The double-edged sword of possibility

For most of human history, one’s world was usually confined to their local geography and cultural context. There was an infinite horizon beyond their world that they’d never know or explore. Their options for influencing or contributing to the world were limited to the small sliver of the world they could access. One was almost always more constrained by a lack of options than overwhelmed by too many.

Today’s reality is different. We get news from every corner of the globe. We can travel almost anywhere in a day or two. We can forge meaningful relationships and form communities with people we never meet in person. We can learn about just about anything we can imagine. Our options for engaging with and contributing to our world are now virtually endless. Our worlds have become impossibly vast.

Graphic labeled "realm of possibility" show old world with small part of map highlighted and new world with all of map highlighted

In many ways, we are fortunate to have such a wide array of information, experiences, and opportunities. Each of us can much more easily find the corners of the world that most bring us alive and make us feel at home. We have a much wider menu of options for expressing ourselves, finding our tribes, and making a contribution. Our lives are rich with possibility.

And yet, this possibility is a double-edged sword. We are now actually inundated with information, experiences, and opportunities. We spend much of our lives simply trying to keep up and cope with it all. We must constantly choose between hundreds of possible paths unfolding before us.

Once there was a scarcity of possibility. Now, there is often an overabundance of it. It is overwhelming, exhausting, and often paralyzing.

Volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous

Today’s world is almost impossibly vast. But the world has also grown almost impossibly complex. There are not only more and larger cultural, economic, institutional, and political systems to understand and navigate, but exponentially more connections and interdependencies among them all.

This increasing complexity creates a dense, confusing web of cause and effect. In a simple system, outcomes are predictable. You press down on the gas pedal and the car goes faster. But as a system grows more complex, outcomes become increasingly unpredictable making it much more difficult to achieve your desired effect on the world. You might, for example, set out to avoid wildfires and thus vigilantly extinguish even the smallest of brushfires. But soon you realize that not burning away the underbrush makes a devastating, uncontrolled wildfire much more likely. You then try to enact controlled burns to clear the underbrush only for the wind to come and spread it miles around us in every direction creating uncontrolled burns. In complex systems, there is typically not a clear, simple, predictable way to produce the outcome you want.

A diagram showing simple system with one dot connected to one another dot and complex system with a jumble of dots all connecting to one another

Such complexity is a hallmark of modern life. We are constantly facing situations and contexts where a robust, stable understanding of what is happening around us and how to elicit the outcomes we desire eludes us. We see this in the unpredictable, compounding impacts of the climate crisis; the ebbs and flows of the global economy; and the increasing power and pervasiveness of artificial intelligence, to name a few examples.

Some call this new reality “VUCA” meaning our worlds are increasingly:

  • Volatile: Subject to rapid, unexpected change
  • Uncertain: Lacking predictability or relevant information
  • Complex: Lacking a clear or even coherent chain of cause and effect
  • Ambiguous: Lacking an obvious meaning or interpretation

We can certainly become paralyzed by choice overload. But in our modern VUCA world we can also become paralyzed by the increasing volume of unknowns and unknowables and the increasingly confusing relationship between what we do and how it affects the world.

Making our worlds smaller and simpler

Our worlds are now impossibly vast and complex. Now more than ever, we must find a way to untangle the knot of chaos and complexity all around us into something comprehensible and manageable. In short, we must find ways to make our worlds smaller and simpler.

an illustration of a corded light bulb hanging in a bit knot, slowly progressing toward untangled cord with bulb shining

This, of course, is much easier said than done. Just about everywhere we look there is something either incredibly alluring or horrifying begging for and even designed to capture our attention. Just about everywhere we look there is someone urging us to do more, grind harder, be grittier, dream bigger, or dig deeper. The modern world seems to insist that we constantly bite off more than we can chew and that we make our worlds bigger and more complicated than our brains can handle.

And unfortunately, making our worlds smaller and simpler is perhaps especially difficult for change agents. While others can cloister themselves in whatever corner of their world feels safe, comfortable, and easy, change agents have no such luxury. In order to help address the world’s great challenges, we must strive to actually understand those challenges in their depth and complexity. We must seek out and probe the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

This is a delicate, difficult balancing act. As change agents, we must let in enough of the world so that we can meaningfully, effectively, and wisely respond to its challenges. But we must also let go of enough of the world so that we aren’t paralyzed by its immensity and complexity. We must find a way to wade into the depths of complexity without being swept away by them.

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