What Resources Do You Have? A Systems Approach


Tuesday, 5.28am

Sheffield, U.K.

Everything in nature is not just a straight up. It’s an S-curve. It arises for a while until it hits some physical limitation, and then it plateaus again. – Ramez Naam

In my last post I took an accounting approach to analysing resources, defining an asset as something that increases your resources and a liability as something that decreases your resources.

It’s not technically accurate, but it’s useful.

But then again, it didn’t really capture the complexity of resources so I thought I would try again in this post and see if a different approach might help.

I think this might be too complex, but if we don’t try and explore it we won’t find out.

So, let’s start.

There are different kinds of resources

The tricky thing about language is that when you try and think about something you start getting drawn into the business of definitions, at which point you should probably walk briskly in the opposite direction.

We’re going to have to ignore that advice for a while.

Let’s think of a resource as something you have – something you can use and draw on.

Money is clearly a resource.

If you have money you can use it to do things.

But, when you think about it there are at least three kinds of resources you could have.

Money is something you can have more of or less of.

You can put it in a bucket and take it out again – it’s what the Systems Dynamics people would think of as a stock – a resource that you can fill up or let out.

Keep that image of a container in mind, as in the above image.

A second kind of resource is your own time – but unlike money you can’t buy more of it or give it away.

The number of hours in the day don’t change – but you can allocate your time to different things.

It’s a balancing act – do you spend your time doing what you want or doing things other people want?

And if you spend more time on one thing, there’s less time for something else.

When I get up early to write I have to accept the fact that I have less time to sleep.

Think of time as a seesaw.

Another kind of resource is knowledge.

The more knowledge you accumulate the more you shine, you might become a teacher, a knowledgeable colleague, an inspiration.

But if you give away that knowledge you don’t lose it yourself.

it’s not like money where you know less if you tell someone else what you know – in fact both of you are enriched.

And it’s not like time, where you have to choose a fixed amount of knowledge – you can fill your mind with as much as you want.

Perhaps the image of a sun is appropriate here.

So, with these three kinds of resource you can see that some can grow and fall, some are about balance and some are simply about becoming brighter.

I’ve chosen a circle, square and triangle to represent these three types of resources – and the idea I had was to see if you could use them to build a model of your situation right now.

Brace yourself, this may get complicated.

Building a resource model


In real life what you do affects other things, the ripples move through the rest of your life.

Traditionally you use a plumbing metaphor to think about this – you have flows and stocks and as things flow levels rise and fall.

The metaphor takes you down an engineering way of thinking, you can draw lines and start doing maths and pretty quickly you get lost in a bunch of calculations and forget that the point is to make sense of things.

So, maybe we should think more in terms of ripples, how what you do affects the resources you have and what that means for you.

In the image above, the things you can do have blobby, fried-egg outlines.

Red arrows are bad and green arrows are good for the resource they point to.

Let’s say you decide to learn a new skill – like a language or programming.

Learning a skill might improve your knowledge but it might cost you, and lower your bank balance.

It will also mean that you have to allocate time for studying, and this might be a good thing as you’re doing something you want to do.

Eventually, once you’ve gained that knowledge you can create stuff, and maybe that will even make you money.

Or if it’s something no one really wants to buy it costs you – in terms of opportunity cost anyway, you could have done something else to earn money.

But creating what you want to do may increase your stock of joy – a new resource but perhaps something that can go up and down.

And then there’s something like admin, which takes up time.

Maybe you have to do it but that means allocating time for the task.

But then you can use money to use someone else’s time and so free up some of your own time that you can allocate to something else.

What became quickly clear as I drew this model is that everything affects everything else.

The image above doesn’t have all the arrows you need and sometimes you have red and green arrows which means you need to look at the net effect.

And really you won’t capture it all, or you’ll fool yourself into thinking you have.

So, what can you do with this kind of model, how can you make it useful?

Using the model to ask questions

Let’s take a step back from the whole measuring and accounting and weighing way we’re looking at things.

Perhaps that’s the wrong approach to take.

I’ve been trying to say let’s count how much money you have, measure how you allocate your time and tot up the knowledge you have.

If you do that, will it help?

Maybe it will, but what if you start with questioning yourself using this model as a reference?

For example:

  • Do you know everything you need to about your field or are you still learning?
  • Do you have enough money for your basic needs or are you struggling?
  • Do you have time for your own projects or does work consume all your time?
  • Are you happy with your life right now, does it bring you joy?

A simple yes or no to these questions is going to help you get a feel for the state of your resources and what that means for the things you do.

For example, I have spent some time learning how to write, but I know very little about telling a story with video.

If I want to get that knowledge I have to put the time aside to learn.

I can only do that if I have spare time, time that I don’t already have to use earning money to pay for food and accommodation.

It’s very hard to do things that you want to do, the creative things that bring you joy if your income is barely enough to cover your basic needs.

And some kinds of knowledge will help you get money better than other ways, so maybe that’s what you’ve got to get first.

What matters is what you do

The point is that a resource is changed by what you do, by the choices you make every day.

Those blobby activities matter – they are how you change the state of your resources.

And it’s a mutual relationship – what you can do is constrained by the state of your resources.

If you want to get started on a project, a business, there are resources you must have.

For example, if you don’t have the knowledge needed to create an invoice, you need to get that knowledge or spend money to get a tool that does it for you or spend time building something yourself.

Or all three.

This may seem obvious but it’s not easy, not when you’re swimming in the ocean of your life.

You don’t know if the next thing that’s going to come along is a wave that will lift you up or a rip current that will pull you down.

Maybe being explicit about the state of your resources will help you choose what to do next more wisely.

Is this useful?

I’m not sure yet – the systems dynamics model gets complicated quickly but I think that the different types of resources might be a useful insight.

Perhaps we can combine the insight into resource types with a simpler kind of assessment that makes it easier for you to decide what to do next.

Because some kinds of resources are more valuable than others.

One of the reasons I’m going over these things so many times is because most books I’ve read give you simple models that sound good on the surface but don’t really reflect the realities of our day-to-day lives.

If I put forward a theory I’d like it to be grounded, so that there is something you can work off to do something useful.

Just saying, “I did this and it worked, so it will work for you if you work hard!” is not really enough.

Hard work and individual effort are not enough to overcome basic problems with the system.

You have to first change the system, and understanding it is a first step.

One that these posts are trying to work through.

More on that next time.


Karthik Suresh

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