Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail by John Gall

Today we are talking about systems: what they are, how they work, and, more importantly, how they don’t work.

Don’t care about systems? Well. Maybe your life would be easier if you did.

“Our point, repeatedly stressed in this text, is that Systems operate according to Laws of Nature, and that Laws of Nature are not suspended to accommodate our human shortcomings. There is no alternative to learning How Systems Work, unless one is willing to continue to run afoul of those Laws.

Whoever does not study the Laws of Systemantics and learn them that way, is destined to learn them the hard way, by direct encounter in the world of Experience.”

Experience is not a gentle teacher.

“We live in a new age of faith, an age of faith in systems. If there is any one belief which is not challenged anywhere in the world, it is this faith in systems.”

There are certain skills that, when gained, can upgrade your entire experience as a human.

Cooking, for example.

You don’t have to learn how to cook in order to enjoy an excellent meal. But without the skill of cooking, you are dependent on some other person—someone who has gained this particular skill—to provide you with the food you want. If you learn how to cook, you can provide the food you want for yourself, pretty much anytime.

“No one, these days, can avoid contact with Systems.

In self-defense, we must learn to live with Systems, to control them lest they control us. As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice (though in another context): It’s just a question of who is to be master, that’s all. No one can afford not to understand the basic principles of How Systems Work.”

Being able to understand and work with systems is an even more fundamental skill than cooking or navigating or, say, time management.

It’s more fundamental because skills often involve systems: that is, a skill such as cooking can be organized systematically, and may involve multiple systems (a system of measurement and a system of quality control, for example). If you understand systems and are skilled at working with systems, you’ll be better at gaining skills which depend on or incorporate systems.

You will be better at learning, in general, which is helpful for a lot of reasons.

“Systems are like babies: once you get one, you have it. They don’t go away. On the contrary, they display the most remarkable persistence. They not only persist; they grow. And as they grow, they encroach.”

Another important reason to understand systems—and learn how to work with them (or against them, as the case may be)—is that understanding systems (in general) helps you to recognize the specific systems at work in the little bit of reality you inhabit.

“The person immersed in a System does not recognize that fact. It is like the situation of the goldfish in the goldfish bowl: the fish does not recognize that it is swimming in water and that there is an ocean of something called air beyond that world. The Systems-person does not consider himself or herself to be such.”

The ability to recognize systems is important because reality is mostly made of systems: a bunch of systems smashed together, in various states of functionality, in disarray or disintegration, some shiny-and-new, some decrepit, some benevolent, some malicious, all with their own purposes, all with many layers of complexity.

“Am I, unbeknownst to myself, a Systems-person? The answer is always, Yes. The relevant question is, simply, Which System?”

Here we are in the middle of this churning, turning, spinning, ever-changing reality, trying to plant our feet on something we call “solid ground” so we can establish our autonomy and pursue happiness.

Escaping from involvement in a System is like passing over an invisible threshold; one does not know there is a threshold and one does not know that there is another universe on the other side until the transition takes place. Then there is the moment of shock as one Frame of Reference collapses and another is installed. After that everything is quite clear again.”

We can work really hard, for a really long time, and get precisely nowhere.

To get somewhere—especially to get to a consciously chosen and desired somewhere—we have to understand the systems which are around us all the time.

“The decision to become involved with a particular System should be made carefully, on the basis of a balanced judgment of one’s interests. One need not drift (or sail, or barge) into Systems uncritically: CHOOSE YOUR SYSTEMS WITH CARE. Remember: DESTINY IS LARGELY A SET OF UNQUESTIONED ASSUMPTIONS.”


“We are free to seek out ever more appropriate Models of the Universe.”

General system understanding ⇢ specific system recognition ⇢ increased ability to choose and control the effects any given system has on you.

“The actual moment of shifting from one Model of the Universe to another is highly unsettling. There is a pronounced sense of disorientation, which is only relieved when the new Frame of Reference clicks into place.”

Knowledge is power. Know your systems, and you can figure out how to do something about them.