Take in your surroundings for a moment. Hold your eyes still. Can you distinguish multiple colors through your eyes at this moment? It’s easy to believe we possess that ability, but it’s an illusion. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; nearly all of the narrative that we are tell ourselves (“What’s happening? What am I doing and why am I doing it ?”) bears only passing resemblance to what’s provably taking place — and that’s a good thing. Although you may have had a challenging journey you still remain in the game.
Neuroscience studies (nicely summarized in Nick Chater’s book The Mind is Flat) demonstrate that in fact our optical sensing system can resolve only one color at a time; our eyes have to jump around in discontinuous movements called saccades to sense color via rapid, involuntary movements. What we consciously see is a mental construction — painted automatically for us on a canvas of neurons in the brain, continuously applying new layers of detail as our eyes and our other senses allow the brain to apply patterns we’ve internalized (and seek out new patterns). Our narratives are fundamentally no different; the illusions we weave are simultaneously essential to our existence and fatally flawed. Accepting this paradox is deeply uncomfortable; humans will try everything else first.
Yet the evidence is all there. It’s well documented that within the brain we omit on that canvas what we don’t want to see, frequently add things that don’t actually exist, and some of the canvas can be hidden from our conscious awareness (evidence of that comes from a surprising condition — called blindsight — whose existence carries enormous implication). What scientists once hoped to see clearly in the structures of the brain (for example, an area in the brain which is meant for storing memories and little else) remains elusive even as they understand more than ever about how we generate the physical neural connections associated with learning.
Conscious thinking can only interact with this simplified mental canvas, not the rich complexity of reality.
When confronting these cognitive illusions, it’s initially tempting to consider the alternative myth popularized in The Matrix (in which the material universe turns out to be a computer simulation). Aspects of this idea can be helpful; others present huge practical issues. Life contains too many infinite repeating patterns (fractals); no number of humans, machines or other forms of intelligence can precompute them. More possibilities for humans exist than we as individuals or organizations could ever hope to imagine; we could dedicate our entire remaining life to nothing else but seeking out original ideas and still never come close to exhausting the list of viable possibilities (thus COVID-19 feels significantly less than world-ending in reality; we’re effectively killing off our unsustainable, unhealthy illusions the hard way).
No choice in life is more powerful than embracing and learning from that which we don’t yet understand. If you don’t know where to begin (or think you know enough already), start with your outgroup. Make it smaller. Yes, that’s right. How you choose to explore doesn’t matter; the goal is to move beyond your default programming.
Most of the time human choose the stick with their programming simply because it’s understandable: we double-down on any legible story, maps, or model that resonates with us, picking our battles and choosing sides through calculated manipulation. Life is zero-sum in this telling: a game to be controlled. The gameplay is brutally simple. If you haven’t mastered the rules, that’s not a problem: thousands of coaches are standing by to help you improve your game. Sooner or later we sense the game is bullshit, but we tell ourselves the alternative is worse so we press on. Why?
The answer is not as simple as engaging in more self-discipline or letting go of your logic and embracing emotion. In fact, the evidence shows we don’t have to choose between “finding your authentic self” through better self-awareness or perfecting your “false self” by manipulating your actions to better match the story you intend to tell. Your story never had a chance to begin with. The illusions that created it exist mainly to keep you moving forward and out of harm’s way, not to accurately model the infinite complexity of reality.
For half a lifetime I’ve been observing— and attempting to master— the secrets of life’s fractal patterns. Their repeating self-similarity produces mesmerizing imagery, landscapes, weather, ecosystems, cities, music, culture, and even your conscious experience. Our attraction to fractal patterns is by design: their presence helps persuade us the canvas we paint with them inside the brain is indistinguishable from reality itself. This grand illusion is incredibly potent: essential to our survival yet dangerously toxic under abuse. Like fish who rarely consider the water in which they swim, we can’t appreciate our reliance on the fractal pattern until trauma forces an uncomfortable confrontation with that reality.
2019 was my fractal reckoning; I’m ahead of the curve
Google delivered the initial blow in April; it was late December before I could properly frame the unexpected journey that followed. Frederic Perucci’s The American Trap was fresh on my mind as I sequestered myself into a Marriott in the center of Moscow, appreciative that my former employer’s blindside didn’t get me jailed, unlike Frederic. My new wife and I moved to London in 2018 so our most immediate risk had merely been losing UK residency. What emerged from that pressure was an unexpected breakthrough that continues to transform my worldview and profession.
Transformations are hard to convey because conscious experience (including its context: the framing we use to tell ourselves and others what we’re doing) is constructed with fractal patterns that only become visible through traumatic change. COVID-19 offers a good example of this in action, and we continue to see the repeating story cascade throughout society. This repeating self-similarity is what distinguishes a fractal (infinite repetition of the same pattern at every scale) from a story (clear beginning → emotional arc through middle → ending; all done).
Within the brain one finds continuous feedback loops, repeatedly re-interpreting the story we tell about our present state. We call on an expanding collection of patterns we’ve learned (themselves fractal), our emotions automatically filtering out subtle details and adjusting our framing until patterns mesh and our mental canvas becomes legible as if by magic.
At first my transformation relied heavily on exploring concept practiced by the inhabitants of Okinawa; they call it Ikigai. The goal for those who practice this philosophy is to maximize convergence across these aspects of our life:
What you love (your passion)
What the world needs (your mission)
What you are good at (your vocation)
What you can get paid for (your profession)
There’s no particular destination implied and that’s by design; nobody but you can be certain what might solve all four equations at any given moment in time for you (and you won’t even know for sure until it happens). And the answer is never permanent. it’s also fundamentally fractal: logic, emotion, and a willingness to experiment is required to get to better place with each new iteration. It’s a repeating process; we don’t arrive in one shot.
The fractal shape of this Romanesco Broccoli was created through selected breeding by 15th century Italian farmers. Humans instantly recognize there’s something deeply beautiful about patterns like these; what makes them compelling to us is visual self-similarity: smaller pieces look the same as the whole.
Mountain ranges, river systems, tree branches, root systems, and even our lungs show the same fractal. Construction follows a simple pattern: take a basic form (the initiator), branch each segment of that form with a new form (the generator), and repeat, again and again. With each repetition the result becomes more sophisticated; the formula itself looks absurdly simple in comparison. The process of repetition is known as iteration (what attracts us is the resulting recursion). Weather and markets are typical; end conditions resulting from one iteration get fed back as starting conditions for the next.
Sometimes dangerous amplification (like painful audio feedback that happens when someone with a microphone gets too close to a speaker) forces us to take action (this was the case with COVID-19). As Mandlebrot so elegantly put it, we pay close attention when we sense wild conditions are possible (and we relax when mild conditions dominate). We still need our wild, emotional side to propel us forward and our mild, analytical side to keep us safe. These two halves make us whole.
Humans succeed in learning and applying fractal patterns because of the automatic thinking in our brain. This part we can influence but don’t directly control. Learned patterns drive emotional responses that continually nudge us towards legible pattern and away from chaos. Our ongoing survival absolutely depends on it — yet also leaves us vulnerable to manipulation. Fake news cannot be “solved” in practice for this reason alone. Jarring disconnects regularly send us seeking a meaningful narrative to explain what got us to the present moment; constructing these stories is the essence of being human. But none of those stories can replace the complex, emergent interplay between the continuous, analog computation of emotion and the discrete, digital thought processes that drive our consciousness.
Our conscious life feels resonant and real to us because it was painted with countless layers of fractal pattern — some of which trace back millions of years, but it’s not reality; our mental map is not the territory.
What you perceive is not reality — yet feels as if it is.
Conscious thought cannot act sooner than 100 milliseconds after what takes place in real time; we will always be attempting to catch up and act on the current moment by comparing with simplified patterns we’ve internalized. By definition, these models lack the infinite richness and complexity that exists in a much deeper and complex reality. Yet we rarely consider how superficially we interact with that rich reality. Moreover, we start out biased in everything we sense because our conscious thinking arrives with nearly all its objects pre-labeled and context attached via automatic thinking we can’t directly control.
Humans nevertheless posess incredibly evolved pattern-matching ability. In fact we would have to work almost impossibly hard just to unsee pre-bundled context and labels. Some optical illusions simply can’t be unseen even when we know they’re fooling us, although certain forms of brain damage have allowed us to make incredibly progress here.
Amazing and disturbing in all its implications, human cognition is full of paradox: new learning cannot avoid navigating via flawed ancient patterns and language; our logic can never be fully divorced from emotional roots; and quite predictably, our choices mostly avoid what we can’t rationalize. Within the brain, we continuously receive bundles of potential choices to evaluate, accompanied by emotions and expectations our automatic thinking has already identified.
Since humans tend to automatically follow low-effort patterns (“path of least resistance”) and reality is infinitely complex, there’s no time for anything close to a full consideration of our choices through conscious awareness. Even with the best of intentions, the most “woke” among us cannot escape these practical limitations even at their most sincere. Still fewer opportunities for considered choice can be recognized by the artificial life forms that absorb us (like corporations and nations).
Nevertheless as individuals (and organizations) we can exercise our level of conscious choice with impressive levels of self-programming — when we chose to use this ability. At any given moment, we can apply our energy to the assembly of a new fractal pattern by actively modifying or linking existing patterns we’ve collected…or minimize our effort by continuing to iterate patterns already internalized. Every day brings thousands of these small bundled choices. The real question then becomes: what do we choose to do with those moments — and why?
Each bundle choice and option we frame out contains important emotional roots: search them out and to receive surprising insights. Was a behavior pattern selected out of hope and joy? Fear and dread? Anger and frustration? Trust and obligation? Sadness? Anticipation? Surprise? Disgust? Multiple roots and contradictory emotions can emerge. Study of those roots will produce understanding of what’s actually driving existing fractal patterns and to identify promising opportunities for establishing new ones.
You’ll establish new fractal patterns quickly if you connect them to your oldest and strongest existing patterns.
My own fractal journey connects to my earliest identifiable fractal behavior patterns, established in my pre-verbal years as the oldest of 9 children raised by a headstrong Mormon mother. In them I find hope for moral authority, joy of exploration, suppression of undesirable emotion, and rejection of youth or ordinary life. I didn’t invent my fractal patterns — I started with a copy of those established by parents, culture and religion long before I was conceived…then continued creating my own. Decades later fractal patterns continue iterating over my life in predictable and surprising ways.
Every person and organization has their own dominant fractal behavior patterns; you’ll know you’ve nailed yours when it can be recognized small and large across any timescale of your life. Finding it can require the assistance of others, because we become blind over time to automatic patterns which become predictable constants within our life; rarely are we successful at immediately tracing the underlying root of our emotions and actions to their true source buried deep in our fractal consciousness.
We’re pre-programmed with the basic desire to understand ourselves and be understood by others —in a word, to become legible — and share these narratives socially. Legibility makes our patterns easier to share but can come at a steep price. Highly legible patterns often prove to be oversimplifications. They can further disconnect us from reality, reduce our effectiveness, and make us vulnerable to deception, disillusion, alienation, and tribal domination.
A constant stream of legible narratives will always be visible to us in the media, doing battle with shrill voices whose identifiable emotional roots debate highly legible framing that society is rarely prepared to accept. Reframing these problems (and therefore solutions) is possible only when we let go of the toxic gameplay of grandstanding and prioritize making our outgroups smaller.
Similar but less visible battles are waged daily within the artificial life forms that absorb us: corporations, governments, and institutions of every flavor. The most effective of these simultaneously risk entrapment within their dominating fractal patterns. Amazon’s revolution in supply chain efficiency risks dehumanizing employees (and driving talent loss). Google’s unique patterns of self-delusion enabled incredible value to be unlocked for all of us via search, web, and mobile but also devolved into destabilizing culture warfare. Delusional thinking that would have self-corrected with feedback their ecosystems partners during product development instead causes product launch failures and frequent product changes.
We can identify crisp patterns emerging from anything with a culture, and when we frame them right, applying them explains the otherwise inexplicable. Awash in information, our institutions rarely sense or resolve fractal pattern conflict. The good news: resonance can be orchestrated and dissonance contained if we frame things properly.
In fact, studies demonstrate we’re far more likely to win against statistically stronger opponents when we acknowledge weaknesses and play to our strengths. We cannot stop the passage of time or the obtain instant mastery of something we don’t already possess but we have incredible discretion to exercise what we have by reframing. Yet most of us prefer to hide our fractal patterns from unexpected discovery: this not only requires sustained effort (typically employed diverting others’ attention), but it’s ultimately pointless because no pattern can hide forever if its search is given enough human attention and engagement.
I had convinced myself that my own hiding techniques actually worked: limiting close friendships, diverting attention from myself by seeking out fresh ideas and technology, and avoiding routine by expanding my cultural comfort zone into more foreign places. These came with useful side benefits to be sure, but hiding my patterns only served to delay their discovery and add friction. Happiness and fulfilment are more likely to find us when we embrace all of what makes us who we are — even patterns we wish we didn’t have. We need both our authentic, emotional core as well as the “false self” whose storytelling helps us feel that we know what’s going on, even though these are both driven in part by a degree of self-delusion and oversimplification. These keep us alive, and can help us stay humble and able able to learn.
No matter which journey pattern we chose, the machine in our possession retains amazing versatility. Human society at the start of 2020 can still orchestrate new forms of artificial life — not sentient robots but institutions constructed out of humans. We’ve had thousands of years to compose forms of governments, schools, and commercial organizations as collections of human value networks. In that time these networks produced immense overall value to society despite concentrating much of that resulting wealth and creating massive impacts on our planet’s ecosystems.
We can improve the way in which we construct them. Silicon Valley venture capitalists added aggressive experimentation into their investment thesis to program an entire generation of new artificial life to succeed or fail quickly, generating value where most of society doubted it could exist. In Europe, applied research among educational, scientific, and commercial institutions evolved commercial solutions much faster and frequently launches new startups and joint ventures with advanced technology. In Asia and many overlooked parts of the globe, decentralized technologies like blockchain are rapidly creating new forms of value exchange that transcend national boundaries. Global efforts fusing these powerful forces into a multi-disciplinary renaissance are pressing forward. We need it more than ever as we pass through the event horizon of this network age; going back to life without the Internet or social networks is as unthinkable now as today’s web was three decades ago, but we can all tell that society is changing from that starting point.
Measuring actual value produced and predicting where new value will arise remains an amazingly primitive exercise. Fractal patterns hold the key to more effective measurement and programming, and I’ve been searching out new approaches that incorporate them. My favorite is the powerful mapping model pioneered by Simon Wardley (itself inspired by Sun Tzu and John Boyd) which includes a collection he calls doctrine patterns. These make legible many of the fractal patterns that already exist in corporations; the need for programming them into corporate culture gave Simon his current research focus which is systematically deconstructing that culture and looking ahead to new forms of industrialization.
Ultimately the specific terminology we use for developing these new methodologies is not so important. The question is how quickly we can recognize the patterns we need to change: if we don’t want to be trapped in a world of endless corporate storytelling that nobody finds credible, we must develop a more effective approach and I believe that approach must be fractal. Simon happens to call his approach mapping, which I like (I’m a fan of every kind of map, actually).
Framing that map won’t prevent companies and people back into into their linear thinking and storytelling traps, but it will help them ask better questions about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. I keep coming back to fractals because they’re the patterns that actually drive our ecosystems, companies, humans, animals, and plants. Fractals are the functions behind the map. One can always derive a map from a fractal (just iterate those fractal patterns and boom — there it is) but it’s much harder to go backwards and reverse-engineer the fractal functions that create the map. We ultimately need both.
Add the slightest bit of randomness to these fractal formulas, computing the exact future state — forecasting — becomes a game of probabilities that must contend with ever-increasing margins of error even if the formula is perfect: the instability that results is technically known as chaos. It’s the underlying reason why nobody can perfectly predict the stock market, the weather or our partner’s emotions ahead of time. However we can still use our knowledge of fractal patterns to understand the patterns and the dynamics that engage people and organizations and remove a lot of unnecessary friction from the journeys we choose to take together.
Studying the fractal patterns in organizations enabled me to map, measure and improve the flow of value across their associated value networks during the course of my career. Within the technology industry, I applied these routine concepts intuitively to drive more impact from partnership engagements, but when I left Google last July, I knew a more systematic approach to journey alignment might prove valuable. Graph databases had matured and this unlocked a powerful method to model the flow of value in our organizations and ecosystems, and intuitively I could sense that effective value orchestration will require graph databases the same way investors need spreadsheets.
New value creation among people and organizations always involves establishing a basic fractal pattern, then iterating it: someone must start by offering (or accepting — this is the chicken-and-egg) a value-creating journey to the right participant at the right time. Taking these journeys is perhaps the most basic form of fractal programming, and it is happening constantly among humans and our most powerful artificial life forms: our corporations, schools, religions, communities, nations, and other social constructs. Awareness of our fractal patterns is essential to sensing and removing unnecessary friction for participants in such journeys.
Increasingly, we’re taking these journey steps virtually, mediated by the powerful computers we keep in our pocket, so if we want to remove the most friction possible, our journeys must work on the web and our mobile devices just as well (if not better) than they do face-to-face. When we really want to get things done, we apply our fractal patterns. We’re intimately familiar with them; we trust them. Our story today will die off and we’ll have a new one tomorrow.
Our fractal patterns stay with us forever.