December 19, 2015

Systems, lists, and play

I've been thinking lately about systems; how to think about them, how to build them, and how to implement them.  I was working under the assumption that they're valuable, and then I began to question that.

I began thinking about the people I MOST wanted to be like and if or how they used systems.  I suppose I should define who those people are first as it's the basis for the rest of the thoughtline, and even before that to define my own intent.

My own intent is to contribute something no one else has yet contributed, to pull together my abilities in order to focus on something uniquely found within me and that only I can deliver.  Initially I thought that lens of “what no one else has yet contributed” would distort & skew the realm of the possible heavily toward the creative side, towards being an artist.
You can contribute uniquely in lines of work not traditionally thought of as creative.
I was wrong.  The possibility to contribute something unique is available in many lines of work not traditionally thought of as creative.  As a doctor I could come up with a new surgical technique, as a climber I could come up with a new belay device, even as a pneumatic hammer operator I could come up with a new way to hold or hit that could contribute.  What does that imply?
The element of creativity is found not in a line of work but in the intent of the executor.

That the essential element of creativity is not found within a line of work, but almost solely within the intent of the executor.

This realization came about as I considered three role models.  First and most specific, a mentor who goes around teaching emotional intelligence to corporations, relying on his years working for the government to disrupt other foreign government machinations through application of EI. 

Second, any number of artists whose simple excellence in their work has made me stop and take stock of my abilities and accomplishments. 

Third, soldiers who fought in Vietnam and built their own networks, working well outside the boundaries laid out for them in order to accomplish some larger mission. 

Funnily enough, there's a list of folks who I pull inspiration from, and in that very listing lies the essence of this idea.

Did those people have systems and lists?  What did those look like, and where did they draw the line and stop using linear processes in order to effect their goal?

If you've ever watched anyone prepare for and perform at the top of their game you realize they have a short and essential list of systems they use to accomplish their craft. 

They tie their boots this way, they hold their pliers that way, they check their control panel in this order.  What I think happens for many of us is we get caught up in the systems they can articulate (in a book, a blog post, a written page) and we forget that those systems are only the foundation. 

This idea, of going beyond systems and lists to achieve performance in a rapidly changing environment, has been commented on in Sources of Power and other books, but I wanted to further explore the value of turning away from systems, and what the next step might be. 

I wanted to know whether I (and others) could cultivate the ability to systematize at a base level and reach for the system-less at the performance level?

The answer to the first part (whether or not we can systematize) is a straightforward “Yes”, and so easy in response as to lull us into thinking we have succeeded completely; we rest where we should forge on. 

The answer to the second half, to cultivate system-less performance, lies in something basic and inherent in all of us, but that I've lately noticed is lacking in most of us.  That answer is play.

People have discarded play in their lives in order to focus on performance.

Most people have discarded play in their lives in order to focus on performance, and with that discarding have lost an essential piece of their ultimate goal.

This is most easily demonstrated with modern CrossFit (as distinguished from the CrossFit of up until, oh, 2007-ish and the advent of, ironically enough, The Games.) 

CrossFitters in general have done a far better job than any other group of physically preparing for "life", but in focusing so single-mindedly on performance in all realms have lost or forgotten an original and attractive essence of fitness; the ability to play.

Look in any CF gym and you'll see the majority if not the totality of members engaged in getting bigger deadlift numbers, or working their muscle ups or handstand walks or squat-clean-jerk-jumps or whatever the latest movement is. 

You almost never (and I've seen an awful lot of CF gyms) see people playing just to play.  Sure, you see some horsing around, and the occasional handstand walking contest pop up, but it's rare to see a focus on play.

Before you lambast me for ignoring some shining exceptions, I acknowledge that some box owners do get it, among them the folks at CF Flagstaff, which is coincidentally one of the oldest CF affiliates. 

This isn't a CF bashing session; I love CrossFit and respect what they've done for fitness.  This is about play and how it is necessary to improve performance.

Why is play so important?

Why is play so important?  Play forces us to stitch together disparate systems in real time, and that real time stitching encourages the possibility of making a contribution to the world. 

Systems and lists are essential to creating a strong foundation, but sticking to them is also what lashes us in place.  What I’ve seen happening the more and more deeply I inspect my surroundings is that we create systems and lists that are the foundation for greatness and then forget to use them as the foundation and instead embrace them as the final process.

What kinds of systems does “play” force us to stitch together?  Hell, what is play? 

Play is anything that brings you a new challenge, surmountable but unknown.  For my purposes I’ve found that play must have a physical and a mental aspect, but that probably changes depending on what’s important to you.

An example might be two teams competing in carrying 10’ metal tubes through a playground pirate ship, or it could be foam-knife fighting on a balance beam, or it could be as simple as learning a new song from a stranger.  The important part is a new challenge that you feel you can do and that you haven’t done before.

Now, this “haven’t done before” piece doesn’t have to be exact, and for that I need only remind you of the idea of the scrimmage.  Remember that? 

Whether you played football or soccer or lacrosse growing up, a standard method of teaching was to work on drills and skills for part of the practice and then throw everybody onto a field and see if they could incorporate those newly learned skills in real time.  In other words, to play.

Lately I’ve been gathering a few local folks for play sessions.  I show up with a few of the above mentioned metal tubes, some sandbags, some golf balls and a few other odds and ends I pull from the workshop, and we just play with them for an hour or so at one of the local playgrounds. 

The list is the materials, the system is a focus on new challenges, and the result is play.

Most people don’t play enough, and they LOVE to be reintroduced to it.
What I’ve found most interesting can be sorted into two major groups.  First, that most people don’t play enough, and they LOVE to be reintroduced to it.  I’ve already covered the “why” I believe is behind that, so I wanted to share with you the second discovery, which is (again ironically enough) a system to create great play opportunities.

First, incorporate balance.  Most gyms, most lives, most routines completely ignore it, and even in otherwise strong athletes I’ve seen that balance is sorely lacking.  I believe there’s another aspect to balance beyond merely staying stable in that it connects our imagination of where we should be with the reality of where we are, and that is its main (and mainly unsung) strength.
Barefoot work is much harder, hurts more, and exposes you to bigger consequences.

Second, wherever possible, incorporate barefoot work.  It’s much harder, it hurts a lot more, it exposes you to bigger consequences, and generally is a very easy way to strip off the sort of protection that most of us take for granted. 

This exposure and deliberate stripping of safety mechanisms makes play much more real & effective for participants.  They’ll bitch and usually put their shoes back on before the end of play, but the lesson sticks easily, quickly, and well.

Third, incorporate elements of two people.  Ideally the teamwork should start with people not touching each other (i.e. carrying a long pole together) but it should end with full body contact (I like the foam knife fighting or the grappling on a balance beam.) 

Most of us do not touch other humans enough and forget the incredible ability inherent in each of us.  We are all exceptionally dangerous individuals no matter our looks, and full body contact, especially the “odd struggle” without clearly defined rules reinforces the idea that nobody should be taken at face value.

This all circles back to the idea of systems, lists, and ultimately play.  I’d gotten off track a bit there and forgotten to mention that in many of my heroes I saw a distinct embracing of “no-rules”; the less rules or laws they allowed into their life, the more of their goals they were able to accomplish. 

I’ve talked a bit about this in the “Power of No” but wanted to re-visit it in light of this piece on systems and play.  As we each cast about our own lives looking for meaning, or purpose, or agency, the trap that lies always open and ready to spring is that of finding success merely through following a list or building a system.  It won’t work, even if it works.

The system that takes you directly to success isn’t worth building.

You could build a system that will take you exactly where you want to go, but shortly after arrival realize that where you are just gives you a better view of where you want to be. 

I have yet to meet a human who is both satisfied with where they are and is someone I want to spend time with.  The system that takes you directly to success isn’t worth building, but the system that leads you to ever more play in the process of building ever better views seems to create the kinds of people and experiences that I want way more of.

Ok for now,

Liked this article?  Here are a few more recommendations:

Nik Hawks


Nik Hawks helps run the show at Paleo Treats. Fascinated by humans in all their strange glory, Nik is harnessed in and pulling hard in pursuit of excellence with the rest of the PT Crew. Enjoy!

Too much reading...
How about dessert?

Too Much Reading...How About Dessert?

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.