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If You Look Up "Systems Analysis" in the Dictionary...
You'll find me! Why recognizing the systems that shape our lives is a critical skill for creating a satisfying life in the 21st-century economy (plus, an announcement!)
If you look up "systems analysis" in the dictionary, you'll find my name.
That's not a joke. It's true.
Every so often, I google my name to see if there has been any new press for my book or podcast. And Thursday morning, when I did so, I was surprised to see the Merriam-Webster website in the results. I clicked, figuring that it had to be a fluke.
It wasn't. Under the definition of "systems analysis," there is a section titled "Recent Examples on the Web." And within that section, along with a few other citations, is a bit of text from an article I wrote for Quartz last year in which I used the term.
This is one of the most oddly satisfying things I've ever come across on the web.
So, what is systems analysis?
Well, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it means:
the act, process, or profession of studying an activity (such as a procedure, a business, or a physiological function) typically by mathematical means in order to define its goals or purposes and to discover operations and procedures for accomplishing them most efficiently
Other than the "mathematical" part, this is consistent with how I use the term—and why, as per my Quartz article, I believe that it's an essential skill for the 21st-century economy.
My life's two guiding questions have been, "Why do we believe what we believe? And how do those beliefs influence our behavior?"
Really, I just want to know why people do the confounding (to me, an autistic person) things they do. Systems analysis is the answer.
In my book, I look at a specific confounding behavior—overcommitment. When I started reflecting on my own overcommitment (i.e., agreeing to more than I had capacity for), I discovered that I committed to projects or responsibilities because I sought the validation they might bring. So the first system I encountered was one of validation-seeking.
Then I needed to consider why I had unconsciously created this ad hoc validation-seeking system for myself. That was easy: a lack of self-worth and confidence in my usefulness. It would be easy to stop there, of course, and assume the deficit was my own. But I kept digging for systems.
I noticed that there were systems that assumed my lack of self-worth and encouraged me to "fix" myself (see also: the self-help industry). I also noticed that my lack of self-worth fed the capital system by simultaneously convincing me to work harder and harder to prove myself while encouraging me to buy more stuff to solve my problems or ease my suffering.
Deeper and deeper into the well of systems analysis I could go. But just from these initial findings, I can say that I overcommit because I seek validation. I seek validation because I lack self-worth. I lack self-worth because whole industries exist to remind me that I'm not enough. And those industries exist to extract wealth from my pain.
Okay, I know that sounds dark.
But recognizing this is hugely liberating!
I don't have to beat myself up for over-committing. I don't have to see a lack of self-worth as a personal problem. I don't have to keep searching for solutions to buy. And I can divest myself from industries that perpetuate all of that.
From there, I'm likely to be much more successful in addressing the behavior I want to change.
This kind of systems analysis also works for other people's behavior.
For me, systems analysis is a form of empathy.
I consider someone's behavior and then look for the systems that person is situated within. There's always a good bit of overlap between systems I've already examined for myself and the systems that they're working within. But often, there are systems I haven't yet accounted for—big "meta" systems like racism, heterosexism, and colonialism, as well as smaller, more intimate systems like family, office politics, and personal economy.
When I see any particular behavior as a product of systems, I better understand not only why it's happening but what a caring, humane response might be.
I learned this as an interpersonal skill to deal with autism's "double-empathy problem."1 But it's a skill that benefits everyone to learn. Whether on a social, economic, or interpersonal level, systems analysis is a crucial skill for living and working with people who are different from you. Instead of projecting our own fears, conditioning, or modus operandi on others, systems analysis reminds us to be curious about what is really happening, what is actually creating the result we see in front of us.
Does that take some effort? Absolutely! But it's well worth it.
When I spoke withabout his forthcoming book, Team Habits, one of the first things he said was that "systems are enduring and self-correcting." In practice, that means that unacknowledged systems will not only continue to exist, they'll also repair and maintain themselves. Without keen systems analysis, we take the pressure that could (and I would argue should) be put on systems to change and place instead at the feet of individual people.
When systems analysis becomes part of how we work with and relate to others, we are able to see people more fully.
We acknowledge the wide scope of their humanity. We blame less and empathize more.
A 12-week Training Program for Coaches, Trainers, Strategists, and Guides of All Kinds
There is a direct connection between the beliefs we've internalized by just existing within our cultural, political, and economic systems…
…and the often painful and alienating consequences they lead to.
By acknowledging this connection and identifying the systems at play, we can realize more personal agency and work toward more collective well-being. When we wrestle with our deeply held beliefs, we can reconstruct new practices and tell new stories about how we can move through the world. Little by little, we begin to break down the systems that harm us and build up the practices that create a satisfying life.
This September, I'm kicking off a brand new certificate program for coaches, managers, trainers, and guides of all kinds called Work in Practice.
Over 12 weeks, we'll dig into exactly this type of systems analysis. By the end, you’ll have a new skillset for working with clients and team members that incorporates a wider lens on the many systems impacting our choices and behavior.
During the program, we’ll cover:
The root causes of habits like overwork, overdelivering, and over-functioning (hint: they’re not personal failings)
The tell-tale signs of harmful stories and assumptions in the way people talk about work (because career development and self-help guides are full of them!)
The frameworks that can help clients or team members understand their relationship to work—and how to change it
The systems—cultural, economic, and political—that shape how we identify as workers and what we expect of ourselves
If you work with people who are chronically overworking, over-committed, and overscheduling, Work In Practice will help you support their behavior change. If you work with people who say they’re done with the gospel of productivity or the ritual of the 10-hour workday but can’t seem to shake it, Work In Practice will give you tools to help them do deeper and actually do things differently.
Learn more, register, or request the syllabus:
It’s not true that autistic people lack empathy. But we often process and express empathy differently. And because difference is often interpreted as “deficit” by dominant culture, we get labeled as cold and uncaring.