Complexity as Preference
Also: the rekindling of a podcast.
What-ho frens, happy equinox times.
Quick note: we moved The Rekindling event so that it no longer occurs during school holidays. It’s now happening on Tuesday October 4th—and there’s still some room if you’d like to join. This will be a fun, low-key event wherein I share some thoughts with you on matters pertaining to quests, pirates and myth—and then we get to do a fireside hang together in good company after work before some of you kick on for a midweek dinner/beverage in Fitzroy. Please come along if you can, I’d love to see you.
And in other news—I have rekindled my podcast! It’s now called ‘foxwizard; the adventures of’. You can listen to the first episode in substack or—if I got the tech right—on your preferred platform.
I thought I had deleted my old podcast in one of my signature seasonal purges—but then I discovered that it still lingers on spotify. The Internet—our ever-present collective eldritch haunting—Never Forgets. Everything preserved, in undying stasis.
Bah. Oh well. Only that which can change can continue, and I shall slough off that part of me and move on—burying my past work with fresher, better stuff. In theory.
Mind you, I had a listen to my old stuff and I can’t quite fathom why I attempted to delete it all in the first place. Yes, it is always quite cringe to listen to one’s past self—but it was honestly nowhere near as bad as I somehow led myself to believe. I daresay it was even quite good.
I think the bushfires, pandemic, systemic inequality, the climate crisis, the meaning crisis, the meta-crisis, our ongoing mass extinction event and the self-terminating path of civilisation—all of it—triggered some sort of grief process in me. Or rather, pushed me beyond the ‘denial’ stage of grief and into frustration/anger, then depression/despondence, and now... a kind of mollified acceptance.
I am actually pleasantly surprised to realise I am at acceptance now. Only just now, as I write this. Huh, go me.
You know, I actually made six attempts—a total of over 6 hours of recorded work—to answer a letter I received a year or so ago from someone asking the question of ‘what to do when one has fallen out of love with their profession’. I’ll get to it at some point, but for now none of my attempts have rung true.
There’s something about writing that forces you to confront your thoughts. To commit the mercurial and dynamic contextual fluidity of Thought into Words that are then Shared (and Preserved, by The Internet) encourages one to ask: wait, is this true? Or rather: is this true-enough? (Knowing that no truths are absolute <— including this one).
Most books and many podcasts have a shelf life. The classics contain enduring notions; principles that hold mostly true across time and context, at differing levels of complexity. Myths: even more so. Enduringly so.
Good writing is clear thinking. A good podcast though, to me, is not necessarily clear thinking—but the process of moving towards clear thinking.
It is, ideally, a means of figuring; a quest for clarity. At least for me, I appreciate the more intimate and less polished aspect of podcasts. I like the pauses, the stumbles, the inflections and intonations that reveal so much about how someone approaches a particular idea or domain.
Anyhoo: foxwizard; the adventures of.
Yet whilst I haven’t landed on my Word yet, there are certainly themes I am drawn to. Capricious, whimsical, mercurial —> all concepts that embody a kind of ‘hoho, f–ck it’ satyr energy. I feel the serious part of me—The Wizard Whom Oft Frowneth Into The Abyss—needs this kind of jostling.
And so whilst my first episode was going to be my sixth sagacious attempt to dispense dubious wisdom to the horridly apt question of how to cure a certain jadedness with one’s profession—on a whim I decided to go with another topic altogether.
Something that recently emerged to me as an epiphany. Something that will no doubt seem utterly obvious to others, yet still: a revelation to which I experienced as subtly profound.
Complexity as Preference
I’ll guide you through some of the principles I hold, and you’ll get to witness how they conflict.
A key principle I and many hold is that we are all infinite players in the otherwise autopoietic infinite game of life. We might play different roles, but all titles, all costumes, all hierarchy is theatrical. Here’s an article that illuminates this point.
There is no verticality.
Sure, we may play different roles in the theatre of life; we may have bosses, we have parents and we may have children, we may be teachers and we may be students. But in all of these roles, we still relate horizontally. This is a key insight of Adlerian psychology I gleaned from The Courage To Be Disliked—also expressed in most Indigenous mythologies—and it has affirmed my preferred egalitarian default.
To see each other as infinite players—as comrades—in the infinite unfurling pantomime of life is one of the more spiritual affinities I hold.
By relating horizontally I tend to treat everyone as a peer. Which means that, when I am confronted with someone presenting A Strong Opinion—I assume that the person I am talking to must know a lot more about the topic than I do. Fascinated, I proceed to ask questions about the underlying principles, the edge cases, the abstractions, the implications, the contraindicators, the contexts where such works and does not, and so on, so that I might get a better sense of this new perspective. So that I might see how this might assimilate this into my own proto-synthesis, and thus emerge a smidgen wiser.
But then I am sometimes told that I am overthinking it, and that I need to keep it simple. But simplicity is oft fractal and holonic; it’s a quality that can be expressed at varying orders of complexity. Perplexed and bemused, I will usually sally forth one more time in the jolly act of intellectual sparring—only to discover that the conversation has turned into an intellectual cul-de-sac.
But I then think: perhaps it *is* me. Perhaps I am overthinking it. But how do they have such conviction in their thesis? Such confidence? My opinions are weak at best (if but strongly held); classically fox-like.
It’s then that a little voice whispers in my mind: perhaps this is an adult development thing (more on this in a moment). ‘Hush, daemon!’ I decry. Knowing that I don’t actually know anything and that I am not half as clever as I might otherwise think.
And yet still, this knowledge is a curse.
The curse of knowledge
Firstly, the curse of knowledge happens where the more knowledge and experience we accrue in a particular domain, the harder we find it to empathise with those new to the topic. The basic concepts they are grappling with seem painfully obvious to us, and to teach them feels somehow patronising. (And yet the best teachers do so with warmth and the ability to relate horizontally; even able to teach concepts that aren’t necessarily true, but to serve as stepping stones—only to be deconstructed at more advanced stages later).
It was only half a decade ago that came across the notion of Adult Development. Blessedly, it was via Hanzi Freinacht who—in The Listening Society—introduced me to the Model of Hierarchical Complexity; aka MHC, which—compared to other adult development models—is valid across cultures and species. This is an important point. There are many models of adult development; and it’s a cursed topic, fraught with danger and ego-traps.
Hanzi is aware that many of us have an allergic reaction to hierarchies. For me, it directly conflicts with my beloved disposition of relating horizontally—there’s a tension there, that I have only recently had the epiphany to resolve without (too much) arrogance.
Because, sure, I could easily dismiss folks as ‘lower MHC’ because this dismissal seems rather repugnant to one’s character, and I don’t like the judgemental frame (and the implicit hierarchy it implies). Because: there are many at ‘higher MHC’ than I; it’s all contextual; the MHC is merely a model, not something to foreshadow the complex and wondrous being themselves; and it is only one quality of many, many qualities we might have the privilege to develop in our lifetimes, etc.
And yet, there’s an apt defence for hierarchies amongst humans. <—if there is but one link you open and read in this whole piece, let it be this one.
The point is not to obsess about hierarchy. The point is that if you see hierarchies clearly and don’t imbue them with emotional value, you can relate to them in a more rational and detached manner. There is no need to pretend that we are the driving instructor when we are the student driver—and both parties benefit. The aim here is of course to create a more equal and egalitarian society, where hierarchy matters less, and only in ways that make sense. (source)
It’s those with high conviction—those whom have become convicts to their own conclusions—that vex me so! What game are these fellow infinite players playing, eh? These oft-times alpha male executives with their Clear Visions for The Future? The worst combination is perhaps high conviction + a low affinity for complexity + power. I don’t mind strong if but simplistic opinions on their own, I guess. But if they sprout from someone in a position of power and influence? Bah!
Hanzi expands upon the model of hierarchical complexity—quite thoroughly—though I believe it best contemplated as part of the broader listening society thesis. And best complimented with Indigenous knowledge systems (like that shared in Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass) and the perspectives of complexity practitioners like Nora Bateson, Sonja Blignaut and more.
In any event; my frustration has been borne of what Robert Kegan* and Lisa Lahey might describe as a conflict of values (or: competing commitments).
* Robert Kegan has also contributed greatly to the field of understanding adult development; his work is very dense—but has inspired great minds such as David Chapman, who writes exquisitely on metarationality and meaningness, further developing our knowledge of development.
The notion of adult development conflicts with the desire to relate horizontally, as peers. I don’t like hierarchy; but I also don’t like simplistic conclusions that stunt curiosity and oft perpetuate more harm than good. What to do?
Complexity as preference
In short; I have found a way to sidestep the verticality of adult development. Whilst I can still acknowledge it is there, and that Adult Development still remains a useful explainer—if limited and flawed (yet better than most others)—I can also keep it conceptually suspended and relate to whomever I am working with by assuming: they’re already savvier than I am—it’s just not their preference to think at higher orders of complexity right now.
I can thus meet them where they are at, and be ready whenever they are ready. Or even better: caught unawares and thus delighted. Ergo: the paradox of horizontal relating and vertical development is thus ‘resolved’. Kinda.
Btw: I know how arrogant this whole piece makes me sound. Do I think so highly of myself? Hohoho, hoho: no. I don’t have the answers; I just tend to favour the notion that we ought rise to meet the complexity of our times—not to artificially dumb it down and beckon yet another moloch collapse event. It’s only the ‘high conviction’ folks that trigger this in me. Sometimes they are consultants who are paid a lot of money. The greater influence they have, the more they beckon the trickster within me.
Besides: why would someone not want to think and converse at higher orders of complexity? Plenty of reasons! Mostly: it doesn’t make sense to do so. Most of our day to day work does not require it.
Also: this stuff takes time, curiosity, patience, attention, energy. And we are all so busy and tired and overworked and distracted these days—it makes sense that most don’t want to. And besides: most of us aren’t getting paid to do so. The incentive structures of most organisations do not favour complex thinking or genuine innovation. “We want you to innovate, but don’t you dare innovate” is oft the corporate message (as I believe Scott Belsky points out in Making Ideas Happen).
Complexity thinking also requires us to de-centre ourselves from the context. You can’t be the hero when you’re the complexity thinker (you wouldn’t even want to). Rather, you champion the myriad stories of others, surfacing that which exists at the edge and within, so as to cultivate a better perspective—a better synthesis—of the emergent patterns at play. Dave Snowden’s sensemaking approach works this way. You start relating as a seemingly agentic element of a greater self-organising complex intelligence. It’s wondrous.
But sometimes, complexity thinking looks like procrastination. And sometimes it is—where choosing to not choose to intervene is the appropriate action in a given context. This can be frustrating to those with a ‘bias to action’ that are looking for ‘quick wins’. This can also be career limiting if you work in a context that favours such.
Complexity thinking is a privilege. Most don’t have the time or the energy for it—or, if they do, they’re relatively isolated or not in an environment that supports quality thinking. This kind of thinking also requires a kind of psychological maturity; to be relatively comfortable staying in the tension of ambiguity, of many partial-truths and paradox, and of knowing that we are not the expert; that we are not the ‘thought leader’. Not individually.
But ah, we find ourselves back at adult development again; hoho sigh.
I’ve shared my thoughts on the importance of fellowship already; it’s the precursor to questing—which is the precursor to strategy itself.
If thinking at higher orders of complexity is a preference—how might we get others interested in it? How might we get leaders to do a little less operational micro-management, and a little more, uh, leading—towards future relevance, beyond the default?
All we can do create the conditions where quality thinking (at higher orders of complexity) is more likely to manifest, and then light the beacon to attract those who might contribute.
What does this mean? Creating an environment where there is time to think, where it is psychologically safe to be dangerous, where there is a sense of fellowship, of mutual kinship, enthusiasm, encouragement and support, in good humour. And environments where folks aren’t interrupted or made wrong; an environment where we bounce, jam, co-create and cultivate whatever magic we might from the confluence of minds at play.
Most conferences have panels that are the antithesis of this—they’re geared more toward ‘debate’ than generative ambiguity and synthesis. Debate is more entertaining. The internet is also much like this, now. It’s ‘the internet of beefs’ as Venkatesh Rao puts it. Mutual understanding, expanded thinking, coordination at higher orders of complexity <— these are not desirable qualities in the arena of the attention economy. We need moar likes, impressions, and things that make our vanity numba go up. That is: more conflict.
I suspect it is the centrality of beefing — a stylized, theatrical pattern of conflict designed to present a theatre of moral righteousness, signal virtues, visibly strive towards a declared utopian condition, and most importantly, resist meaningful resolution. The conflict must be as impossible to terminate as the notional utopias being sought are impossible to actually attain. Beefing, in other words, is a lousy way to conduct or resolve an unsustainable conflict, but an excellent way to perpetuate and grow a sustainable one. (source)
“To participate is to lose,” Venkatesh writes.
I don’t know the way out of this collective mess we have given rise to; but I do know that I savour fellowship when I experience it. I savour the rare moments of collective genius; that hint of the mythopoetic, that quality of scenius, realised.
I also know that I am finding new possibilities in the dark forests of web3. Glimmers of ways in which minds might coordinate amidst complexity at scale; a side-step removed from the conventional trappings of ego and a web2 persona.
And I do know that I am looking forward to hosting more events locally, so as to attract the bright minds and warm hearts in this network, to see what might emerge.
Thank you for joining me once more. See you at The Rekindling, if you can make it. 🧡
PS: If you’re looking to bring some of these qualities into your organisation, let’s talk. I’m getting bookings for meaningful end of year wrap-ups and new year kick-offs; perhaps we can conjure something together.