Sustainability is about the systems we create.
The actual definition of sustainability is about the endurance of systems of systems and processes. I’ve found this doubly ironic in that “my subconscious is sending me a message” kind-of-way.
Yes, I’ve been running a sustainable brand for 8 or so years now. And yes, I’ve been into sustainable living for most of my life. It wasn’t until last fall, when a reporter asked me what “my definition of sustainability was” that I was forced to really think about the word. And I found it very pleasing that the actual definition had that bit about systems. I’ve been semi-consciously aware of my fascination with systems for a while now, as evidenced by the name of this blog.
And I like the word system because there’s a lot of intentionality behind it. But it can also convey a sort of top-heavy bureaucratic negative sense (educational system) or immutability (ecosystem).
SYSTEM DESIGN & SCOPE
It can seem that Nature, by default, creates sustainable systems. But in fact, we could just as easily argue that Nature creates what seems like sustainable systems within her scope. Nature’s scope is huge. We can’t really contain it within our individual minds.
And when people make systems, they tend to built them to be sustainable within their scope. If an individual is building a system just for themselves, ‘sustainable system design’ is going to be very different from a system built to be transferred or shared.
I see this up-close in myself all the time. A classic introvert, I have trouble understanding how other people work, or thinking about other people when I set up systems. And so, I tend to set up systems that are horrifically complicated, but efficient as long as I’m the only person who touches them. This has come to light through my work with Daniel. (That makes it sound like he’s my therapist or something. He’s my husband.) It’s always surprising when you need to undergo a systems review after working alone for most of your life.
My standard way of setting up systems relies on memory. I’m lucky to have a strong memory for the systems I make up- versus my weak memory for faces and personal history. I have dozens of complicated and different passwords memorized, credit card and license plates, inventory tracking systems, production tracking systems, and clothing pattern shapes- stuff that is written, geometric, or numerical. So this is what we’d call terrible system design- i.e. extremely unsustainable- because it’s nearly impossible to transfer.
But it’s extremely efficient if there’s only me involved.
This blog is called The Systems We Create precisely because that phrase identifies and distills the questions I keep asking myself, as well as my own vulnerabilities:
1. Is it better to design a system consciously or trust intuition?
2. Is it possible to do both?
3. How do we know if a system design is good, bad, wasteful, or evil?
And so, if sustainability is about the systems we create, we can expand that to touch on systems of thought, systems around creative practice, around subconsciously developed systems of neural pathways, or any other pattern of thinking and acting one has developed.
Sustainability is about creating systems that will make us happy and abundant in both the long term and short term.
What you do when you first wake up in the morning is a system. How you handle it when someone annoys you is a system. How you work towards and achieve goals is a system. And these are mostly sub-or-semiconscious. Typically, we don’t design our daily routine very consciously, just like we don’t design our relationships very consciously. (However some of us do. See: polyphasic sleep and the relationship agreement.)
Even the most “creative” of the “creative types” – visual artists, writers, work within very clear systems for extracting and communicating creative ideas. How we think about ourselves is a system. Optimistic or positive thinking is a system just as much as victim-mentality is a system.
The question that gets asked, over and over in literature about happiness and achievement is this: are high achievers “naturally” that way- i.e. they were gifted with some happy combination of optimism and sustainable systems skills- or did they make themselves that way, consciously?
Truthfully, I think drive– probably the most likely determinant of success- is not often consciously cultivated. Drive, determination- these are qualities that make someone hard to live with. They are celebrated from a distance, but when seen up close, can become unattractive. Nobody wants a spouse/parent/friend who won’t take time off, who thinks and acts obsessively towards their goals. That balancing act of allowing determination and drive to run your life- 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day- and then turning it off for the remainder? It’s tricky.
Again, should we rely on “nature” and intuition- or should we be active and willful?
The more I ask myself this question, the more I come down on the side of rationality and willfulness, even though I have these fears about rationalizing my humanity into a corner.