We Don't Need More Athletes Or Models -- We Do Need People Who Understand Complexity

Have you seen the Verizon ad? The one that starts with LeBron James walking toward the camera and then saying "We don’t need more LeBrons”? He’s followed in quick succession by other celebrities, including model Adriana Lima, quarterback Drew Brees and soccer star David Villa, all saying we don’t need more of their kind.

The ad wraps up by saying what we do need is more people in science and technology to fill the 4 million jobs available. Verizon is pitching in by supporting education in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math).

Fair enough. The world runs on science and technology. But there’s an unintended consequence that comes with that. Technology is making the world a more complex place. And what we really need is more people who understand what complexity means.



By complexity, I don’t mean complicated. Those are two different things. I mean complexity in its classic sense -- coming from the Latin “com,” meaning “together,” and “plex,” meaning “woven."

“Woven together” is a pretty good starting point for understanding technology. It’s a concept that depends on connection, and we are more connected than ever before. Whether we like it or not, with connection comes complexity. And when we’re talking about complexity, we’re talking about a whole new ball game where all traditional bets are off.

There’s another funny thing about complexity.  It’s nothing new. The world has always been complex. Biology has long been the domain of complex adaptive systems. This is true of all of the physical sciences. Benoit Mandelbrot found fractal complexity in leaves and the coastline of England.

Quantum physics has always been around.  It wasn’t invented at the beginning of the last century by Max Plank, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. It just took us most of our history as a species to discover it, hiding there beneath the deceptively simple rules of Isaac Newton.

Complexity has always been part of nature. We’ve just been ignoring it for a long, long time, believing with all our hearts in a simpler, more comprehensible world.

Humans hate complexity, because complexity brings with it unpredictability and an inherent lack of control. It leads naturally to chaos. We much prefer models with foreseeable outcomes. We have been trying for many years to predict the weather, with very limited success. Why? Because weather is complex and often chaotic. And it’s getting more so, not less.

But the extreme weather we’re seeing more and more of is analogous to many other arenas, where complexity is rearing its head, according to the Santa Fe Institute, the self-proclaimed world headquarters for complexity science, which endeavors "to understand and unify the underlying, shared patterns in complex physical, biological, social, cultural, technological, and even possible astrobiological worlds.”

Which means complexity is everywhere. It impacts everything. And almost none of us understand it. But we’ve got to figure this stuff out, because the stakes are huge.

Let’s take something as important to us as democracy, for instance.

There's nothing especially complex about the idea of democracy. But the model of democracy is a different beast, because it relies on the foundation of our society, which is incredibly complex. Democracy is dependent on unwritten rules, which are in turn dependent on conventions and controls that have been inherent in our society.  These are what have been called the “soft guardrails of democracy" -- and they are being eroded by our newly connected complexity.  

A few weeks ago, some of America’s top political scientists got together at Yale University to talk about democracy. Almost all agreed that democracy is in deep trouble. Yascha Mounk, from Harvard, summed up their collective thoughts succinctly: “If current trends continue for another 20 or 30 years, democracy will be toast.”

So complexity is something we should be learning about. But where to start? And when? Currently, if people do study complexity science, it’s generally at the post-grad level. And that’s just a handful of people, at a few universities.

We need to start understanding complexity and its implications much sooner. It should be covered in grade school. But there’s no one to teach it, because the majority of teachers have no idea what I’m talking about.

In a recent dissertation, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania asked science teachers in a number of schools in Singapore if they were familiar with complexity. The findings were disheartening: “A large sample of ninety Grades 11 and 12 science teachers in six randomly selected schools across Singapore revealed as many as 80% of the teachers reported that they did not have prior knowledge or heard of complex systems.” By the way, Singapore is consistently rated best in the world for science education. Here in North America, we trail by a significant margin. If complexity is a problem there, it’s a bigger problem here.

If you’re old enough to remember the movie "The Graduate," there was a scene where the character played by Dustin Hoffman was wandering around his parent’s cocktail party when he was cornered by a family friend, who offered this career advice: “I just want to say one word to you -- just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.”

That was 50 years ago. Today, my word is “complexity.”

Are you listening?

5 comments about "We Don't Need More Athletes Or Models -- We Do Need People Who Understand Complexity".
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  1. Chuck Lantz from, network, October 17, 2017 at 4:27 p.m.

    This is a puzzle that cannot be solved.  Here's why:  If you attached a number of lead weights to a person, using various locks, handcuffs, chains and so on, and tossed him into a river, his chances of opening all those devices and surviving are nil, if he or she is average. Someone with Houdini-like skills may possibly survive, but even those odds are very long.  And if that Houdini clone had even more weights placed on his or her body, their chances of survival would become even worse.

    And that's the problem. We have far too few people with the Houdini-like skills to solve the far too many serious and growing complexities facing us. We're all familiar with "The poor you will always have with you", but the real problem is; "The ignorant you will always have with you."  The with the internet, the voices of the ignorant are much louder and much more influential than in the past.

    In a nutshell (sorry), the village idiot(s) are now in charge of too many villages, simply because they can reach the eyes and ears of those too ignorant to know the difference between very basic truth and fiction. And if that's the case, how in the hell can they be expected to even grasp that "complexity" even exists, let alone understand how to deal with it?  

  2. Chuck Lantz from, network replied, October 17, 2017 at 4:29 p.m.

    Sorry. " The with the internet" should be "Now with the internet."

    (PLEASE add an edit function!)

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 17, 2017 at 9:05 p.m.

    Senator Hotckiss has a certain ring to it.

  4. Michelle Cubas from Positive Potentials LLC, October 17, 2017 at 9:48 p.m.

    I love the title, Hotch!
    Simply, The Age of Celebrity breeds a do-what's-easy mentality. It is low emotional intelligence to follow this path. That is why I devote and focus 50% of my coaching practice on developing executive function with clients.

    The evidence culminates in the last presidential election. Please join me to explore the latest findings on the executive brain function and how students and adults can practice and strengthen their executive brain function. Michelle Cubas, CPCC, ACC Certified Coach

  5. Michelle Cubas from Positive Potentials LLC, November 25, 2019 at 6:13 p.m.

    Long-time fan, Gord! We need a return to basics like civics and reading. Your word, complexity, interfaces well with my word, capacity! Our educational system has failed to enhance a student's capacity to learn, and we see the results in tribalism. 

    The loss of civility and the ability to debate opposing views allows for the strident hollering from the crowd. 

    Let's open all minds!

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