A Field Guide to Life – Principle #3 – Organization

by Brad on November 20, 2012

This installment of A Field Guide to Life shows how nature creates order out of chaos. It challenges you to allow your creativity, not your willpower, to guide your life.


Principle #3 – Self-Organization

“Man changes the conditions to suit the things. Nature changes the things to suit the conditions.”  – John Burroughs

 Nature’s Principle: Because everything is always becoming, and because uncertainty offers opportunity for creative expression, life’s outcomes can’t be planned in advance. Instead, life creates its next steps as it goes. Because nature’s mind isn’t already made up, her choices are “context-sensitive,” responding to conditions of the moment, in the moment. She just keeps creating, regardless of what’s happening. Yet here’s the key: nature just keeps listening, too. What nature hears is called feedback; it’s an inherent attribute of all living systems. Every natural process, whether it be the inner workings of a human cell or the birth and death of stars and galaxies, creates messages, real-time “status reports” on how things are going. With this feedback, the process chooses what to do next. This approach generates far greater possibility than either plans or goals could ever offer. Creativity and uncertainty together lead naturally to systems of order. Science calls these complex adaptive systems. The order we observe everywhere, from the spirals of a galaxy to the delicate figures of a snowflake, is just the adaptation of creativity to what’s happening right now. Because creativity comes in many flavors and because conditions continually change, each according to its essence, the universe is rich in variety. Chaos is nature’s way of sustaining creativity. Self-organization is nature’s way of creating order from chaos.

The Opening Offered: Although we’ve generally been taught otherwise, each of us is a complex, adaptive system, as well. Feedback is a naturally occurring phenomenon in our lives. It shows up in the form of intuition, body sensations, emotions, imagination, energy, dreams, aspects of ourselves we’ve learned to ignore in favor of “solid answers” from the external world. By shifting awareness, however, through practices of quiet time and deeper reflection, we open ourselves to listening to these messages so we might honor their truth. We might just find, as does nature, unlimited possibility in each moment. We also might discover, through personal experience, that our unconscious, life-long preference for a “command and control” approach to life simply hasn’t served us so well, and that for far less effort and energy, we could experience so much more. 

The principle of self-organization teaches us that we create our life path by walking it, not by having it laid out ahead of time. Mastery, or excellence, then, comes not from “getting it right,” but from living with intention and awareness our own unique gift of creative expression, learning and growing from each step along the way, wherever the way may lead. As you might see, this creates a huge step into a life of personal authenticity.

Prevailing Wisdom: We are creatures of nature, guided by the same laws. But when we

  • shun creativity as unproductive,
  • quell uncertainty to regain a lost sense of control,
  • obsess on the outcomes at the expense of the process that creates them,
  • invoke measurements from the outside rather than listening to what’s already there on the inside,

we constantly fight life’s natural flow, making “order” nearly impossible. We then wonder why life is so difficult! Despite the energy we put into planning how our lives, workplaces and relationships will turn out, we have little control over their outcomes. Whether keeping a job, having money, holding onto a relationship, striving to accomplish, we try to control the uncontrollable. This leaves us stressed, overwhelmed, disillusioned and even in despair. Afraid letting go will risk what little control we have, we instead hold more tightly to the illusion, unaware it takes us just where we don’t want to go. 

The Opportunity/Promise: We need a shift in perspective: from controlling the moment to responding in the moment. Instead of obsessively measuring our lives, businesses or systems to see what’s happening, we could instead listen to what these systems are already telling us through their feedback processes. Classical measurement systems are akin to pulling up carrots in your garden to see how they’re doing. Our lives and world are too complex for us to understand it all, say nothing of control it all. Adopting a personal culture of listening, inquiry and reflection is a far more effective way to create order than the strategy of command and control. We could then calmly choose what works best for us, discovering that life “organizes itself,” and that we’d created all the order we need, without force or stress.

Nature’s Story: Nature doesn’t seem to leave too many out-of-control messes around for very long. If you’ve visited different areas of the world, you’re aware of the unique “look & feel” of each of nature’s places. Despite differences, each scene seems matched to its set of surroundings. Why? Conditions are vastly different in the Pacific Northwest’s rainforests than they are in Arizona’s desert. Although the process is the same – start with what you have, not with what you don’t have, then express the natural creativity of each organism – the results offer stark contrast. Yet each ecosystem is ordered, designed around a unique environment and essence. Neither the stately cedar nor the lone saguaro cactus is upset that it doesn’t grow somewhere else, or that it can’t have less (or more) water. Each follows the elegant simplicity of the process, responding to feedback, and allowing it to unfold into order. Even in the midst of uncertainty, nature moves only toward what works.

My Story: On one hand, the story of how self-organization influenced my life is boring, simply because it’s been experienced by millions. On the other hand, it’s crucial, for the long-term stranglehold this phenomenon has on so many people is rarely resolved. Like many, I was brought up to be a perfectionist. Although this wasn’t the lesson I was being taught, it is nevertheless the message I learned and adopted. “Getting it right” is the ticket to love, to life, to success, and to happiness. The most measurable place for a youngster to get it right is in school. An “A” was an admission ticket to love and acceptance; a “B” evoked fear of punishment, and a “C” the end of the world as I knew it. Although I’m grateful for having the cerebral horsepower to do well, by the time I’d graduated from college, “perfection” was ingrained as an auto-pilot response to life. Society loves people who grew up like I did. As a Captain in the Air Force, I had ample opportunity to hone my skills at getting it right. As a young software engineer in business, I was well rewarded for working harder and doing more, unaware I had another choice. I’d come to be known as one who could handle or fix anything. This “winning strategy” has limits, however; I found two: (1) my wife didn’t appreciate “needing to be fixed,” and (2) after inevitably being promoted to manager, employees failed to appreciate the impossible standards I’d set, and simply checked out. Not the get it right response I’d envisioned. 

I had my first personal coach in 1987, no doubt an attempt by my manager to cause me to see the world anew. I didn’t like him; he got in the way of my getting things right. But he was a master. Even clueless as I was (narcissists usually are), his words were to have such a profound impact on my life that I remember them word-for-word, despite the fact that they’d take five years to germinate into any action. “Brad, you may want to consider using your intellectual horsepower, not to get it right, but to help others get it right.” In one sentence, he appealed to the perfectionist inside me and offered me a path to the future, all in an environment of respect and grace. That’s coaching! It took these brilliant words, five years, loss of another marriage, and a bunch of pissed-off employees for me to see that controlling my world was not only futile, but that I’d created what I didn’t want by trying to create what I did want. I soon realized that my world could be far more ordered, peaceful and productive just by allowing it, and an opening was created.

Although I’d always had an innate love of nature and was awed by her underlying order, I’d ignored these same ideas as possibility in my own life. Slowly, how I see my world has changed, and simply by seeing more, more happens.

An Invitation: What “life rules” have you put in place in the name of ‘creating order’ that are inhibiting the natural creativity and organizing ability life offers you? What’s the price you pay for holding on? What if you didn’t always have to have things “handled” or didn’t have to “know?” Where do family, friends, co-workers, media, and society conspire to keep these outdated rules alive? How can you learn from each of life’s experiences, including setbacks, rather than labeling and then trying to change them? Can you move with life’s flow, listening to, and implicitly trusting, your own intention and felt experience of life to guide your next steps? How might your life change if, rather than controlling each moment, you used your innate capacity to notice more fully, and then respond – in each moment? How might you allow your own creativity to produce order out of chaos?


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