The Science of Systems

19 12 2008

This blog was originally posted on

By Derek Beres

I spend a lot of time in Whole Foods — probably too much. Nearly every day I’m in (at least) one of three of their four New York City locations. As a store, the company has a lot going for them, including one of their greatest inventions: the automated line. At the end of each row of cashier lanes sit between three and five rows, with a screen and computerized voice informing you which counter to go to. It’s ingenious in its simplicity, the most logical system imaginable. And yet, time and again, it confuses the hell out of people.

Take Monday, for example. It’s primetime, I’m trying to buy a bar and coconut water, it’s very crowded. As I approach the end of my prospective line, a man is spotted in the middle of the floor walking aimlessly from line to line, trying to find the clerk who he is assigned to. The worker at the front has to go over to him and tell him there’s an actual row to wait in, that the screen will tell him where to go. He gets confused and frustrated at the system, calling it “stupid,” though eventually finding his place within it.

This is not an isolated incident; I see this confusion often. Thing is, there are always different results. Most often someone will realize what happened, laugh, and get back in line, or go to the right clerk. Yet sometimes someone will act as this man did, calling a very basic system “stupid” simply because he did not know how the system worked. Obviously, this sort of response is not limited to supermarket lines.

In fact, I used this incident as the theme for my yoga classes this week. There is a correlation to asanas — sometimes when I call out a pose that a student does not understand, or cannot perform, they have a similar reaction: the class is too hard, this pose is too challenging, I won’t even try. Thus, they were defeated before they even began. Just because one does not understand the posture — the system — it is therefore at fault.

Most systems are essentially benign, at this level. A yoga posture is not “good” or “bad.” It is a structure, and how you adapt that structure into your body, or how you adapt your body to that structure, is indicative of your psychology. If you get easily frustrated, the posture is only bringing out the reaction already inside of you, like a seed waiting to sprout. If you laugh, or embody the challenge and move forward, this is where your head is. Your experience is defined by the thoughts you project into it.

A friend of mine who took my class last night, Daniel, sent me an email today:

In the beginning of class, you talked about this idea that, “There are no broken systems”; problems arise in “the way we relate to those systems.” The example that you suggested was a good one, in that it clearly supports your theory. The Whole Foods line situation really is a good system. Some people just find it confusing and their confusion, their lack of patience, etc. pisses them off, and then all of a sudden the system sucks. However … there are countless systems that truly are broken. Broken in the sense that there are very balanced, patient, wise people that are f*cked not because of their “relationship” to the system, but because the systems are unjust: colonialism, apartheid, fascism, the current American healthcare system, unregulated banking … the list is long. Anyway, I was stuck with this thought last night, and again as I woke up this a.m.

He is undoubtedly correct. When a system is devised for the gain of a few people, at the expense of others, it is broken, and will only eat its own tail, as the mythology of the uroboros goes. And yet, how many of us throughout history have not lived within some sort of broken system? Daniel mentioned the healthcare system, which is a great example. How we relate to that system in modern America is certainly a challenge. As someone who was uninsured for four years of my adult life, I know those struggles well. Still, the same principle applies: how I relate to it — if I let it defeat me, or if I stand up and move forward despite the greed of a few — is indicative of my psychology. I cannot believe the world will bend to my needs whenever I want. The flexibility of yoga involves my own bending, my own understanding that the world is not exactly how I want it to be. (Ironically, I’m currently reading the biography of V.S. Naipaul, fitting titled The World Is What It Is.) Once you know the limitations of your environment, only then can you find freedom within it.

Still, Daniel’s points are spot-on, and I had mentioned that while systems are usually benign, some people wrap and warp them to suit their own needs. What do we do then? Well, to the extent possible, we create our own systems to accommodate the good of the many. One friend recently forwarded me a link to her doctor in Brooklyn, whose company works by each member paying a monthly fee, instead of the one-time whopping bill. The fees are manageable for most, and the doctors reply by text messaging and emails, and always — I repeat always — follow up within a day. Generic prescriptions are free, and from what I understand they are very popular. (Last week they had a flu shot party at the office with a live DJ!) So here you have on a small scale a system that has become so in demand that the four doctors have to open another location in Manhattan. They were fed up with the healthcare system, and so founded their own, to help others, and to improve their own careers. Everyone wins, and the science of medicine, not the economics of it, takes precedence.