Stumbling Towards The Far

A friend of mine on Facebook regularly rails against Barack Obama. Pretty much every decision the US president makes, every word he utters, every bill he signs off on (or not)… is further evidence to my friend that Obama’s not only unfit to be the leader of a country, but also a complete dumbass.

A few months ago I found myself standing in a pokey little print shop in Bucharest, trying to get a visa application in order. While there the shop owner did his best to sell me on Amway. I didn’t know much about Amway except for some whispers of shadiness. The words “pyramid scheme” came to mind. But I decided to give this guy a fair hearing anyway.

I listened as he told me all about his experience with Amway and why it was so great. After about five minutes of this, I asked him an important question: “What don’t you like about Amway?”

Almost immediately he replied, “Nothing!”

That’s when I stopped listening.

What Amway dude and my Facebook friend have in common is this: They see complex matters as black and white. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned the past eighteen months, it’s that most matters are far from that.

Flash back to November of 2010. I’d already learned by then that preaching is an amazingly ineffective way to change minds. So while I tried to hold back from voicing controversial certainties, I still held many simple beliefs about complex matters:

  • I considered 9-to-5 to be a terrible idea for any self-respecting individual.
  • I saw no reason why humanity couldn’t thrive on a vegan diet.
  • I believed Ireland could pull itself out of a recession if only my fellow countrymen would take a little more personal responsibility.

Thankfully, my thinking has matured a lot since then. They say that the more you learn, the less you realize you know. That’s definitely been true for me.

Death of an Idealist?

That was the working title for this post. Sounds catchy, but I can’t say it’s true. I’m still an idealist. I continue to dream big dreams and aim for the ridiculous. I still believe that people are mostly good and that we can find sustainable solutions to the big problems facing the world, problems like poverty, famine and global warming.

But I no longer believe that the solutions are simple. Well, perhaps they are, but if so, we’re talking about that breed of simple which lies on the far side of complexity.1

One thing I am pretty sure of though, is that we can’t begin to solve the big problems until we recognize and accept their complexity. That means considering the possibility that your preferred political punchbag might actually have the best of intentions and occasionally do some good in the world. It means owning up to the fact that there may be some basis to the criticisms of that business model you so strongly advocate.

It means knowing that we — each of us, individually — are wrong about a great many things, and ignorant of a great deal more.

I visited a slum last Saturday afternoon here in Mumbai. Every evening I see young and old sleeping on the streets amid fat rats and stray dogs. All in the shadow of valet parking and highrise buildings, including the most expensive residence in the world. The contrast is insane, and the solution seems so simple.

But I know I’m viewing it all from the near side of complexity. I’ll try hold tight to my ideals while stumbling on towards the far.

Show 1 footnote

  1. “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity but I’d give my life for simplicity on the far side of complexity.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes.
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    1. Niall,
      I needed to read this today. So refreshing. Every person on this planet is in control of his destiny.

      Every single one of us. You could be a homeless bum one day and wake up and change everything and become a CEO of a major fortune 500 company if you desired it enough.

      I’ve always believed this and your post is a reminder of just that.

    2. This is a great post Niall. What I love about India is that everything is out there in the open, life and death, it’s all in your face, which can be amazingly beautiful and amazingly intense all in the same moment!
      Lots of Love, Janice

    3. Excellent points.

      When a person is dedicated to something – a political cause, a tool, a technique, a practice, whatever – he probably knows the good points and bad points better than most. An honest understanding of the trade-offs and imperfections means that you really ‘get’ something. I see this a lot in the technology world, with the pointless Mac vs Windows vs Linux debates – I say, use what gets done what you need to get done, don’t make a religion out of it.

      In NLP study and practice we have this presupposition that ‘every behavior has a positive intention’. Even if someone does something apparently bad, like try to hurt someone else, they are doing it because they believe, somewhere deep down inside, that the world will be better if they do X rather than do Y.

      This is especially important to keep in mind (and it sounds like you are doing this) when you encounter people’s behavior that you don’t understand, or think is counterproductive. On the other hand, your friend judging Obama for all his ‘obviously wrong’ decisions and actions may be missing the point that things probably look a little different from the perspective of the Oval Office. It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback from the safety of your own unassailable perspective.

      • Exactly, Jack. I always thought the same about all the drunk fans in the stands at basketball games, scoffing hot dogs and roaring their disapproval at the athletes when things didn’t turn out like they hoped. I don’t think they appreciate how difficult it is to play sports at that level. Luckily there aren’t thousands of people looking at every move I make at work and picking it apart.

        • Not sure if it was clear from context but my first paragraph was regarding the Amway fan. If you’re really dedicated to something you should have at least a few bad things to say about it, otherwise you probably don’t know it as well as you think. Or are deliberately being clueless about its weak points.

          The happily married 20 year couple knows each other at their very worst, and love anyway. The dedicated, star Java programmer has heard all the jokes about the language, knows the ‘gotchas’ and weak spots, and can make it do magic anyway.

          On the other hand, a dedication to something and insistence that “it’s perfect, nothing is wrong” is a great indicator of ignorance or denial.

    4. Niall,

      Great points!

      Speaking of black and white though? There is no simple solution in India. So many people, so many cultures, so many languages, so many natural disasters.

      A bit about Mumbai… it’s a much more complex city than others anywhere in the world.

      Whenever there’s a drought, famine, or other disaster, Mumbai gets thousands upon thousands of refugees. Mostly they end up on the streets. But in Mumbai, they find something to do to earn their way through a day and that’s what draws people there.

      Nearly all the tax revenue for all of India is collected based on what happens in Mumbai. It’s the cash register of the country so to speak.

      So a lot of folks on the streets are able to get work. Every time one of those rich folks builds a mansion…

      (1) it’s because going about in the world becomes unsafe for their family

      (2) multitudes of people get jobs, many of whom send money back to families in remote villages

      There’s so many shades of grey in Mumbai. One of the most complex of problems! Yet few other cities in the world could absorb what Mumbai does.


    5. I really like this post because it’s so true. I suffer from simplifying complex things all the time. In particular I think people with Asperger’s suffer even more from the black and white thinking. This gets me no where, and I am learning that the best solutions almost always lie in the grey area.

      However, sometimes you have to simply complex situations into something much simplier, because that’s the only way we can get the guts to tackle a situation.

      • Great point, AK. Someone said that to me about stereotypes recently. They may be wrong much of the time, but they may also save your life if you have to make a quick decision. Simplifying does have its benefits.

    6. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” — H. L. Mencken

    7. Niall, People choose to see things as blank and white because it benefit them on some level. My core values, for example, are black and white. I follow them religiously. But I know that it’s my choice and I can always change it if doesn’t benefit me anymore. Keep enjoying the journey. Great post by the way.

    8. I think we’re all guilty of seeing things in black and white at the best of times. For example, when I was younger and more arrogant, I saw the whole binge drinking thing in Ireland as something that only idiots do and that a lot of people are as such.

      Nowadays, I know the reasons behind it are a lot more complex than that as it boils down to cultural, peer pressure and society influences, among other things. The people who lecture us about it in the media generally seem to miss the point completely, seeing the whole thing in black and white when it is really all kinds of shades of gray.

      I don’t claim to know everything ( in fact, I probably know nothing in that regard, if you get my drift ) and that is a good thing. The person who claims to know everything is lying. I know the world out there is complex and contradicting at the best as well. That’s part of the beauty, I say.

    9. Great points Niall,
      A very wise man once said (and I will paraphrase since I can’t find the quote… ‘I do not believe anyone wakes up in the morning and wants to do evil. They do not go out and say, today I will do evil things.. instead, they believe in their heart they are doing the right thing, they believe in their cause.. it just may happen to be evil to the rest of us.” – botched quote from William Milton Cooper

      Profound words, and perhaps a great example of the complexity of even those we purview as bad people.

    10. Hey Niall,

      great post, very true and it’s important that we’re aware of the complexities. Have our own views, but accept that we can’t know everything and other have their views, but also can’t know everything. But together, we can fill the gaps and make things less complex.

      I also thoroughly enjoyed the video, because it was a bit disorganized, you had a “guest appearance” and it was even funnier than the other ones. Maybe you should ask a stranger on the street a question about your topic each time 🙂

      Lovin the wiggle too.

    11. Such a wonderful post-I love when people can admit that they were wrong or have changed a belief-or are open to changing beliefs. Perhaps that is start towards affecting real change.

      I also believe you get nowhere from preaching. At a time I was studying Pagan religions and one of the beliefs I remember reading was “remain silent.” While this was not necessarily the intent-I took it to mean that when you just live your life truth-people naturally want to learn more if it is something can resonate with and be open to. If they aren’t open then preaching just reaffirms that.

      Great post!

    12. Hope you’re enjoying Mumbai, Niall. India is a fascinating, fabulous place. I loved it.

      & you’re so right in this post. Nuance is a virtue, not an inconvenience. The only way we can really change the world is by appreciating the nuance inherent in it.

    13. Great post, Niall! I so agree with is. Also, I love this wording – simplicity on the far side of complexity. It resonates *so* much with my concept of prismatic thinking, except that I haven’t ever reached that kind of simplicity. I have serious difficulties with simplifying though, even when I’d need precisely that.
      Accepting complexity – in my view – means somehow accepting that contradicting things coexist. It’s in itself a contradiction, I think, but that would be the point 🙂 I still don’t know how one does it, though, sometimes it seems the easiest thing in the world, other times it’s simply too much to take in.
      Enjoy your trips, both the inside and the outside ones!