Podcast Notes

Episode 1 – Introduction to HappyWisdom Podcast 

Note: This is not a direct transcript. These are the notes I used to create the episode. I might do a transcript later, if there’s demand, but sometimes the notes are even better.

Greetings my name is Joe Fecarotta, and welcome to the HappyWisdom podcast! 

 I’m so excited to get this going! So Happy. Wisdom. What’s that all about? 

We’ve all heard about the pursuit of Happiness, and intuitively we all know happiness isn’t the goal. No one can be always happy, or is such a thing even desirable. 

Wisdom is a similar concept. We know its a good thing but there are few people who call themselves wise and even fewer that claim they’ve attained absolute wisdom. 

For the  folks who I’ve spoken with, and those I’ve read, it seems to me that there is a form of wisdom that generates a deep satisfaction about life. 

The vision of this podcast is to bring all the light to this often dark and complex world. We’ll have tools and techniques for detailing with complexity. There will be talk of spirituality. I’m a proud Episcopalian, though I only recently moved formally that direction, I consider myself a student of C.S. Lewis. Though this isn’t a directly spiritual podcast, as the human experience is so affected by spirituality , the topic is one we will enthusiastically discuss with a wide variety of theories. This place is the planet fitness of podcasts – No judgement here! 

My promise is to do my best to make this fun and useful. So lets go! 

I’ve got a series of episodes planned, but the common denominator, the overarching Sauron over all of it, is Complexity. Did you know that there are complexity scientists? There are degrees in it, and companies pay big bucks to tame it. I’m bringing that to you, free of charge. 

Why care about complexity? Because if life itself is complex, and without the tools to deal with it, it can really wreck what you’re trying to do.  It can even be deadly. 

Consider the work of Engineer Thomas Midgely Jr.  now, you might know his work. This was the scientist that some say killed millions of people.  He was the guy in the 1950s that added lead to fuel to prevent knocking and boost power. His work is wonderfully covered in the Vertaisum YouTube channel – I recommend checking out the video, and will post the notes in the episode. There’s a lot of debate as to if they knew the catastrophic affects of using lead in gas. This Midgely guy actually poured it on himself and inhaled it for a minute strait to demonstrate its safety. Imagine his surprise when he came down with lead poisoning and had to debark to Florida to recover for a year! 

Lets pretend, however, that they didn’t know. It can be hard to know how much of anything is harmful, but that doesn’t make it complex. Its a complicated problem. Expertise can help us here, and if he had listened to them, we wouldn’t think him guilty of so many deaths. Well, that wasn’t his only mistake. Anyway, Midgely is infamous not only for adding lead, but for inventing Freon. When we’re discussing complexity, I would put his error on adding lead as a complicated problem. Though many scientists said that lead was poisonous, there was some debate as to how much lead. I’m not excusing Midgely at all. When messing with human health, more caution should have been founded, and I think the onus on proving its innocuous traits should have been on the fuel companies to prove its safety, rather than others.

But then the guy runs off and invents freon. Look, at the time refrigerators were dangerous. They used both toxic and flammable gasses, so it was up to Midgely to create a new coolant. According to this

“Refrigerators in the 1920s were often appallingly risky because they used dangerous gases that sometimes leaked. One leak from a refrigerator at a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929 killed more than a hundred people. Midley set out to create a gas that was stable, nonflammable, noncorrosive and safe to breathe.” 

Amazingly he did this in three days, and came up with Freon, or CFCs.

“Just three days later, he’d come up with a solution, writes Encyclopedia Britannica: a chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, commercially known as freon. Freon could be breathed by people and wasn’t flammable. Midgley, who was also known for being a show-off, demonstrated the utility of his invention to the American Chemical Society at its annual meeting in 1930, writes Jonathan Edwards for the Royal Society of Chemistry.  He “inhaled a large amount of the gas, and then blew out a candle flame, showing it to be non-toxic and non-flammable.””

Now, from here, you might know the story. CFCs were stable. Too stable, and eventually busted a whole in the ozone layer. 

We’re definitely in the zone of complexity. The interaction of CFCs with the atmosphere is a tough thing to model. Scientists had to start thinking in terms of systems. Indeed ,there’s a whole discipline of systems thinking. 

But where we really run into complexity, in a technical sense, is when we talk about ecosystems and living things. This takes us to Yellowstone park, where there’s a story about wolves.

From 1872-1926 , wolves were hunted to gray wolves eradication to the relief of people who visited or lived near the park. Particularly among the ranchers, who feared the wolves would wander out of the park and kill their livestock. Wolves had been pursued with more determination than any other animal in United States history. 

Once the wolves were gone, the ranchers were happy, but others started to grow concerned. The elk population exploded and they grazed their way across the landscape killing young brush and trees. As early as the 1930s, scientists were alarmed by the degradation and were worried about erosion and plants dying off.

Witht the wolves gone, the elk pushed the limits of Yellowstone’s carrying capacity, and they didn’t move around much in the winter-browsing heavily on young willow, aspen and cottonwood plants. That was tough for beaver, who need willows to survive in winter.

Beaver dams provide cold, shaded water for fish. That’s not all. With fewer dead elk laying around. Scavengers, such as ravens, eagles, coyotes, bears,  and magpies didn’t have as much carrion to feed off of. 

That’s complexity – lots of moving parts, where your actions are nearly impossible to predict the outcome. A complex system is something that 

  • Has many interacting parts
  • Follows simple rules
  • Has emergent properties, the behavior of the system as a whole cannot be predicted by knowing the simple rules. That is the whole is more than the sum of the parts. 

But what about our lives?  I’ll be honest. I was stunned the first time I discovered that complexity was an area of study.   Here I was, a project manager wondering why software in a big company was so challenging These folks were super smart. So, why was getting the product right so hard?  A couple of Google’s later, and bam, I find a graduate program in something called Organizational Development. And within that experience, the world opened up to me. Everything was made up of systems, upon systems. Global hunger, complex economies, human motivation, all of it were complex systems.  Something that even our consciousness is an emergent property of our mind. After all, you can dissect a brain, but where is the consciousness at? There are different functions – speech, motion, etc. Consciousness seems to emerge from the billions of connections in our brain. 

All models are false, but some are useful”

George Fox

Who we are is a complex system. This means that we can be unpredictable, even at the individual level. Now, imagine a group of humans – can you predict what’s going to happen? 

Take American football for example. Every year the colleges line up their players and select the best offensive player, and give him the Heisman Trophy. As far as anyone can tell, this player is a near shoe in for success upon success. Fifteen of the seventy eight winners never even played a down in the NFL. Others play, and do not perform well. Indeed, only two of the Heisman winners that were QBs led the NFL in passing. It was people like Tom Brady, on the other hand, was selected very low int he draft, and went on to be the GOAT. 

Every year, despite disparate skill levels and massive computing power, few people or machines are ever able to pick the winner of March Madness.  

If we leave the world of sports, we can go tot het family unit. If you have kids, you might know how difficult it is to predict what they’re going to do at any one time.  All complex systems have them and are able to use feedback in sometimes surprising ways. For example, when our society was hit with a pandemic, who could have predicted that toilet paper would the most horded resource? The feedback systems existed under the radar, on the internet, in churches, in schools and the unguided hand of Feedback led to a run on TP. WE could all be dying of starvation but our butts would be clean. 

I’m part of three fantasy leagues, two of which I founded over ten years ago, and i haven’t won any of them. The point is this :  It’s very very difficult to predict with any accuracy the behavior of humans, and yet that’s crucial to dealing with our lives and attaining satisfaction with each and every day. 

David Snowden, creator of Cynefin


The person of the episode for today si a man named David Snowden. No relationship to Edward Snowden. 

He’s a very highly educated man who started to look at complexity. He started at IBM and then broke out on his own a company called Cognitive Edge. An ex-IBMer her came up with a system called Cynefin (see below).

His technique to deal with complexity is Probe, Sense,  and Respond. Take away here is that he states that complex systems are coherent only retrospectively. What he’s trying to say is that experience only makes sense backwards. You know, experience is like a comb for a guy who’s lost his hair. 

So, the complex means we are not able to determine what will cause a particular result, but we can conduct experiments, sense if its working directionally, and adjust. 

Complex (the unknowable) — We’re not able to determine what will cause a particular result. The best course of action is to conduct experiments and check if any or all take us in the correct direction. A lot of time when human opinion and decision is involved we could be working in this area; simply because humans are complex beings.

Recently we shot a projectile at a meteor to practice taking them out before they take us out. I approve of this , BTW, and think its totally amazing and awesome. And yet, technically it’s not complex. Its complicated, since it gives way to experts, of which NASA is completely made of. 

So lets review really quick. 

1 – Complexity is when effect cannot be determined by the cause except for after the fact. 

2 – human behavior is often complex, especially when grouped together (teams, organizations, etc.) 

3- A complex system have a history. They evolve and their past is co-responsible for their present behavior. 

4 – Elements in the system may be ignorant of the behavior of the system as a whole, responding only to the information or physical stimuli available to them locally.  <consider patriarchy> 

5- The interactions are non-linear: small changes in inputs, physical interactions or stimuli can cause large effects or very significant changes in outputs

Okay, so how does it show up in our lives? 

What if, as part of the upcoming holiday’s here in the states, you donate some money to a local shelter and maybe even some time. You’ve done this every year. 

You see that Tom, a homeless man for years, returns again. 

Tom’s situation is difficult – no family, alcoholism, etc. 

How can you, or anyone, fix Tom? 

Tom is a complex system. He has a history, and your actions (taking away his booze) may have deleterious effects ( he might run away before getting help).   But Juliet, another homeless person, benefited greatly from the program your church was putting on.  Why the difference? 

People are different, they are complex. 

Another example – children. You do the same things as you raise each of them ideally. Same level of resources, some love. Same location. Same educational choices. 

Yet, they’re often very different in outcome. Perhaps you could trust one with the keys to the car, but the other one treated your vehicle like a bumper car. 

People and outcomes are complex. 

What about church? You send a mission trip to a foreign land, and, at least in the old days, you bring your culture with it, with the best of intentions. Do you know what’s going to happen in that culture? How could you be?  There’s no way you can know the interactions outcome on the village, even when giving them water or food. You can have your plan, but at the end of the day, its unlikely to come to fruition. 

This is the difficult thing about complex systems. What helps in one situation does not necessarily help in an other. Indeed, it probably wont. Every single decision we make leaves a varied and complex pathways of effects that are nearly unforeseeable. Where we live affects what weather we get, what moods we’re in , what people we’ll meet, what schools we’ll go to. 

What career we choose has untold effects on us. This one is particularly difficult. How many people go into law, computer programming or medical field to find that they don’t like it in the real world? Sometimes this discovery comes far later. 

Maybe being a lawyer ins’t the problem, Perhaps it is YOU that has changed? This is the super complex part of the equation. Our minds, our motivations change based many factors – age, health, experiences. We are a complex system. What is good today for me, I don’t like tomorrow.  This discovery is as ancient as human wisdom almost. It was Heraclitus,6th century BCE, who noted that 

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

We are ever changing. Complex. The world we live in is ever more so, especially the animals and the miraculous ecosystem that we share. We’re a complex biomas inside a  complicated arrangement. 

We can’t predict the future. For the big problems today – global warming, hunger, division – we are being challenged to think systemically. The best way to do that is tounderstand the concepts of complexity and systems thinking, and make it practical and I hope fun. 

So what to do? Just throw up our hands, give up? Sorry homeless, poor, the downtrodden, we’re not sure of what’s going to happen to help you so, sorry! 

Of course not. 

There are many coping techniques to use – For now I’ll highlight three: 

  1. Feedback
  2. Iteration
  3. Retrospection. 

There’s a quote that sums up how I feel about complexity by complexity researcher Paul Cillers: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/S15327000EM0201_03?journalCode=hzze20

“Faced with the complexities of life, we all have to be artists in some sense of the word. It is to be hoped that this will not only help us to a better understanding of our organizations, it will also make us better human beings.”

In the next episode 

we’ll talk about Feedback and how it helps us deal with this unwieldy complex life we’re living.  Before I end, I leave you with a question – what’s the best example you’ve had of a plan that has gone wrong despite everything you could do?  Please email them to me at joe@happywisdom.com or you can visit a group I started called LifeSparcs. I’ll put all the show notes and links on happywisdom.com. 

Thank you for your curiosity and willingness to make yourself a better human. 

Until next time – Joe