The Science of Muddling Through

I’m finding that the byproduct of a personally transformative journey – characterized by constant reflection on self and surroundings – is a persistent sense that “the universe keeps trying to tell me things”. I’ve even described a few such moments in my writing, as though I’m the holder of a blind belief that the planets have aligned so as to guide me, specifically, toward some spiritual awakening.

The truth is that I’m sure those ‘signs’ were always there – and not just for me. The universe (or its bearded, cloud-dwelling proxy) tells us all a lot of things, all the time. For instance, did you know that Burger King is currently offering a two-for-$5 deal? It came to me as a sign yesterday…on a big lit board right out front of their restaurant. What are the chances?? And then, on my way back from my $10 smorgasbord of regret, I hit seemingly every red light – clearly the universe scolding me for my life choices. Is anyone else getting a really eerie feeling right now? Way too many coincidences here…

My last post dealt with interpretation of reality – wherein the fact that you and I may perceive different signals from the world around us probably comes down to (roughly) the same set of stimuli registering differently in our minds, for whatever reason. Because chances are, assuming we live in substantively similar physical environments, the stimuli to which we’re exposed are not actually all that different. And by the same token, any sense that the stimuli to which you’re exposed are changing (a la “guys, I keep seeing all these signs”) is probably just a matter of your own perception shifting – for, once again, whatever reason.

So in my present circumstance, it occurs to me that the ‘universe’ was probably giving me all the appropriate ‘signs’ all along, and maybe even getting a little frustrated by my continued ignorance for so many years:

Universe (1982-2016): You know, you could really consider this different approach to things…

Me (1982-2016): If I pose at just the right angle, this bathroom mirror makes me look really muscular.

Universe: …

Me (late 2016): You know, I think the Universe is trying to tell me something.

Universe: … Are you fucking serious? …


Cue my conversation with a friend the other night, during which he introduced me to the concept of ‘Incrementalism‘, which – courtesy of Wikipedia – is “a method of working by adding to a project using many small incremental changes instead of a few (extensively planned) large jumps”. Exposure to this term/concept was, of course, the universe’s way of telling me that I’m on the right track.

(This is the part where I move from poking fun at the idea that the universe speaks to me or others directly, to a cursory discussion of a concept that I think is pretty cool and very applicable to what I’m currently working on.)

Incrementalism is – if you evaluate the concept at all – a pretty intuitive thing. (This is even mentioned in the Wikipedia article.) Nonetheless, I do like the explicit acknowledgment that it carries: the idea that, often, the best way to make an ostensibly large change is just to jump in and figure things out, bit by bit. Particularly as someone who has mostly spent his life acting to maximize security and minimize risk, it can be very tempting to get caught up in meticulous planning of any new pursuit. Wanna get in shape? Better research all the various fitness regimens out there to make sure you’re picking the best one… Time to clean up your eating habits? Great – now just set aside six months to read up on every dietary philosophy there is. You wouldn’t want to get this wrong, would you? Your health is at stake here!

Or, you know, don’t.

Maybe just get out and go for a walk. Put down the éclair. You can figure the rest out as you go.

There are a variety of ways in which this concept applies to what I’m doing at the moment. For starters, I did – by the grace of whatever put that Burger King sign in my path yesterday – manage to let go of the idea that I needed to have everything figured out before jumping off the safe, secure, soul-destroying 9-to-5 mothership. Truth be told, before that point, I had every intention of one day making the leap. But, you know, I had to “figure things out” first. Until I realized that I…just didn’t. And you know what? Even as I still have lots to learn and achieve, I haven’t felt a moment of regret since, and my confidence that I will indeed figure things out is growing by the minute.

More broadly, my particular business venture represents – by necessity – a plainly incrementalist approach to a very Big Idea. An idea so big, in fact, that I’ve found myself to feel weird even talking about it. Here’s the unrestrained truth of what I’m picturing: a world in which people consider the propensity to help others as being just as fulfilling as (if not moreso than) financial wealth. That is, a world in which people are willing to forego certain material comforts in favor of using (some of) their resources to help others – in recognition that it actually feels honest-to-goodness better to do so.

Crazy, right? That’s what I’m saying – I don’t like articulating the grand vision, because of how far-fetched it is. But here’s the thing: I think what strikes people as “crazy” in these situations is the dreamer’s suggestion that he might actually be able to accomplish the thing he dreams about. Indeed, delusions of grandeur are found in the literature of psychopathology…

So let me be clear that I’m actually not suggesting that I have the ability to accomplish the thing I’m dreaming about… BUT, is it crazy for my pursuits to draw inspiration from that practically unattainable vision? My money’s on no. And as much as I wasn’t explicitly familiar with the concept until a couple of days ago, I think this is incrementalism at its finest. There’s a reason why the familiar platitude encourages you to “be the change you want to see”, and not to “give up if you can’t make a big difference”.

Incrementalism, as a concept, apparently has its roots in the work of a political scientist in the 1950s who wrote a relevant essay entitled The Science of Muddling Through. I haven’t read it, but I have a hunch that I already get the gist of what it covers and – even if I’m way off – I absolutely love its title. Because isn’t this the most beautiful form of discovery? As does the child who learns about the world through hands-on play, so should the vaguely balding corporate peon setting out to “change the world”, keeping his eyes open to whatever guiding signs the universe may offer along the way.

I couldn’t be more content to just be…sort of…muddling through.



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