Lilly-Pad Economics

We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.
R. D. Laing

I remember years ago (1962-65) when I was teaching second graders by showing pictures of a pond with one lilly pad on day 1; two on day two; four on day three, etc.  Young eyes drew large when the metaphor revealed that one day after the pond was half full, ti was full! "No way" they exclaimed.  That's when we began our own experiment accumulating rice at an exponential rate. Each day one of the students would double the grains of rice. One corner of the room got quite full and each day it took the student longer to count out the grains.  I also challenged the class to estimate how far an adding machine roll of tape would go. Such a small roll. Students estimated that one role would cross the classroom, about 35 feet.  WOW ... all the way to the principal's office! How could that be as they unrolled and unrolled. We talked about compounding interest and other such things ... project learning for 7 year olds.  We all learned a lot that year. Young minds learned to think about patterns and I think they came to know that being surprised about their assumptions was a very good thing. 

In 1965,  few people were talking about complexity or systems or non-linear change. These were concepts for the academic world, if at all.  Over the years, I have continued to explore complexity science. Our of Control, by Kevin Kelly is one of my all time great reads ... and re-reads.  I am still very much  a lay person with no formal training, but I do try and understand complexity and work within this systems thinking approach.  Nature has been one of my best teachers; it is here that I have continued to learn from exploring patterns rather than separate  and unrelated thingness.

1965 was 43 years ago! And even then, complexity science was maturing fast. It was still in the realm of academia  but looking for entrances into business and mainstream thinking.  By the early 90's it was emerging in its importance in science and biology.  By the mid-nineties Matt and I were able to get our clients to think of themselves as part of a diverse ecosystem, rather than separate stove-pipe unrelated industries.  Mostly though they thought this was a novel approach to seeing themselves, curious and interesting for the moment but not worthy of thinking about true re-organization. 

So I guess I should not be surprised now in 2008, that we have the fundamental melt down of our financial systems. Clearly this meltdown is the consequence of linear, non systemic thinking and performance.  All patterns have been invisible to the experts ... or worse, ignored. The meltdown comes from a total misunderstanding of control of the system.  Was this not anticipated by  our world leaders? I am sure this is true for many, but other things must have been going on as well.  I was given the book SWAY: the Irresistible Pull of Irrational behavior to read by one of the authors, Ori Brafman several months ago. I read it, liked it and gave a good review for it on Amazon.  But now, with our wild financial crisis happening before my eyes, I have taken another look at it.  I think the authors have put their fingers on behavior that makes us ignore ideas and possibilities that we don't like or want to be true.  I wanted to believe that we were swayed some of the time, but not most of the time.    Believe me, I am not pointing fingers because I have numerous instances when I have been swayed by stories I knew to be false but wanted so badly to have them be true that I invested in them only to learn that the little energy inside me that says, "Don't go there" was the wise one I should have listened to... and didn't. 

Today, I am re-listening to  Ira Glass tell the story The Great Pool of Money. It is clearly lilly-pond economics.  It is a great and insightful podcast to listen to.  it tells the story of all the savings in the world ... 70 trillion. It took us 250 years to amass it. However, just six years ago it was half, or 35 trillion.  I suggest everyone take the time to listen to this. Ira Glass is always entertaining, informative and understandable.

Our political leaders keep talking about 21st century strategies and policies replacing 20th century ones. What does this mean to most people? How can we begin a national dialog that helps us all re-structure our belief systems and our assumptions about money, politics, wealth and health.  We need to have large scale conversations that assist us in learning to see and hear differently. We don't need to be ill-swayed or anchored in slow moving, top down, you or me mentalities. We can do better. Hopefully some of those 7-year olds are out remembering lilly-pond economics and applying them to their livelihood.