My Top 5 Takeaways from the Book Thinking In Systems by Donella H. Meadows

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I follow a genre rotation in both my personal and work reading (I read one or two books per genre before moving on to the next), and my personal rotation includes “Be Smarter/Better.”

Well, Thinking In Systems was one of the best “Be Smarter/Better” books I’ve read this year because systems thinking is a powerful tool for gaining a deeper and more practical understanding of how you, others, and the world around you tick.

And with that greater understanding comes a greater ability for effective and meaningful action and change.

In fact, I’d go as far as saying that understanding how to envision and create productive and efficient systems is one of the highest-leverage life skills you can develop. So many personal, interpersonal, and social failures aren’t so much the result of inherently flawed individuals but of faulty systems.

To understand why, let’s first define systems thinking, which is the art and science of understanding forces and interrelationships that shape the behavior of systems.

And what are systems? Meadows defines them as sets of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.

You can find systems everywhere you look.

Our bodies and minds are systems, animals, gardens, trees, and forests are systems, businesses are systems, local, national, and global economies are systems, hell, even diet, exercise, and lifestyle regimens are systems.

Moreover, all of these systems (and all others) are comprised of different types of elements and relationships that can take an infinite number of forms. 

In other words, all systems have common denominators that can be isolated, analyzed, and modeled, and the better you can do this, the better you can understand and influence the many systems you interact with.

This realization alone can have profound effects in your life as you begin to understand that many desirable and undesirable outcomes you experience are the result of functional and dysfunctional systems, not luck, fate, or randomness.

That is, many of the situations and circumstances in your life, both good and bad, are the direct consequence of systems with finite and knowable structures that are very good at producing exactly what you’re enjoying or enduring.

These systems are real, they’re there, and they’re working for or against you every minute of every day.

Thus, if you want to make your circumstances markedly better, you need to be able to consider more than just first-order actions and effects—the obvious, easy-to-perceive things—and think more holistically (systematically). Otherwise you can easily fall into the trap of chasing your tail and wondering why things aren’t going your way.

This helps explain why some people work very hard at goals yet make little progress. Oftentimes they’re pouring all their resources (effort, energy, time, money) into defective systems that have a low probability of success.

A simple example of this is diet and training. No matter how diligently you follow a poor system for diet or exercise, you’re probably going to wind up disappointed in the end.

Well, the same goes for literally any other goal and activity in your life, whether it’s getting a job, learning to play the piano, or finding a partner. There are many ways (systems) of going about these things, and some are far more likely to work than others.

Thus, once you’ve formulated a goal, the very next step should be careful meditation on the system that’s going to get you there.

This isn’t always easy, either—it often requires extensive study, creative thinking, and bright ideas—but it’s also the proverbial “aiming the arrow” moment where just an inch of miscalculation can all but guarantee you’ll never hit the target no matter how many attempts you make.

By continually working on the systems in your life, you’re continually calibrating your aim, so to speak, allowing you to eventually hit the bullseye again and again.

And so this is why I recommend you read this book.

If you want to live an orderly, productive, enjoyable life, yes, you have to be willing to put in the work, but you also have to know how to design systems that can transform raw effort into real results.

Let’s get to the takeaways.

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