Learning to Live & Work in an Uncertain World

Stephen Hawking has called the 21st Century “the century of complexity.” Here’s the way he said it;

Over time, the 21st century will be the moment when people awaken to the complex nature of the world. It will be the moment when we realize that, while the world we’re living in is sometimes predictable and controllable, for the most part it is too vast, complex, and unpredictable to ever be fully understood or controlled.”

This century’s first two decades clearly support Hawking’s proposition. Problems like climate change, ethnic conflict, global migration, and now the coronavirus pandemic, the protests against George Floyd’s killing, and the malignancy embedded in our politics are proving that the world we’re living in today is far too complex and too indecipherable to ever be controlled in any meaningful way.

Apparently, one of the best things each of us can do in response to this gaggle of problems is simply acknowledge their complexity. Anne Applebaum, in a splendid article published June 3rd in The Atlantic entitled “Resist the Urge to Simplify the Story,” makes this point while describing how complexity shows up in this country’s responses to the alleged murder of George Floyd:

Many would like to simplify these events — to give them a single, clear interpretation. Some tell a harrowing story about police violence. Some tell a heart warming story about police and community pulling together. Some tell an insidious story about black looters. And some tell a murky story about white infiltration of peaceful black protest movements.”

The rest of Anne’s article is well worth reading. But, for me, Anne’s most pungent message is this — “Please, don’t simplify this moment.”

A second good thing each of us can do right now is get smarter about the complex nature of each of the problems that we, as individuals and a nation, are struggling with. Take your pick. Which problems confuse and confound you the most; climate change, racial conflict, immigration, the coronavirus pandemic, social justice, or our malignant politics? Which of these, for you, are this country’s most important problems?

Given that you’ve picked a couple, what do you think makes the problems you’ve chosen too complex to understand? What makes them intractable? Impossible to resolve? Simply trying to answer these three questions for the problems you’ve picked is going to make you smarter.

So, whichever problems you’ve chosen, study them. Investigating what makes the problems that confound you complex is a going to be a very useful step for you to have taken, especially when you vote this coming November.

A third good thing we can do right now, one that could really help us get smarter about the confusion, conflict and chaos afflicting America right now is reading the new policy report that ETS just published, titled America’s Perfect Storm: Three forces Changing Our Nation’s Future.

If, by reading America’s Perfect Storm, you’re looking to get even more righteous than you already are about America’s problems, or angrier about what’s causing them, you aren’t going to come away very satisfied. But, if instead, while reading this report you’re open to understanding why Anne Applebaum’s admonition — “Don’t simplify the moment” — is just the kind of advice we need right now, then reading America’s Perfect Storm will definitely make you smarter.

At this point, having one coherently complex story about America’s problems rather than several righteously partisan rants would be a welcome change .

The third good thing we could do right now to get smarter about all the complexity we’re facing would be to switch gears for a quick minute and spend some time learning how to help each other stop responding to this country’s problems as if each of them is a separate, stand-alone issue. As if, for example, the coronavirus pandemic is one problem, systemic racism is another, and global warming a third separate, stand-alone problem.

In a world as interconnected as ours is today, none of the problems I’ve listed in this article is a stand-alone problem. Each is connected to the other. All are linked together in multiple ways. They are all “intertwingled.”

So, today, right now, smack dab in the middle of the 2020 presidential election, it would be good if each one of us could discover two or three useful ways we can encourage each other to stop using our outmoded 20th century mindsets to identify and define the problems we want our next batch of elected leaders to deal with.

Our 20th century mindset was born during the Enlightenment. It was and still is a view of the world that’s grounded in reductionist thinking. It’s the type of thinking that encourages us to break every chaotic, complex, intertwingled problem down into its discreet parts and look for its one cause.

In the 18th, 19th and 20th century, this kind of reductionist thinking was OK. Back then, especially early on in the Enlightenment, our mindsets were developed for a world that was far less connected, changed more slowly, and was most often much more predictable than the world we’re now trying so hard to learn how to live and work in.

People who think about complex problems for a living are just now beginning to suggest that it’s time for us to let go of our 20th century mindsets and begin purposefully reshaping our current modes of thinking into the kinds of 21st century mindsets that will help us to “play” with our complex problems.

At the very least, these experts say, we should pause for a long moment and reexamine the presuppositions, beliefs, and assumptions that we learned while growing up in our families-of-origin.

If we did this, they say, we could learn how to consciously notice, at least occasionally, those times when we are inappropriately relying on modes of thinking that are not nearly sophisticated enough to match the complexity of the problems we’re struggling with.

If we did a little bit of this kind of learnnig, we might be able to decide whether we really do want to decide who gets to be the next president of the United States by, as Anne Applebaum puts it, ‘simplifying the moment.’

Bringing it all together

There’s no doubt the 21st century is revamping our sense of the world we live in. And there’s no doubt that it’s also forcing us to dramatically reshape our understanding of what reality is. If you step back and look all the futility we’re creating with our simplistic modes of thinking, it seems like the best thing we could do now is figure out how we can learn more about the best ways to go about comprehending this century’s new levels of complexity

Thanks for reading this article. You can find more information about what learning how to live in an uncertain world is going to require at Transformational Learning Opportunities.com.




I’m a dad, a reader, writer, and thought partner for individuals looking to improve their lives. My passion is learning and meeting this century’s challenges.

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David Nicoll, Ph.D

David Nicoll, Ph.D

I’m a dad, a reader, writer, and thought partner for individuals looking to improve their lives. My passion is learning and meeting this century’s challenges.

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