Making Sense Of It All – Is It Even Possible?


Thursday, 9.21pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Have you ever noticed that when you sit at your table and look at your glass – I mean really look at it – it turns out that it isn’t there at all?

Of course you haven’t, because glasses don’t act that way.

Electrons do.

You’ve probably heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It’s the idea that you can’t tell where something is and how fast it’s moving at the same time.

With an electron, if you try and look for it – that action will give it some energy, a boost, and it will end up speeding somewhere else. If you get its speed right, it will now be in a new place.

So you end up with this idea that an electron is everywhere at the same time, a sort of cloud rather than something precise.

And this is seems like a passable metaphor for society if we want to make sense of it all.

So we start with a flux of events and ideas, the braided rope of everyday life.

How do we make sense of what’s going on?

Take an approach that Meryl Louis set out in 1980.

She says that we the events we experience result in us making conscious and unconscious assumptions and anticipations.

What these let us do is make predictions.

Then… we experience events as they happen, as they unfold with time.

Some of them turn out like we predicted – but sometimes they don’t. We’re surprised.

That results in us needing to come up with an explanation – something that in turn helps us interpret and attribute meaning to the surprise we’ve just had.

Something that helps us make sense of it all.

So far so obvious – what’s the point of this all?

Well, one point is kind of screamingly obvious. All this happens in our minds. The actual flux of events and ideas doesn’t really care about any of this.

The second is that sense making is closely linked to surprise. We need to be jolted out of the everyday to see and discover something new.

Let’s say you do the same thing every day. You go to work, drive the same route, sit at the same desk, follow the same routine. How likely is it that you’ll experience something different?

Probably quite low.

It’s nice to have a simple life – one with routines. But if you’ve got too much of that, you need to get restless, a little worried, a little angsty about it all.

It’s very easy to assume that what you do is not very good, no one else will hire you, you’re not very marketable or sociable or attractive.

And if you’re in an environment (which you’ve constructed by the way with the decisions you’ve made over time) where your predictions about how things will happen come true all the time – then you’ve created a version of meaning, of sense as a result.

This can happen to individuals, to organisations, to families.

The antidote to the everyday is to get some surprise into your life.

And the thing is you don’t know where that will come from – you just need to create the opportunity for more surprises to enter your life, surprises that force you to re-examine your existing ideas and come up with new ones, ones that have a different kind of meaning.

Perhaps this needs an example. Perhaps not.

Here’s one. The fallacy of centrality.

This is the assumption that if something is important, then you’d know about it. And you don’t, so it’s not.

That leads to all kinds of problems.

Have you ever experienced a situation where someone new came in, promising to sort everything out. You put forward an idea for something that would make things better, but that person ignores you. They’ve never heard of this approach, so it clearly can’t work.

Except they then fail – and your approach works.

The problem is that the way in which they made sense of things failed when they experienced the events you did as well. Perhaps they were surprised, perhaps they learned from it. Perhaps not.

What this means for us is that the world is complex. For us to make sense of it all, we need to be alert to surprises, because that’s how we learn.

And if you’re not being surprised enough, you need to change something. Now.


Karthik Suresh

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