The 11 Books of Christmas

I was a terrible student at high school. Particularly in my last three years, I made a terrible mistake in my choice of friends. I fell in with a group of role-players almost all of whom were “accelerates” – the term Wellington College used for those doing effectively one year ahead. There was an underlying obsession with being smart, and with making everything seem easy as a demonstration of that intelligence. From my “dumb” friends, the non-accelerates, came the top scholar in the sciences and the school dux. It wasn’t really until after the dust had settled that I dimly realised I’d bought the lie that everything was down to talent. Doing any kind of homework was just not on the cards. I wrote off 20% of my final physics marks by just not getting around to doing the assignments – my final score of 75% could have been a scholarship if I’d even scraped a passing grade on homework by putting in a modicum of effort.

I had the same score in Bursary English as the dux, the difference was that I’d written 2 of the 5 examination sections on topics I hadn’t even studied – a Shakespeare play I’d read once and the “language of propaganda” instead of “the language of advertising”, perhaps close enough not to bother splitting too many hairs. I learned afterwards that his exam technique had been different- he’d collated the past decade of exam questions, analysed question trends, collated a list of key mark-winning points and pre-written enough sample essays to be sure he wouldn’t have to think on the fly. The work ethic he’d not discretely enacted, not exactly secretly but not at all transparently, netted him a just-sub-scholarship grade in this one subject, but crushed all the more predictable subjects utterly. I doubled-down on this strategy at university. In my close circle of friends, half were their school’s top scholars, including my girlfriend. Living with a genius who also worked hard for 4 years seemed to pass knowledge to me osmotically, getting me through the degree. My proudest achievement in all of university was my A- in Engineering Management, a course for which I went to few lectures, did none of the optional homework and never even opened the textbook.

Real learning, real effort, began with me as a completely useless graduate. The first couple of years of working were spent acquiring the working knowledge of engineering principles with which my more diligent comrades had emerged from university. The next couple of years were spent learning how to organise my time and plan workload. Having started from well behind the curve I was never able to rely on my innate knowledge or talents, so I started to develop systems for approaching design problems, for documenting solutions, for estimating project duration. Once I began systematising my projects, the effort began to expand into my more general professional life. I started to use the repetitions and patterns from individual works in a standardised way – standard details, standard solutions. I restructured the way we allocated time to project to handle project cost variations. When I developed an interest in geotechnical engineering as a sideline, I bought a tonne of books and put in the long hours researching where the field had gotten to. Half a dozen years into my career I became a Chartered Professional Engineer, and I felt in a lot of ways like an autodidact who’d created their competence independently – not because I didn’t go to university, but because I’d wasted the experience when I had.

When I got my job in the UK it didn’t take long to realise that perhaps with a small number of exceptions, everyone I worked with was smarter and better educated than I was, but they suffered from a reliance on that talent and skill. I had endless variations on the argument that we needed some or other process to ensure good quality only to be told that a good engineer wouldn’t need the process – broadly true. One small example is that I had a debate with one of the technical directors about whether our standard site visit form should have a clearly-defined space to write who else was with you on the visit, if anyone. He just didn’t see why you would clutter the form with yet another little box to fill in, because anyone with half a braincell would just write that in the description of the visit of it were relevant… Hyperbolically, the view when I started there was that given a blank page, their highly competent staff would draw the perfect thing that was needed and their strict recruiting and culture of aspiration-to-excellence meant that was probably true most of the time. The importance of a systematic and systematised approach to engineering was not conceptually controversial, but in practice felt like an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy with the attendant costs.

Over the years I’ve increasingly found this obsession with systems thinking has spilled out of my professional life and increasingly into my real life, leading to some interesting minor hobbies. One such hobby was explaining the British parliamentary structure to my English colleagues. It boggled my mind how poorly some UK voters understood the basic structures of their government. A brief selection of things I found myself explaining more than a couple of times: there is no separation between executive and legislative branches in the UK, the House of Lords does actually have a function, you don’t elect a Prime Minister so there should be no question of Theresa May’s legitimacy, the UK doesn’t have a written constitution, first past the post electoral systems are vulnerable to gerrymandering, gerrymandering has had a major impact on particularly the Liberal Democrats… These people don’t vote, do they? Tragically, it appears they do.

What all of these kinds of explanations share is that while they’ve got a factual element, much more important is an understanding of a process, a system. Over the years I’ve become more and more convinced that there is something fundamentally broken in the way we teach most subjects at most levels – as exercises in a specific set of knowledges rather than an approach to thinking. The reason I was able to achieve a good grade in the Engineering Management course was because the whole course was taught as a sequence of techniques, but I somehow understood the underlying systemic structure from my high school education in Accounting. Put it this way, all engineers were required to do an introduction to computer science paper where they taught us how to code in Visual Basic – and the word “algorithm” was never once mentioned. I’ve never once needed to write a programme in Visual Basic, but being able to think about algorithms and how to develop them was the crucial skill I needed to help move my company toward the Government-mandated BIM Level 2 requirements.

When I think back on my education, it becomes painfully apparent that most of what I was supposed to learn at every stage was simple content that I was supposed to internalise and either simply memorise, or somehow sponteneously develop an understanding of how this content was an expression of a deeper system. Nothing illustrates this in my mind more than Chemistry. I scraped through Chemistry until the last year of High School. As I am fundamentally lazy, I couldn’t ever be bothered memorising the huge tranche of this+that=this other thing. In the mid-year Chemistry exam I scored 15%. I remember the teacher coming past my spot, and he just sort of looked sad and said “well, do your best” or something like that, and I did improve into our final mock exam where I scored 31%. He was a popular and passionate teacher – but it was clear he literally had no idea how to help me. Everything changed at basically the last possible moment, when we learned about electron orbitals in one of the year’s final lessons. Suddenly if I could just accept the arbitrary energy strata for electrons, all the rest of the chemistry we were supposed to learn could be extrapolated from this one crucial system. My teacher must have fallen out of his chair when he saw my “A” come through in the final exams.

The older and purportedly wiser I get, the more crucial Systems Thinking seems to me. Somehow it seems to me that most people get through life with merely some kind of patchwork of “practicality” and anecdote-based special cases. It may be possible for some kind of incremental success that way, but the massive-scale changes we need aren’t going to happen by engineers shaving the margins on engine efficiency, or meeting BREEAM requirements for carbon footprints on buildings, or some new scholarship for female filmmakers, or “liking” things on Facebook. We need to, for example, completely ditch the concepts of mass transportation via inter-state road networks and revert to the much more efficient rail systems of the 19th century. We need to recognise that in a capitalist society spending patterns are infinitely more powerful than any other kind of political activism – don’t like that there aren’t films made by women, then go pay money to see the ones you can. It’s going to be more effective than another rant on Facebook about the patriarchy.

For the past few years I’ve been trying to devise a syllabus of key books that I think inform the primacy of systems-thinking, and as I’ve been writing this series it has inexorably morphed from a platform for introspection into a hybrid of that list and books that are more general favourites. Despite my initial idea and brief to myself, my subconscious has by stealth virtually pitched my syllabus of systems-thinking texts. I’ve missed a huge number of books that could have informed a discussion on systems – How Buildings LearnThe Story of the StoneThe Web of Life, The Poetics, Anatomy of Criticism – I could go on. Realistically, whatever texts I might have picked are now likely to have the tinge of a Systems Thinking approach to my report.

I ended my series last year by calling for a 12th CD, but what’s most apparent to me is that the 12th text here must be the very next thing you read yourself. I hope you’ll feel interested and inspired to regard that book a little differently, seeing how it interacts with the life you’re leading, how it can inform a way of thinking about the world. Over-intellectualisation? There’s no such thing. You should be deeply suspicious of anyone who tells you to think less, because that sentiment is motivated by a fear of what you’ll find if you do. In my experience, there’s always a reward for deeper thinking, for Systems Thinking. I took a long time to recognise that insights don’t just happen, that talent is no substitute for study, I hope you are better off.

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4 Responses to The 11 Books of Christmas

  1. ekobyrne says:

    Have we ever talked about the differing systems at my two first places of employment? If not, that can be a topic of conversation next week!

  2. jyruzicka says:

    This resonates pretty heavily with me – I feel like a lot of my university-level organic chemistry would have been made about 300% easier if our lecturer hadn’t been terrible and approached each reaction as a new, isolated case (or perhaps if I’d been able to identify the overarching patterns about six months sooner…). In case you happen to need another example of “a specific set of knowledges rather than an approach to thinking”.

    I’d be pretty interested in seeing any more specific list of “systems thinking” books, tbh – for example, if you happened to write an annotated list of the five you recommend most. I waver between feeling pretty damn systematic, and thinking I’m actually terrible at identifying underlying patterns, so reading the writing of people who have a better grasp on it than me is always an interesting experience.

    (FWIW, my introduction to systems thinking was David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”, a productivity system that I successfully started using in my Honours year, and which saw me through my Ph.D. That book almost definitely saved my bacon as I completed a thesis and managed a club. Only now, when I’m helping a company maintain its ISO9001 status, do I realise that the patterns that Allen identifies in his book are *in turn* facets of larger patterns, which you can apply to entire companies…)

    • alasdair101 says:

      Such an annotated list just gets longer every time I’ve tried to get down on paper. 🙂 I think this is a bigger project than perhaps fits in the cracks available on a blog fitted into the rest of my life. But, stay tuned, this isn’t a topic I’ve lost interest in.

      • jyruzicka says:

        Almost feels like you need to make a static page and slowly add to it over time. I would propose some form of wager, where for every mini-review you write, I’d write one for my blog too, but given the constraints of time these days I’m averaging about one post every three months…

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