Friday, May 28, 2010

Powerful patterns

In my business, I see a lot of hype about specific patterns: learn this pattern and you have the key to success. Most of it is nonsense based on a fundamental (often buried deep) truth. Patterns are powerful. Not this pattern or that pattern. Any pattern has some power.


A pattern, from the French patron, is a type of theme of recurring events or objects, sometimes referred to as elements of a set. These elements repeat in a predictable manner. It can be a template or model which can be used to generate things or parts of a thing, especially if the things that are created have enough in common for the underlying pattern to be inferred, in which case the things are said to exhibit the unique pattern. Pattern matching is the act of checking for the presence of the constituents of a pattern, where as the detecting for underlying patterns is referred to as pattern recognition. The question of how a pattern emerges is accomplished through the work of the scientific field of pattern formation.

It's easy to look at a definition like this without anything sticking. Let's take some of this one and make it stick.

Patterns are predictable, replicable relationships between things. The things (elements) could be thoughts, behaviours, or physical objects. What matters is that these things are found together and that the relationships among them are constant. For instance: See the cookie. Eat the cookie. Feel bad about eating the cookie.

We call behavioural patterns "habits" when we do not like their results. When we like the results, we call them "discipline" or "skill." Both skills and habits demonstrate the power of patterns. We know now that patterns correspond to the way our brain works. Our brain is, essentially, a pattern-making organism. It's sole purpose, 24/7, is to generate patterns.

You might jump in here and object. "Why" you might ask, "is it so easy to develop bad habits and so hard to develop skills and discipline?"

The first thing I would say in response is "are you sure that it is harder to develop good habits than bad ones?" Here are two truths: it is easier to develop patterns that include emotional impact (like rewards) and it is easier to develop patterns that mimic relationships that are already familiar (like see food, eat food). This means that if you have a bad relationship with chocolate, you are easily able to acquire a bad relationship with french fries. It also means that if you have a love affair with chocolate, you are easily able to develop a love affair with another food that offers rich flavour and comfort. The power is not in one pattern but in using a pattern to move you toward choices or behaviours.

It's really hot today. Wherever people are in homes or offices where the air conditioning is functioning optimally, people are busy with whatever work or thoughts occupy them. Wherever air conditioning is making rooms too hot or too cold, people are noticing the air conditioning. We pay attention to things that are broken or dangerous or uncomfortable. The same thing is true of patterns. We pay attention to them when we do not like the results they are generating. When we like the results, we let the patterns unfold naturally while we think about something else.

All patterns are patterns because they can be repeated. The same elements occur in the same relationships to produce the same results. That's power. It gives us the one thing we really want most: the ability to predict the future. We know what is coming next because we recognize the pattern.

If the pattern changes, we do not know what will come next. We lose the ability to accurately predict the future. That's hard. We say to people "imagine what your life will be like when you lose 50 lbs. Everything will be different." That's terrifying. The human brain works in patterns. It wants to be able to assemble elements into predictable relationships. It cannot imagine difference (that's literally true, by the way. We cannot think thoughts unless they are connected to things already stored in our brains).

Directing change means finding the best pattern to move into next. It doesn't mean embracing the unpredictable (that only works if we can make that part of a pattern). It doesn't mean finding the closest pattern (that's probably the one that generated the current pattern). It means recognizing that each of our brains is a storehouse that contains multiple patterns that could be useful in any given situation. We can always find one that would replace a current habit in a way that seems helpful given our current context.

Ask yourself: what pattern have I already experienced somewhere in my life that would be useful to me in changing this pattern I do not like now?

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