The word of the day: System

An assemblage; method of plan or procedure; the world or universe.

Adulthood is the key, youth the shackles. Don’t believe me? Picture a 7-year-old, full of snot, next in line at the supermarket. He’s kicking a basket along the ground, inch by inch. The basket holds his weight in cookies. The blue-hairs in line behind him are aghast. They twist their heads in search of the responsible parent. The nosy cashier peers down his apron: Does your mommy know were you are? Where are you going to do with all those cookies? How are you going to pay for those?

Seriously demeaning stuff.

It takes two decades for our protagonist to earn the benefit of the doubt. Now he’s 27, has post-nasal drip, and slides the basket with an adult foot. The other shoppers charitably assume the cookies are for his rosy-cheeked progeny. Or that he’s a Little League coach. For fanciful minds: he’s a burgeoning cookie magnate. Or he’s forced to pay a ransom to an elf.

We talk of kid gloves, but really it’s manacles. Everything at the kid’s table is less free. And smaller. Micro-aggressions for micro people. Alongside Chicken Fingers ’N’ Fries, the kid’s menu offers many pint-sized affronts to liberty. Curfews, regulations, timeouts, “because-I-said-sos.” Not to mention the insidious gaslighting disguised as polite inquiry henceforth known as The Question:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Perhaps after jabbing a child with a meat thermometer on his birthday, The Question does the best job of saying, “You’re a work in progress, kid.”

My most potent exposure to The Question was in seventh grade, when it became subject of an entire unit in Health & Guidance. Health & Guidance was not a priority class at my middle school. It’s the kind of pedagogical experience they ask a gym teacher to helm. There’s nothing in it like Canadian history or prime numbers; the syllabus was sex and our future careers. You know, totally irrelevant stuff.

I bristled then as I do now. Everyone in class showed up with a dream vocation in mind. Total cliché was apparently encouraged. I don’t remember that day’s breakdown, but this sarcastic mapping is a facsimile:

  • Artist — The kid who draws
  • Doctor — The misguided kid
  • Engineer — The Asian kid
  • Fireman — The class contrarian (this is only cute when you’re six)
  • Lawyer — The kid that should be avoided
  • Social worker — No kid ever says this
  • Systems analyst — The future non-systems analyst
  • Teacher — The brown-noser
  • Veterinarian — Any girl with a pet horse
  • Writer — The kid who journals

I showed up empty-handed. “Not a problem.” My track-suited instructor walked me to the modest library at the edge of the portable. I dove into a pile of 20, thin-as-a-dime, hardcover tomes in the genre of So you want to be….

One book stood out. One cover to be exact. A black and white photo. A man wearing glasses pointing at a massive computer. I liked computers. The man seemed happy. The title held the cover’s only color —crimson red, the shade of HAL9000’s lens. The color held two Latinate terms. Systems Analyst.

As the French say, “why le fuck not”? For the duration of a unit entire, I wanted to be a systems analyst.

Here’s your scientifically assigned career

System isn’t that Latin actually. The Greek systema means “organized whole, a whole compounded of parts.” It’s a part of the compounded synistanai; syn (“together”) and histanai (“cause to stand”). In the center of histanai, a Proto-Indo-European root (sta–) provides far-reaching support across many languages. Meaning “to place” or “to stop,” it gives footing to stand, stable, statis, static. It evokes firmness. Rootedness. Solidity. Unmoving.

Greek histanai is a prefixed form based on the older root sta- “stand” which also produced English stand, stage, and stay. In Greek it produced stasis “motionlessness”, whose adjective was borrowed as English static. The verb meaning “stand” in Latin was stare, which went into the making of the stamen, stamina. Alpha Dictionary

Doomsday harbinger and Dilbert creator Scott Adams loves systems. Specifically, he advocates for the use of systems over goals. Even more specifically: “Goals are for losers.” A goal is a giant whose shadow blackens your yard until he is slain. And having slain him, you are without purpose until the next beast is chosen.

Goals are a lot like The Question. Both are a gift-wrapped plaque reading: “You are not enough.” A reminder that you are incomplete. That danger looms and that you must Do Something about it.

A systems analyst is a person who uses analysis and design techniques to solve business problems using information technology. Systems analysts may serve as change agents who identify the organizational improvements needed, design systems to implement those changes, and train and motivate others to use the systems. Wikipedia

Though I don’t share Adams’s views on Pleasanton, CA (he lives there) I share his admiration for systems. “Lose 25 pounds” is a goal. “Avoid sugar and unhealthy foods” is a system. “Learn fluent Mandarin by 2019” is a goal. “Practice Mandarin for 30 minutes every day” is a system. “Write 52 blog posts this year” is a goal. “Publish readable words every week” is a system.

Here’s the difference: If you don’t speak Chinese by this time next year, you’re a failure. But if you miss a half hour of practice today, there is always tomorrow. And tomorrow and tomorrow. Goals punish; systems forgive. Systems give you the power to keep going, because that’s what a system is. A promise to yourself to continue. Systems are not the growing shadow of a two-story foot descending on your house. They are the speed of your steps as you march to the castle. Systems are the sharpness of your sword, and the sound of her swipes against flesh.

And there’s a temporal difference too: Goals seem to be waiting for you in the future, but once realized, they evaporate into the past. Not even time for a handshake and you are on to the next one. Systems are now. Their continuous grasp encourages you as you undertake the work of the world you want. When you live in systems, you are in the process of the present.

Perhaps instead of “what do you want to be” we should ask the more answerable “what is it that you do?” It’s a more accurate predictor anyway, and more telling of the person we might become.

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