Atomic Habits highlights something the Japanese have known for millennia

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Systems thinking versus goal thinking

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

James Clear

Goals are finite. They have a beginning, when you set them. A middle, when you’re working on them. And a definitive end, when you’re done with them.

Unless you have yet another related goal in mind, when you’re finished with one goal, you’re kind of done.

That’s it.

That’s all she wrote.

What’s worse is that this doesn’t matter whether you achieve the goal or not.

If you achieve it, great! Well done! If you don’t, you’re worthless. Should probably go home right now.

So what’s the solution?

Systems thinking.

James Clear’s book Atomic Habits has a comprehensive argument why goals are out, and systems are in.

Systems thinking is having an ongoing process. Rather than working towards one thing at a time, you’re working on a system that purposely has no end. A system that these goals are simply a side effect of.

In system thinking, the goal isn’t the goal. It may be part of it, but it isn’t the be all and end all. The goal is a system that keeps you striving not matter what goals you achieve along the way.

Sound familiar? It should.

道, Do or Michi is the path or the way.

With this path, there is no end.

It’s a consistent and constant process of betterment. It’s about improving yourself at every step in the aims of improvement, but not with one single goal in mind.

If there were to be a goal, it would consciously, knowingly, and willingly keep shifting.

Just like systems thinking.

I remember an interview with a now elderly kendo practitioner. They said that they only really felt any semblance of mastery after practicing for twenty-odd years. That the thing with the way is that you get better incrementally over time. So that by the time you’ve done it for years, you’ve benefitted from the passing of time.

This is straight up systems thinking. And its been part of Japanese culture for millennia now.

Sado, the way of tea, tea ceremony. Kado, the way of flowers, flower arranging. Judo, the way of the passive. Kendo, the way of the sword. In my case, Shugendo, the way of gaining supernatural powers through ascetic training.

The way is straight up systems thinking.

All of these are about the way in which we improve. Not through setting goals, but through setting up systems within which the goals are mere milestones.

This way, whether you succeed or fail in a goal, you still have something more to strive for. You still have a chance for betterment, and that goal isn’t simply forgotten. It’s added into the mix, and it helps you as you go along the way.



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Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

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Sakata City, Yamagata, Japan

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