Do you like thinking in straight lines or curves? I know, this might seem like a curious question but it can reveal a lot on how you think. Intuitively we understand that life is full of curves but for some reason we over-impose artificial straight lines.
We are biased towards linear thinking because it helps us resolve most of the challenges we face in our daily lives, where there are mostly simple cause and effect situations. But we forget that most longer-term challenges, such as following the right career path, investing in a new business, navigating relationships, understanding the economy, require non-linear thinking.
We need to be able to consider all perspectives and see the whole picture. This will help us understand the underlying patterns and how seemingly unrelated events interrelate, creating a more complex reality.
While dancing Cuban Salsa, where the two partners dance in circular motions, I realised that there was some wisdom in this dance. Moving in curves and circles intuitively felt right to me, but I couldn’t connect the dots back then. Later, I discovered some deeper meaning.
Dancing in curves and lines
The term Salsa originated in New York in the 1960’s to describe a popular Latin American social dance comprised of a mix of older styles.
When I first started dancing salsa, I was a complete beginner. I couldn’t understand the various dance styles, and why would someone prefer one over the other and what the fuss was all about. However soon, I realised that each style represented a very different school of thought. There are mainly two popular styles of Salsa, the first one is Cross-body and the other one is Cuban style or “Casino”.
One closer to linear motion, the other embracing the beauty of circular motion. This put me into thinking, why some people prefer passionately one over the other and what does this tell on how they think and perceive the world.
Two styles of Salsa, two very different worldviews
In Cross-body salsa, the two partners dance within an imaginary line that runs between them while their bodies continuously cross each other. All movements are linear and ever the spins happen within a line.
There are two types of cross-body salsa, L.A. style (On1) where dancers accentuate the 1st and 5th beat, and N.Y. style (On2) where dancers accentuate the 2nd and 6th beat. The L.A. style is more flamboyant and extravagant while the N.Y. style with its conga drums is a bit closer to Cuban music.
However in Cuban salsa, also known as Casino style or Timba, the two partners always move in circular motions. They are not constrained so much, which allows for more complex patterns to emerge. The leader is usually in the centre and the follower dances on the outside around the leader.
Cuban salsa has more references to Afro-Cuban dances (Rumba) and is polyrhythmic. It is less technical than cross-body, more creative, and allows for a lot of improvisation. Dancers are usually dressed informally and express themselves freely, almost ecstatically, while in cross-body there is more formality, choreography, and structure.
Personally, I love dancing Cuban Salsa. Perhaps because I am a non-linear thinker. Intuitively, Cuban Salsa with its circular movements feels much more natural to my brain.
Cross-body salsa, although may seem more spectacular at times, is mainly linear and is all about control and precision.
On the other hand, Cuban salsa is danced in circles and is more about improvisation. There is also one more important difference, Cuban salsa is polyrhythmic in nature compared to Cross-body which is mono-rhythmic. Perhaps it was not the intention but it feels like a simplified and more ‘accessible’ version of Afro-Cuban dances for a mass audience.
Life is full of curves although we like to think otherwise
We have always been afraid of the complexity and unpredictability of the world around us. As a result we have come up with elaborate ways of controlling and structuring our environment.
Take for example gardening or landscaping and how we have tried to tame wildlife. Nature wants to increase entropy, we want to reduce it. Throughout our history we have been trying to transform a complex 3D reality to a simplified and orderly 2D version that we can understand. We stop accepting things for what they are, instead we transform them to how we think they are.
For instance, we invented geometry to make an imperfect world look perfect, to understand it and perhaps tame it. In reality there are no perfect circles, lines, or triangles. When you look closer to any real-world objects you can see that those perceived straight lines are in fact fractals (non-regular geometrical shapes).
Donella Meadows, an American environmental scientist and pioneer in systems thinking, wrote in her seminal book “Thinking in Systems” how our minds love straight lines although life and nature are full of curves.
There’s something within the human mind that is attracted to straight lines and not curves, to whole numbers and not fractions, to uniformity and not diversity, and to certainties and not mystery. One part of us designs buildings as boxes with uncompromising straight lines and flat surfaces. Another part of us recognizes instinctively that nature designs in fractals, with intriguing detail on every scale from the microscopic to the macroscopic. That part of us makes Gothic cathedrals and Persian carpets, symphonies and novels, Mardi Gras costumes and artificial intelligence programs, all with embellishments almost as complex as the ones we find in the world around us.Donella Meadows – Dancing with Systems
“Linear thinking” is a systematic step-by-step thought progression that follows a straight line and it only has two sets of answers – correct or incorrect. This makes sense for mathematical problems but not so much when it comes to natural and human systems. In our lives we expect the relationship between variables and outcomes to be simple and linear with a clear cause and effect despite the fact that we live in a non-linear world.
Complexity emerges from simplicity, not the other way around
For a long time in human history we have been thinking this problem backwards. Although everything in nature may seem to be wild or chaotic, in reality there are simple underlying principles which enable order to rise within the chaos. And perhaps here lies the misunderstanding.
Complexity emerges from simple rules, not complex ones. We don’t need to simplify or reduce reality, we just need to understand its organising principles. We shouldn’t be afraid of complexity but embrace it.
“We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”Donella Meadows
Embrace a life full of curves
Our lives are full of curves, although we maintain the illusion that things move linearly, one step at a time.
Take for example our careers. When we start our careers at a young age we often assume that we will gradually get promoted until we reach the CEO position. Of course, I am exaggerating but there is linearity in our thinking.
In reality, the vast majority of people have non-linear and unpredictable careers. Perhaps you were let go of a job and got a better one. Or perhaps you moved to a new company but it turned out to be much worse. Perhaps you invested many years of your life to pursuit a career in a profession, only to realise that it wasn’t for you. There is simply not a linear path to success.
As Steve Jobs famously said “You cannot connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”. Throughout our careers we take steps forwards, backward and sideways, we dance in all directions and hope that eventually we will find a partner and do what we really love.
From business and the economy to natural systems, life is full of curves, not straight lines. Some curves may complete a full circle and take us back to the beginning. Some others may take us in unexpected places.
But one thing is for sure, life is like Cuban salsa, perpetually moving in curves and cycles.