It sounds counterintuitive, but to achieve big goals you need to think small.
When I first started Cuban Salsa I wanted to make the most out of every class. Understand the rhythm, learn the footwork, use my arms correctly, and memorise all the sequences the teacher would show us. Soon, I realised that this was unsustainable and my mind was find it harder and harder to remember everything after each class. I thought that I was failing, that I was a poor learner, or perhaps dancing was not for me.
I started watching recorded videos to study the moves and push myself to memorise them, trying to cram as much as I could. Then, I would go to parties to practice whole sequences as memorised, rather than interacting with my partners.
This approach didn’t work, and for months I was frustrated. I was clearly missing something.
Many of us make this mistake. We want to achieve big goals by focusing on the “big” and not the elements that will lead to our goals.
Seeing though the wrong lenses
As humans, we are good at connecting the dots and seeing patterns. However, although our minds naturally build a picture from discrete parts, we can only see the whole.
When we look at a painting we mostly see the end result, the picture that emerges from the canvas. But this is not how the painter drew it. First, the painter draws a few basic lines, creating a sense of perspective, then they add some colours. Then they add some additional elements and so on. From that the painter draws a tree, then a small path, and then a woman walking down the path. All of these elements come together and co-evolve into the finished picture we see. Nevertheless, many of us view the final result as a whole, blind to the different elements that came together to create what we see.
In this sense when we walk inside an art gallery every painting looks unique, and it is. Nevertheless, the basic elements (i.e colours, materials) used to create the paintings are simple and quite similar.
Basic building blocks and simple rules can lead to spectacularly diverse and unique outcomes. However, this shouldn’t lead us to think that all we need to do is understand the “mechanics” of painting. The way the building blocks synthesise to create a specific impression is more abstract and unpredictable than we think. There is an evolutionary learning process that the artist follows through experimentation and recombination of basic elements.
Systems Thinking – A new way of looking at the world
We like to talk about governments, societies, nations, economies, climate, global businesses and other complex systems as if they are monolithic wholes, treating complex phenomena in simple macroscopic “cause and effect” terms.
And then a microscopic virus (0.125 micron in diameter) comes and turns our world upside down. How can this be possible?
The answer lies in the model we use to understand the world. Although, we can use cause and effect thinking to explain simple everyday things, this doesn’t scale up to complex systems. We cannot treat organisations as if they are a solid block where if we take one action, we get a predictable reaction.
This is why we need to use systems thinking instead.
Many human and natural systems (ant colonies, human brain, societies, weather, democracies, climate, organisations) are complex adaptive systems. Their complex behaviour emerges from the self-organising, non-linear interaction and integration of the diverse components of the system, which adapt and evolve within a changing environment. There is no single rule that controls the system.
In systems thinking, the focus is on the way the parts of the system interrelate, leading to emerging behaviours and patterns, which cannot be explained by just looking at isolated parts of the system.
Systems thinking doesn’t come naturally to most of us but it can help us adjust our lenses and see a different world that we didn’t know existed.
Complexity at its heart can be simple
Most IT systems developed in the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s were designed with a large monolithic architecture. The idea was to achieve big goals with an all encompassing system. Every system and component was tightly coupled with each other in a big spaghetti of interconnections. It was extremely hard for anyone to understand the end-to-end system, let alone being able to upgrade, change or replace pieces of functionality. In a way, IT systems were built as people saw them. Big monoliths of functionality, like industrial machines.
However, in the early 2010s a new style of architecture appeared, microservices, that revolutionised the way we build complex IT systems. Instead of treating software as a big monolith, an application is developed as a suite of small services organised around business capabilities. These microservises communicate with lightweight mechanisms. These are loosely coupled and independently deployable, providing modularity and flexibility. By combining different microservices, we can perform more complex tasks.
In a way, we achieved to decompose complexity by focusing on the building blocks and interrelations that give emergence to it.
Achieve big goals through emergent learning
In the beginning of my post I talked about how difficult it was for me to make progress in dancing. Learning how to dance is a complex process. Yet I was treating it as a mechanical exercise, trying to memorise and repeat difficult sequences and patterns. I couldn’t understand the role of improvisation and how complex patterns emerge from basic moves and simple rules.
Unfortunately, we are naturally good in composition but not so good in decomposition.
Despite my many months of practice, I was completely oblivious to all the details and micro-moves hiding inside larger sequences. Then one evening I had my aha moment. I realised how to use my fingers in a way that will make the transition to the next move easier. Things suddenly started making sense. It was not about learning complex patterns anymore but instead focusing on one small move at a time. I realised that it would take patience and time to connect all the dots. But in this way I would be able to build a foundation, around which I could learn any pattern and improvise.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single stepTao Te Ching – Lao Tzu
My approach required a lot of faith as I had to believe that one day all the small things would accumulate to something great. That everything would somehow come together. Every night I had a simple rule, learn a new small tip. It took more than a year. I started constructing patterns and dance comfortably without having to remember sequences but making things up as I went. The picture was coming up without me being able to realise how.
We tend to ignore the small things when we want to achieve big goals. But, learning is an emergent activity that comes through the accumulation of snippets of knowledge over a long period of time. The people you meet, the partners you dance, the little things you do, it all ads up to something greater than the sum of its individual parts.
All it takes is patience, and the right focus.