S is for System

A little while ago I read a “Saturday Email” from George Couros, Something Personal, Professional, and Profound – (Email #2), where he talked about the importance of systems over goals. He pondered “If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed?” He used a coaching scenario to illustrate his point: “if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results? Couros was confident that you definitely would get positive results. He explained that “the goal in any sport is to finish with the best score, but it would be ridiculous to spend the whole game staring at the scoreboard. The only way to actually win is to get better each day.” His conclusion was to forget about setting goals and instead focus on the system.

After being inundated for years about the importance of goal setting and SMART goals, this really got me thinking. Have we been wrong all this time? And I think, to a certain extent anyway, that yes, yes we have.

One of my goals this year was to knit (my #OneWord2019) or consolidate my many areas of interest because I tend to overwhelm myself. The thing is, overwhelming oneself is not a trait singular to me. I hear it over and over again from all sorts of people – it is a common problem. Goal setting is actually quite helpful for those of us who find this to be an issue. Here’s the rub: goal setting, while fixing one problem, causes another. Ultra focus (goal setting) ignores the peripheral (system) and the full scope needs to be seen. So this thought that thinking more about a system than a goal was revolutionary for me. This has the potential to help me consolidate and look at things from a different perspective.

While I don’t generally recommend Wikipedia as a reference, I did find their definition of system to be quite helpful: sys·tem/ˈsistəm/noun: A system is a group of interacting or interrelated entities that form a unified whole. A system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning.

I like how spatial and temporal boundaries are included. I love how it is not just a structure but that it has a purpose and function and that it is shaped and influenced by its environment. I think we tend to compartmentalize things too much and then look at other things as extras while really they are interrelated and interdependent. Take another article I read recently about walking, ‘It’s a Superpower’: How Walking Makes Us Happier, Healthier and Brainier. We tend to look at exercise as separate from learning or academic tasks, yet neuroscientist Shane O’Mara “believes that plenty of regular walking unlocks the cognitive powers of the brain like nothing else.” O’Mara “favours what he calls a “motor-centric” view of the brain – that it evolved to support movement and, therefore, if we stop moving about, it won’t work as well.” He has data to back up his assertions too. Walkers have lower rates of depression, creativity is higher after walking, even personality changes were positively affected by walking. Walking is beneficial in far more ways than just as exercise, thus showing how our system is interdependent. The article really illustrated to me how we often don’t see things on a system level.

Similarly, our brains are affected on a physical level when reading. I delved into this in another blog, Once Upon a Time, and still find it utterly fascinating as it is not something I would have thought possible but researchers have found it to be true. It really makes the phrase ‘walk a mile in someone’s shoes’ take on new meanings.

Both scenarios accentuate the limited vision we can have and stressed to me the necessity of more system thinking. It has also allowed me to put into words the process I have been going through all year in my quest to knit or consolidate my understanding and my many passions in teaching.

I’ve been feeling for quite some time that we often feel overwhelmed because we (whether forced or voluntarily) keep having more expectations added to our roster. At the same time, I held strongly to the belief that it didn’t have to be or feel that way and that it was perhaps just in the way I was looking at things.

I felt a personal breakthrough when I took part in the Climate Action project the first time. I realized climate did not have to be relegated to only science or geography class and perhaps talking about divergent topics in other classes would encourage students to see the interconnectedness of our world. That realization began a shift in perspective for me: one that encapsulates the essence of what Couros outlined in his email. If you always look only at goals, then it does feel like you have more and more added on all the time. One goal turns into twenty or twenty thousand separate goals. That’s definitely overwhelming. From a system perspective though, it is doable. In my mind, I see it like a kaleidoscope. The many goals are interrelated and interconnected and work together to form a unified, beautiful whole. They are not extras thrown on creating a dissonant catastrophe. Really, they were there all along, it just takes the right perspective to see it.

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