A book that I am re-reading is “Deep Simplicity: Chaos, Complexity and the Emergence of Life” by John Gribbin, a British science writer and astrophysicist. It a pertinent book to go visit each time you begin to imagine the world is an incredibly complex place. The central hypothesis in it is that when all things around that seems chaotic are questioned on the back of first principles, elegant answers emerge that sound simple. The outcomes though may be complex and must be wrestled with.
Gribbin starts off by talking of how his interest in exploring the nature of Chaos Theory and complexity was triggered. Most people couldn’t wrap their heads around it. “…and I clearly recall the moment when I finally got the message about what it was all about,” he writes. “As I understood it, what really mattered was simply that some systems (‘system’ is just a jargon word for anything, like a swinging pendulum, or the Solar System, or water dripping from a tap) are very sensitive to their starting conditions, so that a tiny difference in the initial ‘push’ you give them causes a big difference in where they end up, and there is feedback, so that what a system does affects its own behaviour.
It seemed too good to be true—too simple to be true.”
“So I asked the cleverest person I know, Jim Lovelock, if I was on the right lines. Was it really true, I asked, that all this business of chaos and complexity is based on two simple ideas—the sensitivity of a system to its starting conditions, and feedback? Yes, he replied, that’s all there is to it.”
For a long time, I have been much biased towards this passage. When thought through, it is the kind of writing that helps break seemingly complex things down—like my head—into discrete pieces that can be made sense of. I like to think of me as a system. What may I do and how may I behave on a given day? If I be a system, what ideal starting condition can I provide myself to perform at optimum levels?
In this “systems” driven world view, feedback mechanisms exist. That must be factored in as well. Scientifically speaking, one feedback mechanism can be a force such as friction that can hold a system back from moving as fast as it can than it otherwise would under ideal conditions. When extrapolated into the system that I am, there are forces that conspire against me. An unwanted email, an urgent phone call, an unintended visitor—little things can derail the momentum I had imagine the system that I am.
If observations like these are jotted over time, mechanisms can be built to either circumvent these forces—or figure out in very pragmatic terms how will the “system” that I am operate in real world conditions.
How to do that is something the Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has articulated often times on multiple forums—buy a notebook. “Go down to a local drugstore and buy a very cheap notebook and start keeping track of your decisions. And the specific idea is whenever you’re making a consequential decision, something going in or out of the portfolio, just take a moment to think, write down what you expect to happen, why you expect it to happen and then actually, and this is optional, but probably a great idea, is write down how you feel about the situation, both physically and even emotionally. Just, how do you feel? I feel tired. I feel good, or this stock is really draining me. Whatever you think.”
The reason he suggests we maintain a notebook is a simple one. As humans, we are susceptible to the “Hindsight Bias”. That means, when the outcome of any decision taken in the past turns out to be bad, our minds will think up the most favourable excuse it can to explain in the present moment why the bad outcome occurred. This is why notebooks serves a purpose:
“One of the easiest and most accessible ways to understand your own decision-making process is to document it. If you start tracking the situations about which you must make decisions, the reasons you’re making the decisions you’re making, and your expected outcome, over time you will begin to see patterns in your decision-making process. You will recognize repeated mistakes that you have made and you will be aware of them when you are making decisions in the future.”
I must admit I was unfamiliar with all of this when I first started to document my daily life, decisions and outcomes about seven years go. Every once a while, I revisit the notes in there. And the patterns make itself obvious.
• I work well if I start early.
• I need a few hours to myself in the morning.
• There are certain hours of the day at which productivity peaks. If interrupted during those hours, nothing of consequence will be accomplished.
• What has to be done must be captured in a TBD list the day before. Else, I start out feeling lost.
• Food must get into the system by a certain hour and nothing must be ingested past a certain hour.
And so on and so forth. The list goes on.
Basis studying these patterns, I now also know that some decisions and the events that transpired subsequently look ridiculously stupid. What is also clear is that when most bad decisions were made, I was thinking of first order outcomes—not second and third order consequences.
To ensure first order outcomes are best avoided, the notebooks have been refined over the years to capture at what point in time a decision was made, what frame of mind was I in, what circumstances surrounded a particular decision, and so on and so forth. This, because at any given point in time, multiple decisions are possible. What decision is finally taken though is a function of how well the “system” can function.
To that extent, this notebook serves as a ruthless “Feedback Mechanism” to capture the “sensitivity” of the “system” that I am built of to figure what may be the ideal “starting condition” for it to operate it. It is always work-in-progress.
All said, it exposes the limits of a systems driven view of the world as well. Because the best my notebook can do is look only at myself as a system. It finds resonance in a caveat John Gribbin files:
“An atom, or even a simple molecule like water, is simpler than a human being because it has little internal structure; a star, or the interior of a planet, is simpler than a human being because gravity crushes any structure out of existence. And that is why science can tell us more about the behaviour of atoms and the internal workings of the stars than it can about the way people behave.”
How true this is was driven home hard on a Sunday evening when my little girl, now in Senior KG walked all around the place, with an expression on her face that could have melted a robot’s heart. A conversation followed.
Me: What happened?
She: Dada, I need a psychology.
Me: A psychology?
She: Yes. My knees are paining. I don’t think I can go to school tomorrow.
I examined her knees. All the naked eye could see was the faint trace of a tiny scratch that couldn’t have hurt an ant.
Me: (in a mocking tone) That looks serious.
She: Yes. I need a psychology.
Me: What is a psychology?
She: A psychology is somebody who makes human beings all right. Tomorrow some psychology can see me.
Me: Who told you that?
She: I saw a psychology on Amazon Firestick?
It didn’t take much to put all of it together. Her legs were not hurting. She had figured how to use Amazon’s Firestick lying around at home. There is some movie or show she was witness to where one of the protagonists is a psychologist, looks troubled at the outset of every visit, and leaves feeling better. Her brain had figured the word “psychology” could be deployed with much felicity to elicit sympathy.
The posed a question though: Ought she be complimented for latching on to a nebulous idea and deploying it to her advantage?
Some discussion with the missus later, and much to the little girl’s delight, we let her take the day off. But I am still to figure out if that was indeed the right thing to do. On the one hand, her tiny head had figured out that the first order outcome of a remote control that latches to the internet can be a television show; the second order consequence of a particular word can earn her a holiday; and a potential third order outcome may wing her some sympathy and a treat as well. As concepts go, this is an abstract one for a little mind to navigate through. To that extent, it makes her ingenious.
Then on the other hand, did I unwittingly create the ideal conditions and offer feedback of the kind that encourages a complex “system” like her to morph into a liar at some point?
Serendipity may hold pointers to “answers” in the notebooks a unidimensional “system” like me copiously maintains now.