Saturday, February 09, 2013

Nature can help us with priorities

Hunger often tricks us. We heap our plate with delicious food expecting to savour every morsel. But, our real capacity to take in a certain amount of food in one sitting kicks in. For most of us, the left-overs go into the refrigerator or to the dog or the garbage.

The same can be said of lofty and exciting visions – “big, hairy, audacious goals” beget big priorities which can be tough to achieve in the short-run and maybe never. They are often impossible to accomplish quickly and are prone to taking us on a wild goose chase.  By aiming too high, too fast there is no time to relax and enjoy the journey and to learn as we go. The far outcome rules the roost and we don’t like failure. So we keep trying when the best strategy might be to re-evaluate the start point in the first place.

There’s nothing wrong with having a great vision. We need a picture in our mind’s eye to be a navigator. But getting from here to there is another matter.

The way nature handles priorities provides some guidance on toning down our ambitions and become “real” when selecting “priorities”. As Steven Johnson describes in his Wall Street Journal article, The Genius of the Tinkerer, nature evolves through with “first-order combinations”. To quote from scientist Stuart Kaufman, such combinations are “the adjacent possible” rigged together from existing and nearby resources. It is a “kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can re-invent itself”.

In our language, this looks like and sounds like “first things first”. The “adjacent possible” certainly captures that and more to quote Johnson - “the boundaries of the adjacent possible grow as we explore them”. Nature evolves as the current situation demands. We do too, learning on the fly, experimenting.

Taking a page out of nature’s book, when we attempt to identify what’s first, consider the next door that has to be opened to push the flywheel forward. Think small, as in mini-step, while aiming high. Let the story unfold with each storyline connected to another. Be OK with left-overs as they signal a possible stop, turn or detour in the road. Feel free to “combine odds and ends” to bring form to emerging ideas along the way. 

And finally, relax into the present, rather than be dogged by the future. Such focused attention provides clues to the next priority.