This is the irrefutable lesson of open systems, and an important key to understanding trends in your life.
First let’s establish the basic parts of an open system so I can easily refer to them throughout this post. An open system is any complex thing like a plant, animal, or organization. In each of these systems, there are sub-systems that interact among themselves (like breathing and blood flow, the sub-systems have components that do stuff (like lungs pulling oxygen from air), inputs to the system (like air), and outputs of the system (like bad breath). Inputs frequently have an impact on the outputs (like eating garlic), but sometimes are unrelated.
It’s important to remember that the environment surrounding a system changes over time, causing the system to deal with those changes by either adapting or ceasing to work. This circumstance is the basis of the statement, “grow or die.” Other words for growth might be adapt or evolve, but growth has the nice connotation of positive change and forward progress, so I like it better. What might be a good source of supply to a system today could totally disappear tomorrow, causing a complete breakdown of the system (like how jumping into a pool removes access to air for your lungs).
Or perhaps the inputs contain elements that are good and necessary (like oxygen) but also contain things that are harmful (like cigarette smoke or asbestos). Our lungs are able to process the good things and keep our bodies functioning well, but gradually the bad things reduce that capacity or grow into negative subsystems like cancer. Oxygen helps our bodies grow in size and capacity, but the negative elements reduce or limit that growth in trade-offs between good and bad.
So now let’s consider the idea of growth over time and science (i.e. the study of millions of open systems) gives us the S curve.
The S-Curve is often referred to as the Growth Curve because the vertical axis represents the change in size, volume, or some other capacity as time moves forward on the horizontal axis. Consider this chart showing the growth of bacteria in several phases. In many open systems the stationary and decline stages stretch out over a long period of time and look more like a wave. There are alternating periods of growth and decline as the system adjusts to environmental changes like food or some other important input.
Humans can grow in so many different ways it’s hard to keep track of them all. Our bodies grow physically from birth to adult maturity and ultimately death. Our relationships grow from inception (did she just wink at me?) to maturity or demise. Our understanding of the world grows from simple pattern recognition as babies begin to understand speech to complex reasoning and philosophical imagination as graduate students or senior researchers. Together these aspects of being human combine to indicate our growth as a person. A simple way to group them all is Mind, Body, and Spirit, remembering that these categories are interdependent, not operating on separate tracks.
Learning is growing
It’s pretty easy to understand how the growth curve applies to the Body aspects of our lives. As babies, we start out tiny and grow exponentially, rather quickly until we get adult sized. Then most of us alternate between being fatter and skinnier for the rest of our lives as we struggle with our food intake and exercise (output). It might be harder to notice, but this same scenario plays out in our Mind and Spirit aspects as well.
The learning sub-system of us humans has components like your brain, your senses, and your emotions. It has inputs like data, knowledge, information, advice, opinions, and sensory stimuli (like heat, texture, etc.). And it has outputs like behavior, action, habit, opinion, advice and insight. None of these examples is a complete list, but hopefully you get the point.
As babies and children we learn rapidly by taking in billions of data points and bits of information through their eyes and ears. Then as students we read and listen and study to take in facts and information to deepen our understanding of the world. Even as young professionals we still have to learn quickly to develop practical skills and insights about our chosen area of work. Then after decades of constant learning we start to stabilize and gradually decline as our experience gets stale and the world around us starts to move on to new ideas and practices that we haven’t kept up with along the way. We even call this aging process being “over the hill” which I think aptly describes tipping over to decline phase on the curve.
For nearly 800 generations of human history (about 60,000 years), our lifetime learning curve mapped pretty well to our lifetime body curve. As we got older and started to decline physically, we could also retire and decline mentally. The world around us wasn’t changing all that much so we didn’t really have to “relearn” anything in order to be at the top of the curve in a relatively stable phase.
But not any more!
According to Alvin Toffler in his seminal book, Future Shock we passed an inflection point in the rate of change in human culture towards the end of the last century. At that point, people had to start relearning things and adapting to changes in our world or start falling behind rapidly. Past the inflection point of technological change, we can no longer count on things we learned in childhood being true anymore. We have to recheck things as science and technology advance human understanding and practices to new levels at an increasing rate of speed.
When my grandmother was born, people couldn’t fly. When she died, there had been men on the moon. When I was a kid, there was a planet called Pluto. Now it’s not a planet. The periodic table I memorized in high school had 106 elements, now it has 118. My own kids have already seen unbelievable environmental changes in their lives resulting from mobile phones morphing into powerful computers with cameras. My mom has an iPad and is the most active person on Facebook I know. It makes her life better to connect with friends and family scattered all over world. She doesn’t have to sit in her kitchen and wait for people to stop by, they can play Words With Friends together in different time zones and she can dial them up on video chat to see their smiling faces. Instead of wishing for the “old times” and falling behind, she has learned new ways to interact and grown healthier as a result.
Toffler called the problem of relearning “shock” because adults were not prepared for rapid change and felt we would suffer in our reactions to it. The adults of the Baby Boom may have been shocked, but I think people coming of age today are ready for constant change. Our great ability to understand the world is a natural and agile open system. The inputs may have changed, but our ability to process them into creative outputs is very resilient.
When you jump in a pool you have to hold your breath while you are under water or else you will drown. But if you realize you are stuck in the pool you come up for air and start to swim (or quickly learn how!). This sink or swim reaction is a perfect example of grow or die. So don’t hold your breath and hope the world will stop changing, take a breath and engage with all that is new around you so you can move up the curve not down it.