Welcoming Variability

One of modernity’s “virtues” is its claim to reduce harmful variability in our lives. For example, in pre-industrial times, you might only have access to foods that are in season. Strawberries bloom in the spring, and in a time when international trade and refrigeration capability was limited, you could only eat strawberries in the spring.

Today, I can get strawberries whenever I want. There is no such thing as “in season” from my consumer perspective. And this is considered good.

Limiting variability is not limited to the food supply. Work is another good example. If you are in a typical job, your day-to-day activities throughout the year will look fairly similar. You may have a “busy” time of year, and of course, in December you’ll take a week off for vacation, but there is probably very little variation in your day. On a macro-economic level, this is also considered good because you specialize in a particular role for a particular company which makes the company more effective or efficient and as a result, the entire economy grows faster than if you had taken on a wide variety of roles

But I fear that our effort to reduce variability has gone too far, particularly when it comes to our self-imposed standard of personal and professional success. If we’re not making linear process towards our goals, we are failing. If we didn’t immediately move from college to a job at a prestigious company and then receive a series of promotions in the next 10 years and then get married and have kids, we feel “behind” and panic. Then we look to life hacks and the high priest of productivity, David Allen, to get back on track.

I find the Taoist perspective on variability much more pleasant and compatible with the way my life has actually worked.

Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?

I do not believe it can be done.

The universe is sacred.

You cannot improve it.

If you try to change it, you will ruin it.

If you try to hold it, you will lose it.

So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind;

Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily;

Sometimes there is strength and sometimes weakness;

Sometimes one is up and sometimes down.

Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency.

Chapter 29, Tao Te Ching

It’s the “sometimes life is this, and sometimes life is that” aspect that is incredibly appealing. For example, I was living with my parents for about 9 months after I left Portland, Oregon. At the time it was somewhat depressing, and I eventually left because I was irritated with the whole situation and just said “F— it,”  I’m moving to DC. I bought a plane ticket and moved to a hostel and started looking for a job.

It all worked out, and that moment of frustration eventually led to some good things, but if I had been applying lessons from the Tao Te Ching at the time, I could have put that time into perspective while it was happening. Instead of thinking about it as a completely embarrassing situation, I could have framed it as a time for “non-action” and assessment of my opportunities. I sort of did that, but with much more shame and guilt.

There’s a great sketch by the comedian Demetri Martin that compares what we think success will look like, and what it actually looks like.

Source: http://theartofdoing.com/tag/demetri-martin/

That jumble of a line on the chart on the right from a Taoist perspective is completely expected, perhaps with the exception that the line doesn’t necessarily continue moving up (more successful). On average, the Tao may follow a more horizontal path. Sometimes you are more successful and sometimes less successful, and that’s okay. It will look more like a sine wave.

So we shouldn’t be freaked out about variability in our personal and professional lives. We should expect it, welcome it, and react appropriately.

  • Kevin

    I love that excerpt you included in the post. I immediately thought of all the tech startups that claim to be “changing the world”. Perhaps that is the wrong interpretation, but still…

    I do find that last line interesting, not to be complacent. But at the same time realize that sh*t happens. Kinda Stoic I guess – control what you can, don’t worry about what you can’t.

    • Detachment seems to be a virtue across all the religions and philosophies I’ve looked into so far, especially Stoicism. The hard part is not letting it turn into apathy.

      • Hunter

        On a related note it really seems that most of these religions and philosophies have a problem with the self. Not sure what that means.

  • Aaron Latchaw

    Love this, agree we might be taking variability reduction too far.

    I think much of this comes from the continuum of increasing lack of personal mindfulness/awareness/present mindedness (perhaps as a result of a new information heavy technological era) and business operating in the interest of businesses. When larger business do what is best for them (and in most cases that is more capitalistic than criminal) they tend towards “manageable” systems that seek out specialized roles (wheels in the cog so to speak) as you described which seek to shape individuals towards less variability, and so long as the individual is blissfully (or not) unaware of these changes and lacking perception of the moment (or driven by future oriented fears) they will fall into the “needed” roles, stripping away much of the diversity of their abilities (or at least shift the self perception towards this).

    Interestingly I feel like often, in small businesses, the opposite is true (at least has been for me). There is still a business operating for business sake but in many cases its size creates a more person centered focus and the diversity of a persons abilities is a value (doing more with less), in that sense, its much more tribal.

    Not saying one is better than the other, and if a small business harnesses that effectiveness well it eventually becomes the larger one, just interesting to think through.

    • You make some interesting points. Big business is dynamic in the context of an entire marketplace of big businesses, but that doesn’t translate into the actual guts of the business themselves i.e. the employees.

      I think smaller businesses are more natural for humans as they do somewhat replicate the “tribe” in organizational structure. However, unless it’s a family business that hires mostly family members, the ties are too weak to make it as fulfilling as being a member of a true tribe.

      • Aaron Latchaw

        Agreed. What really fascinates me as of a late are larger business taking a more person focused approach to doing business. As opposed to the industrial tendency to hire people for a pre-designed system, we’re now seeing large successful (financially) organizations (Netflix for example) spending more time seeking out highly skilled employees to be hired and self/manage create their own systems for achieving the business functions. I think it is an evolution of the way we do business but also the way we think about our jobs.

        PS – love the blog, your project and really enjoyed stumbling upon it. Really nice work!

        • I’m skeptical of big business trying to become more employee focused and increase employee engagement. Top performers will always get offered the perks and lifestyle they want. Everyone else will get lesser treatment. I think this is why I advocate detachment rather than engagement when it comes to expectations for your employer.

          Thanks for reading, and I appreciate the smart comments.

  • Roger Williams

    Great point. Nassim Taleb (The “Black Swan” guy) talks about this a lot in his books. For instance, the attempt to reduce the variability of the economy by the Federal Reserve was a major contributor to the Great Recession. The desire to avoid the pinch of discomfort from variation is strong, yet often suppressing them results in bites of pain later on.

    • I’m a big fan of Taleb. Antifragile was great at making the case for why variation is good for us on an individual and systemic level.