Systems Are Not as Intuitive as We Think

We easily take for granted the systems we learn, especially after we leverage those skills for a long time. In turn, we may become intolerant of people who either have not learned or even refuse to learn the systems we take for granted. Why won’t they just figure it out, like we did? Why would they want to continue to struggle with working at such a low level? As much as we may want to dismiss some people as lazy or dumb, the truth is that systems are not as intuitive as we think.

There’s nothing intuitive about desktop computers. People forget about that, once they pick up basic computer literacy. I mean, for crying out loud, we use a mouse to provide 2D horizontal input that proportionally but NOT commensurately maps to 2D vertical movement on a screen? The only thing worse than that is a control pad for a game console, where navigation input is neither proportional nor commensurate.

The same goes for driving — there’s nothing natural about those skills. We put together some patterns and then work off of those patterns, and it varies by vehicle — to the point that countries license and train people for different types of vehicles. Knowing “how to drive” doesn’t mean people know how to drive a forklift. The “only” difference is that the turning wheels are in the back instead of the front, but oh, what a difference that makes.

Systems are not intuitive. They don’t just “make sense”. Taxes, nutrition, writing, sports…every system offers opportunities for optimizations, but there’s nothing natural, straightforward, nor intuitive about any of these. Even the so-called “natural systems”.

My favorite example from last year saw me arrive at my massage therapist’s place with lower back pain. I somehow really crunched my lower back, but I couldn’t figure out how. To which he replied, “Well, it’s probably not your lower back.” I laid down on the massage table, and after just a couple of minutes of him probing around my back, he walked to the far end of the table and started working on my calves. …What? It did so happen that I overdid calf exercises that week and they were sore and tight, but how did he end up down there?

“Sometimes when the [I don’t remember the name of the individual calf muscle he mentioned] gets tight, it refers pain to the lower back.” I asked how a calf muscle could pull the back out of alignment. “Oh, no, it doesn’t. It’s not muscular. It’s neurological. Your lower back can be fine, but the nerves are firing there because they’re triggered by your calves.” He paused a moment to take his favorite textbook off a nearby shelf, spent a moment flipping to the right page, and showed me a cutaway illustration of the human body replete with a diagram of the calf muscles in question, and the pain spots in my lower back that exactly match what I felt at the time.

Six minutes of work on my calves, and my back pain vanished. Just, gone. A little stiff, but I had complete relief. I said, “That’s nuts. How often do you see something like that with someone’s lower back?” With a big grin, he replied, “Not often. Maybe once every few months.” Then, he added drily, “ain’t the human body grand?”

People like to talk about what’s natural, easy, straightforward, intuitive. I’m learning that not even our own bodies make natural sense. We don’t have to like dealing with limitations people may have with computer literacy, driving, communication skills, or anything else. But if our own bodies feature suboptimal developments and a huge variety of nonintuitive features, we can respect that people choose their challenges, and systemic challenges are not small.

Calling someone stupid or lazy for their systemic inefficiency is actually hypocritical on the part of the accuser. Until we’re willing to deeply examine why people don’t optimize within a system, we’re hypocrites for holding systemic ignorance against them. But beyond that, we can help people work through and learn systems, natural or artificial. For both our benefit and theirs, helping people with systems makes for one of the greatest services we can perform.


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