconnect to ancient wisdom. Ironically, sometimes the best way to perceive the new is with forms of knowledge we deem outdated or irrelevant. The key to remember here is that we are always finding our way; our context determines how we do it.
5. Keep moment(um).
Complexity (or maybe we should just call it life) is constantly changing. It is dynamic, and so we need to keep moving. We move from moment to moment, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always taking time to pause for an ‘um’ to catch our breath. Sometimes we encounter dead-ends and need to backtrack; sometimes, we will find unexpected beauty and tarry for a while. Sometimes it might seem like we are aimlessly drifting, but that’s ok too. The key is not to get stuck for too long.
6. Getting lost is a beautiful practice.
Have you noticed how we never allow ourselves to get lost nowadays? We always have a GPS or a charted route. Yet, we all know that the best way to really experience a new place, like a city we haven’t visited before, is to go off the beaten track and get lost for a while. So, in safe environments, I try to switch off my GPS more often to allow myself to get lost, drift through the landscape, and be open to the unexpected. This practice helps me reconnect with uncertainty to go beyond the certainty merchants. When I do this, my intuition comes online, dots connect, and new perspectives emerge. So instead of ruminating on that tough work challenge, allow yourself to get lost, let it simmer, and you may find unexpected paths forward. It might seem inefficient, but it’s often much more effective.
7. be COOL
- Choose to be Courageous and stay with the trouble for a while — allow yourself to get lost;
- Choose to be Open to the unexpected and the slightly messy and ambiguous;
- Choose to Observe from different perspectives and to Observe yourself as the Observer and how you are part of it all; and
- Choose Lightness — to see the beauty in it all, to not take yourself too seriously, to allow yourself some joy in the midst of it and to connect to your imagination.
8. be Human (again)
- Feel your feelings. Be curious. Laugh. Connect and value others. These are things AI can’t do.
- Learn to regulate your nervous system responses. Cultivate a breathing practice, reconnect with your body, move more. Turn anxiety into creative energy.
- Don’t try to go it alone; find a tribe — but make sure it’s diverse. It’s the quirky ones, the mavericks among us, who can help us find new ways.
- Develop a strategic relationship with your intuition. There’s a reason Einstein said,
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
It’s high time we remember the gift.
So, finally … when I am stuck in a tangle, or I feel overwhelmed, I try to remember:
- I’ve got this! Being human is about dancing with tangles — I’ve done it hundreds of times in many different contexts, I can do it again.
- It might feel overwhelming, but there is always a way forward — pause, re-orient, and keep moving one small step at a time.
- I’m not alone. We are all walking each other home as we navigate the beautiful complexity and beauty of this life.