“We are great at handling complexity until things get really, really complex.”
uman beings are fantastic at handling complexity. We are creative, connected, and able to take the uncertainty and confusion of our lives and transform them into art and poetry, into household appliances and skyscrapers. Humans have been wonderful at metabolizing difficulty into creativity and innovation for thousands of years.
But there is a paradox here: These inner resources—our genius for handling complexity—are mostly available to us during times of ease. Yes, we can occasionally innovate in the eye of the hurricane; however, by and large, we spend hurricanes underneath the bed and then come out and innovate afterward. We have evolved to have short bursts of incredibly stressful times where we have to fight or race away or hide and then long stretches of time where we collaborate to create something more effective for the next burst of difficulty.
Herein lies the paradox: We are great at handling complexity until things get really, really complex.
One can trace this to our nervous system or, rather, to the two parts that make up our nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system is often called the fight or flight system. It is the one that is always ready for action, perfect for short bursts of physical challenge or threat as we prepare to move our bodies to save our lives. Our breath gets shallow, pumping oxygen quickly into our largest muscles so that we can run. We get hyper-focused, with our peripheral vision actually disappearing. And we get incredibly sensitive to danger, ready to lash out at—or run from—anything that might be threatening us. Even if the threat is not physical, the reaction is physical. Think back to the last scary movie you watched: your heart beating faster, your stomach churning, your palms sweating, and your muscles tight. There might have been zero threat to your body, but your sympathetic nervous system prepared for bodily threat all the same.
This dance of the nervous system has worked for humans for tens of thousands of years; however, these days, the rhythm has lost its beat.
Then, the scene changes on the screen—or in our lives—and the other part of our nervous system; the parasympathetic nervous system takes charge. Sometimes called the “connect and create” nervous system, this system slows our heartbeat and our breathing and opens us to noticing details that are not about threat but about possibility. Our life-giving systems—our digestive systems, endocrine systems, reproductive systems—just go ahead and do their thing. Our immune system pumps up, our vision expands, and the conditions are created for neurogenesis, the creation of new connections in our brain. Now, we are wired for play, connection, and creativity with a wide focus and the more complex view that is required for humor and for innovation.
This dance of the nervous system has worked for humans for tens of thousands of years; however, these days, the rhythm has lost its beat. Remember, the complexity paradox is that our bodies sense complexity as a threat—and our bodily response is what it would be with any physical threat. But what we need from our bodies in complexity is all that makes us great at innovation and creativity, which unfortunately is turned off during exactly the complex moment we need it most. Worse, the washing machine of the modern world is always churning up new difficulties that make life more complex: The Coronavirus, shifting work patterns, inflation, climate change, political unrest, and war are each experienced as danger. Each of these turns on the sympathetic nervous system just when we need the parasympathetic.
But there is good news here too. We do not need to rely on our malfunctioning autopilot. We can choose our own response and switch on the part of the nervous system we want, rather than just accepting what automatically arrives. Simply understanding this switch helps us use it with grace. Here are a few ideas.
First, we must attend to our bodies. Many of us behave as if our bodies are the sometimes-annoying vehicles that carry our brain from meeting to meeting. When we ignore them, we do not even notice when we are activated, so we cannot do anything about that activation. The easiest move is to change one’s breathing: Longer, slower exhales awaken our parasympathetic goodness. Five deep breaths will actually switch us out of our sympathetic activation.
Second, we must attend to our emotions. We tend to believe that our emotions are like the weather—they arise and pass through us, leaving sunshine or mud puddles, and there is little we can do about it. Worse, we often do not even admit to ourselves when the weather is stormy. We yell at our children that we are not angry, and we send a passive-aggressive email to a colleague while insisting that we are not frustrated. But we can shape our emotions just as they shape us. The simplest move is to notice the emotion of certainty and switch it to curiosity. Certainty often comes alongside the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. It marches us forward and cuts off our peripheral vision. To get a fuller view, ask “How might I be wrong here?” This opens us up to curiosity and to the genius of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Finally, we must build the life for our complexity genius. Here is the big news from our exploration of the complexity paradox: We need to evolve ourselves and our lives to keep up with the way the world is unfolding. The best part of this news is that what is great for handling complexity is also delightful for us. What I have learned in my research (and in my work with thousands of clients) is that we can shape the conditions of our lives in ways that make us better at handling complexity and, at the same time, make us happier and more fulfilled. Designing our lives so that they are more filled with both the things that feed the body (like more sleep and movement) as well as the things that feed our emotions (like more laughter and love) awakens our complexity genius and will ultimately help us be more creative and connected as we face the complex challenges of our times.
Jennifer Garvey Berger is the co-founder of the consultancy Cultivating Leadership and the co-author of the new book Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead, which was released in August with Stanford University Press.