Thinking in Systems - A Primer

Donella H. Meadows ★★★★★

This is probably one of those books that I will re-read from time to time. It’s a short book but it’s quite dense and it makes you think in new ways, and I’m sure I would get a lot more out of it if I read it more than once and paid more attention.

What is also great is that it has a short and usable Appendix section with a glossary of definitions, a summary of system principles, and a list of “system traps” with a short description of each.

There are a lot of inspiring ideas in the book. One small way this book changed me is how, if I am to make improvements in my life, I should be looking at the rate limiting factor of my system, and try to improve it. I should have known this from my biochemistry studies: in enzyme kinetics, the “rate limiting step” is the slowest of the steps in a series of reactions and ultimately the whole system’s speed will depend on that step. Similarly to the limiting substrate in a microbial culture - it doesn’t matter how much of substrate A you add to it if substrate B is the limiting one - the culture won’t thrive. The limiting factor is the thing that, if you manage to change it, will have the most impact on your life. These days I try to think about what that means for me - is it waking up earlier? Is it exercise? Is it meditation? Is it having more uninterrupted hours of reading and studying? It’s most probably the last one, and so my main goal will be improving that area.

On another topic, a quote that I found relatable is the following:

[..] self-organization is often sacrificed for purposes of short-term productivity and stability. Productivity and stability are the usual excuses for turning creative human beings into mechanical adjuncts to production processes. Or for narrowing the genetic variability of crop plants. Or for establishing bureaucracies and theories of knowledge that treat people as if they were only numbers.

Self-organization produces heterogeneity and unpredictability. It is likely to come up with whole new structures, whole new ways of doing things. It requires freedom and experimentation, and a certain amount of disorder.

When I read the above, I instantly thought about how a sabbatical - free time, experimantation, self-organization - tends to restructure one’s life.