A Short Piece

Systems Think Before Systematically Thinking

If we work hard with the wrong tool, we won’t get much done.

Photo by Sam Moqadam

The way we think about something can be just as important as how hard we think about it. If I try to hammer in a nail with a wrench, it might work, but it might also mess up the job. Nails need hammers, and there are jobs that if I try to use a hammer when a screwdriver is needed, I might break whatever it is I’m working on.

Asynchronous Conversations #Ep2

However, if we’re really good with a wrench, and we’ve been told our whole life that wrenches are all we need (or maybe we grew up in a world where the only tool ever used was a wrench), it’s likely that we’ll end up in situations where we use wrenches when we really shouldn’t.

This happens with “mental tools” and “mental models” all the time.

We are born into socially beget systems of thought that we get so used to using that they become “invisible” to us (think Heidegger’s doorknob). We don’t even see ourselves as “system thinkers” but just “thinkers”: we’re “(system) thinkers,” per se. To escape this, we need to “make the invisible visible” and become “systems thinkers,” those for whom “thinking systematically” is meaningfully possible. But for doing this, we’ll likely be rejected.


The way we think about science is different from how we think about art, yet it’s common for us to think about art like science.

The way we think about history is different from how we think about science, yet it’s easy if we’re historians to try to think about scientific problems like historical problems.

And so on.

We usually don’t think about the tools we use to think about different subjects; instead. we just use whatever we find at hand (as often selected for us by the social system) and have at it. And then we wonder why the results are poor…

When we’ve been trained by a system to think a certain way, trying to unlearn those tendencies is as hard as trying to unlearn our native language. Once we’ve grown up with English, forgetting how to speak English is difficult if not impossible.

In my view, the correct order for thinking about a problem…

Systems Think:

Determine which system or “mental model” is best for understanding x.

Systematically Thinking:

Now think logically within and according to the “mental model” we have decided is best for x.

If we skip straight to “systematically thinking” without first “systems thinking,” we might think logically and brilliantly, but we might still think incorrectly or ineffectively (using the wrong tool).

For a list of mental models, I really like Farnam Street.


The logic of “mental models” can also be used on general “systems thinking”: it could be said that models are “micro-mental tools” while systems are “macro-mental framings,” but there is plenty of crossover.

All of us think within at least one system, and if that’s the only system we think in, it probably does a lot of our thinking for us. If we’re a “system thinker” (versus “systems thinker”), there is no system: it’s “invisible” to us. Single systems only appear to those who are aware of systems: we must be pluralistic to understand singularities. So there’s a very real sense in which there is no such thing as “system thinking,” only “systems thinking,” because “system thinking” is really just “thinking” in experience (when we’re in a system and don’t realize it, which could be signified with the phrase “(system) thinking”). This is a problem.

When we’re stuck in a system, the system trains us not to think for ourselves, and so the system tends to preserve itself. To escape the single-minded thinking a system tends to incubate, we first have to realize the system is there, which entails understanding that the nature of a system is to gradually and slowly become “invisible” to us (like a doorknob gradually and slowly becomes “invisible” the more we use it and it becomes part of the house, to allude again to Heidegger).

“Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose in mind, all social orders and “givens” have the potential in them to become systems (that self-hide), and with time, they almost always do — the allure of (apparent) efficiency is too great. Once a system emerges, so tends to also emerge “monotheorism” in accordance with that system — a singular way of thinking — that gradually makes the system “invisible.” Once this occurs, the system tends to “do our thinking for us,” and then we don’t have to worry about thinking systematically, because the system takes care of that on our behalf. But problematically, if that system has us constantly using a wrench, when we encounter problems that need a hammer, we’ll try to use a wrench anyway. Very systematically too…(and so we’ll systematically make the problem worse).

Concerns about thinking systematically don’t bother people who are only “(system) thinkers,” so if we decided to be “systems thinkers,” we have extra work. Doesn’t sound like much fun, but if we don’t rise up to the challenge, it’s fairly inevitably that we will eventually face problems that our system and its corresponding thinking are not suited to solve. Additionally, we won’t think for ourselves, which might make us happier — until it suddenly doesn’t.

(Keep in mind that if we are in system x and considering options 1 and 2 within x, we are not a “systems thinker,” because we are not considering 1 and 2 through x and then 1 and 2 through y. However, 1 and 2 can feel like moving between systems, so we need to be on the lookout for that trick.)


Society naturally creates “(system) thinkers” and resists “systems thinkers.” If we are someone who exists in the “space between” systems, we might be an outsider and viewed as crazy. We might not be taken seriously, because we are so “outside the box.” Thus, if we’re “systems thinkers,” it will likely be hard for “(system) thinkers” to listen to us to learn that they are in fact “(a) system thinker(s)” (making the hidden visible).

Often it is disaster or “being a loser” in a system that gets people kicked out of a system, and then once they are outside of it (and perhaps become “systems thinkers”), they are viewed crazy, evil, and so on (possibly scapegoats, following René Girard).

Does that sound like fun?

Not at all.

Thus, there is incentive to use a wrench forever…

Everyone is naturally a “(system) thinker,” and those who become “systems thinkers” can face rejection. And yet without “systems thinking,” systematic thinking is not meaningfully possible, and it’s likely the majority of people will be limited in their mental and intellectual options. When these people encounter a problem that requires a hammer, only having a wrench, they and the society at large will suffer.

Arguably, societies fail without “systems thinkers,” and yet it seems in the nature of societies to reject them. Survival, I believe, is about managing paradoxes.




For more, please visit O.G. Rose.com. Also, please subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow us on Instagram and Facebook.

Write Launch. Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Streetlight. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. Open. UNO Finalist. Pushcart Nominee. ogrose.com

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