The American System

Mass conflagration.

It’s one of my favorite terms. It’s a kind of training exercise on a naval ship. It simulates a scenario where everything has gone so horribly wrong in combat that the crew is no longer trying to focus on the military objective of defeating the enemy. Instead, they’ve shifted their resources to saving the ship and themselves. It’s not an easy thing to do. It requires lots of coordination and expertise. So you have to practice it. I did it more times than I can remember during the two years when that’s what I did with my life-serve on a ship.

I’m not on a ship any more. I’m not even in the navy any more. But I experience mass conflagration often-for about an hour, every morning,  in my house, when my wife and I are getting our children ready for school. If you have grade school aged kids, you know exactly what I mean. If you pretend you don’t, you’re a bald face liar.

No matter how hard we try, within the first 30 minutes of our day, my wife and I surrender all attempts at making this a “great” morning and instead are forced to focus on two things 1) getting them to the bus alive and 2) staying married. Save the ship…and her crew…Both are in question more times than I’m happy to admit. To be fair, neither are ever her fault.

The risk to #1 is caused by my kids. Every morning they appear to be both equally surprised by the existence of school and unaware of the any activities required to get them there. Again, if you have kids, you know exactly what I mean. The risk to #2, staying married, is more interesting-and also why I’m talking about getting my kids ready for school in the morning in a politics and society blog. Why my wife hates be by the time the bus gets there is really the issue.

I have what I like to call a linear approach to solving the problem of getting through the morning with school aged children. I like to think that waking up earlier, preparing lunches the night before, waking the kids up earlier, or limiting breakfast options are all things that give us more time to get out of the house. Yelling louder makes them move faster…gives us more time to get out of the house. My approach is more rigor, leads to more efficiency, leads to less time required, leads to less hurrying, leads to less stress, leads to a calmer, happier morning-a better outcome.

It seems like a common sense approach.  Many people like common sense, effort in-results out approaches. Because it makes us feel like we’re in control. But here’s why I’m wrong-and she’s right.  And here’s why my approach has the opposite effect of a calm, happy morning for my family. I’m not in control.  Neither is she. No one is. Because morning in the Hughes household is complicated.

My kids, are young. And their needs vary. Some are autistic and can’t really communicate-yelling makes it worse, not better. Some have very real medication needs. Others are simply a pain in the ass-yelling helps them-hurts others.  Sometimes my wife has clients she has to see early. And sometimes she doesn’t. And sometimes my job emails me in the middle of the night and an emergency is waiting for me when I wake up. So even if I wake up early, my attention goes there instead of making pancakes. And then I’m grumpy about work and no pancakes all at once.

Mornings in the Hughes household look a lot more like a living breathing organism then an assembly line. Living breathing organisms are hard to control. Assembly lines are not.  Assembly lines are linear. Input, effort and execution yields outputs. Organisms are systems. Sometimes inputs don’t match outputs the way you would think. Some things work with others better than others work with some.  Improving a single aspect (screaming at one kid) can potentially have a negative effect on another (an autistic panic in the one sitting next to him). Doing some things worse (waking up later) can actually make others better (more rest, less grumpy-but still grumpy-dad).

Mornings in the Hughes household are a system-a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole. And the goal of that system is to get our children to school fed, clothed and in a state of mind to learn. And when you apply a linear strategy to a system, well, you get yelled at by your wife for being stupid. Because it doesn’t work. Doing things that don’t work over and over again is stupid.

About the only time I don’t apply systems thinking is when I’m being an obtuse rock head dad or husband. I don’t really know why, but I know I’m not alone. Outside the home though, I’m a systems thinker. I’ve taken a systems approach to fighting wars and insurgencies. I’ve used it to build software products. I’ve used it to market this blog. Just about any problem more complex then brushing your teeth takes systems thinking. I live by it. Because its how you solve hard problems. Which are the best kind to solve.

America is a system-a giant system. Problems like poverty, job creation, racial inequality and terrorism take systems thinking-because they’re hard, complex problems with lots of overlapping and inconsistent inputs. Doing something logical and linear may sound like a good idea. (We have too many people from outside our country inside our country. We must build a wall.) Because it’s simple and it makes you feel in control. But it actually doesn’t solve the problem. Because it’s not actually designed to solve a problem. It’s designed to make people angry or happy. Because it’s politics.

The core difference between a political debate and a debate of any other kind is that other debates focus on differing opinions to solving an issue. Political debates focus on differing opinions of what the issue is. There are no solutions to political debates. And nowhere besides government do we focus the energy on the politics of something and not the solution. Good non-government entities usually use the word politics at the beginning of a sentence used to describe an effort or decision that didn’t make any sense. My wife and I never argue over whether or not its good if the kids get to school on time-only how effective me yelling at them is. See the difference? Spending a morning on the former would be stupid.

This is a round about way to get to the following fairly simple point.

Politics are stupid.  

Political cycles are a long standing dialogue that argues whether the problem at hand is making our country great again or keeping it great. Those are two very different problems. And it’s party agnostic. Whatever party owns the government, owns the burden of arguing to keep our country great. Whatever party  is out in the cold owns the burden of arguing that we must return the party to greatness. The problems you identify when your task is keep are very different then the problems you identify when your task is return.

Here’s my point again: Politics are stupid.

Systems thinking is not. Political thinking is linear. You are allowed and expected to make simple arguments that people can digest that have no chance at solving any material problem in politics. Political motivation and systems motivation cannot occupy the same space at the same time. You cannot solve hard problems without systems thinking. You cannot solve problems with politics.

Politics are lunacy. Political opinion is a waste of time.

So the next time you are about to engage in a political debate with someone or spend time listening to two gas bags argue about whether or not something is a problem by proposing simple bite sized ideas that won’t solve anything important, pause and say to yourself, out loud.

“What I am about to do is an absolute and thorough waste of time.”

If you must continue, realize you’re using the same part of your brain that argues whether or not Lebron James is better then Kobe Bryant-or whether or not the best Pebbles are Co-Co or Fruity. Political thinking is capable of solving one problem-maintaining or taking control of government. The less time you spend there-says the guy with the political blog-the freer you are to think about the things that matter.

Like how the hell your son can lose his shoes twice in one morning.