Open Thinkering


Tag: Heraclitus

Life has no instruction manual

I’m currently reading a book entitled Jimmy the Kid, in which hapless criminals decide to kidnap the child of a wealthy man after being inspired by a novel. As you’d imagine, things don’t exactly go to plan.

It’s reminded me of the futility of complaining that things haven’t turned out as you expected, when ‘what you expected’ was your life to replicate someone else’s. Rifling through pages in an attempt to find answers, as the protagonists of the Jimmy the Kid do on a number of occasions, doesn’t work. Nor does it’s modern-day equivalent of scouring social media, videos, and even blog posts like this one.

Even the same person in a similar context is unlikely to replicate the exact steps that previously led to success. As Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher noted, you can’t step into the same river twice; not only has the river changed, but you have changed. So it’s not possible to uncritically take advice from people who have achieved success and apply it to your own context.

I think this is why I’m finding the work on my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice so useful. It’s not the academic side of it that I’m finding so difficult (and interesting) but the application of it to my professional and personal life. The danger, of course, for any reflective person is in over-thinking everything.

Ultimately, there may well be an optimal strategy and approach for every situation. But identifying and implementing that in the moment is difficult based on the incomplete information we are likely to have on hand, distorted by our biases and previous experiences, and approached through the heuristics we have developed.

The only solution to this is to keep learning. Or, in the words of Alvin Toffler, to “learn, unlearn, and relearn”. Unlearning is difficult, and until I came across this free e-book from Casco Art Institute (a rather hefty PDF) I hadn’t seen many specific exercises for doing so.

So, no, life has no instruction manual. But that’s a fact that can liberate us to create our own futures, together, without being hamstrung by previous ‘best practice’ or ‘what worked last time’.

Everything flows

When I read physical books, I have a tendency to rip off pieces of whatever I’m using as a bookmark to mark interesting sections. The trouble is, I rarely actually return to them, so even my favourite books feature lots of little bits of paper sticking out of the top.

I recently finished Wintering by Katherine May, which I enjoyed immensely. Reading it at the right time of the year certainly helped. I’ve already shared a quotation from it about the liminal space between Christmas and New Year. I thought I’d share a couple more from towards the end of the book.

The first involves May’s reflections on beehives and how they’ve been used as a metaphor for human society:

[B]efore we’re too enchanted by the machine-like efficiency of the utopian human beehive, we must remember the true lives of bees. They are certainly astonishing. Their specialisation — and their sheer will to survive — is miraculous. But their lives are also full of stark efficiencies. In the middle of winter, the area around my favourite beehive is littered with the corpses of the bees that were no longer useful…

Let us not aspire to be like ants and bees. We can draw enough wonder from their intricate systems of survival without modelling ourselves on them wholesale. Humans are not eusocial; we are not nameless units in a superorganism, mere cells that are expendable when we have reached the end of our useful lives.

Katherine May, Wintering, p.235

Writing pre-pandemic, May couldn’t have had our society’s COVID-19 response in mind. However, I can’t help but think of that when reading this.

The second quotation references Alan Watts, someone who pops up time as an influence on people who influence me:

As I walk, I remind myself of the words of Alan Watts: ‘To hold your breath is to lose your breath.’ In The Wisdom of Insecurity, Watts makes a case that always convinces me, but which I always seem to forget: that life is, by nature, uncontrollable. That we should stop trying to finalise our comfort and security somehow and instead find a radical acceptance of the endless, unpredictable change that is the very essence of this life.

Katherine May, Wintering, p.263

This chimes well with my two biggest insights from last year, and reminds me of one of my favourite ideas from pre-Socratic philosophy:

Everything flows.


This is often rendered as something like, “You cannot step into the same river twice” but I prefer the simpler, and more widely-applicable two word version. It is only when we try to stop things flowing that we run into difficulties.

This post is Day 81 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at