A Strategic Ecology?

I started using the word “ecology” a while ago to describe a setting that requires holistic understanding. We readily understand the idea when it comes to nature. The rain forest, for example, is an ecology. Disturb one aspect of the rain forest, and you affect the entire unit.  We use the word less with respect to our social interactions. And yet, these interactions make little sense unless they too are part of an ecology. We prefer to use other words, like family or network or social circle or firm culture. But all of these words imply an ecology. And as such, they either flourish or not depending on how the unit is organized and affected by events.

I am coming to the idea that we — as individuals — are also ecologies of a sort. We tend to think of ourselves as a single identity. But Dan Kahneman and others have discovered that when you look at how we think and emote, we are more complex than that. For example — as Dan brilliantly brings out — our remembering and experiencing selves seem to operate in parallel fashion.  As such, we need to be aware of the relationship between these two aspects of the self. They are parts of an ecology that produce our what we call “us” – our lives.

Dan argues that the remembering self dominates our sense of who we are. And so, creating happiness is at least in part, a matter of creating happy memories. So, even if our experiences themselves have rough spots — like ants invading the picnic basket, the baby crying, the ice cream melting, and the sudden rain, the experiences still feed a happy life if we remember them as happy.  We say that we can laugh about the pesky little stuff if there is a big memory that makes it all ok. That, btw, is what makes the stories of Jean Shepherd so charming. And not just Jean Shepherd’s work, the great humorist Mark Twain conjures up the same great memory pageant versus less than perfect experiences in his stories.

But let’s be practical here. To be happy in life, we need to create great memories. So how do we do it? In the old days, we were told what we should be happy about. A good job, a well fed family, a responsible role in the community, and so on. This worked to a degree, especially so if you accept that being obedient is the norm. But these days, we think more in terms of choosing our future and therefore, choosing what types of experiences we want and thus what memories we create — if any at all. And this creates a bit of a puzzle. To get it right, we need to be able to predict what type of memory will stick from a given experience and what emotional quality it will have in the future. This means that doing memory creation has a strategic component — strategy being that process that links us to a given future result.

Interesting stuff, me thinks. And it tells us something about how our individual ecologies work. My rather modest point is that we walk around the planet as active strategic problems. It is part of our identity as human. And we should recognize this cunundrum as part of the good life. So far so good. But here is the odd consequence —doing strategic thinking well has a social dimension. It is in part role playing. So we need to be ready to take on different roles as needed to make strategy work. As Roger Martin points out, those roles may include the “strategic thinker” — the one developing the strategic conception. They may also include the “leader” — the one responsible to implement the strategy. Notice that in the corporate world, these are not the same people. In our setting, where we are formulating and implementing our own strategic ideas for ourselves, they are separate dimensions of the ecology that we need in order to develop the happy self over time that we call “me”.

Well, at least that is one way to look at it.


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