Spike Lee's latest documentary "If God is Willing and da Creek don't Rise" provides another cogent reminder that nature holds the trump cards in the game of life. This is what we forget when we are watching crises in the news or getting caught up in ideological debate: we don't determine which strategies will work and which ones won't. Nature does. We can only design strategies to be as effective as we can using our knowledge of nature's rules, try them, learn from our experience, and adjust our tactics. This is not denying that what we do matters. To be sure, we are all participants in our own unfolding story. We influence outcomes. We make things better or worse for ourselves. But we are players in a great game of life, and the rules were not disclosed to us in advance. Our job is to figure out the rules. We can discover what works and what doesn’t through experimentation and learning. We can get ever better at discovering and heeding nature's feedback. We can continue to try again and improve. We can devise strategies to win - to make our lives better.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a symptom of a larger problem: We don't yet fully comprehend that we live inside a natural system and that the same rules of organization and development that govern how all living systems succeed and fail apply to human systems as well. The better we understand those rules, the more effective we will be at managing risk, recognizing opportunities, solving our problems, and building a prosperous and secure world.
When we think we are inventing, we are really experimenting to see what works and what doesn't. Everyday, you're testing things to see what will work given the rules and existing conditions. This is true whether you're developing a new company product, formulating a new public policy, or making a personal financial plan. You are operating inside a game. Success depends on how well you learn the rules and play the game. No matter how talented, any player in any game won't succeed if he doesn't learn the rules and use them to his or his team's benefit. Ignoring the rules leads to loss - to failure.
The trajectory for human success is shaped not by overcoming nature, but by nature itself. No leader, including heads of state and corporate CEOS, can decide what success will look like or how it will be measured over the next half century. One lesson from the gulf oil spill is that success at some point in the future will not look like it did in the past. Success won't be achieved by simply doing more of what we did before. We won’t extract and use fossil fuels and other material resources in the same way, we won’t define progress by bigness, and we won’t try to create security while ignoring the unintended consequences of our actions. In the future, we will focus on harvesting the greatest amount of security and life-supporting benefit from every ton of material (and energy) resources we use. Success will be defined by performance.
Leaders influence future opportunities. Their decisions today are shaping the degree of pain and rewards we will reap as we adapt to the changing world. Governments and corporations can significantly influence the quality of our future and their own success by considering nature's trump card and devising a strategy accordingly. Think about the trump card. It provides insights into the nature and direction of success. Ask: how well do we monitor the feedback we get from nature? What are we learning from this feedback? And how are we using this knowledge to adapt?