Axioms for Efficient Firms #2: Muddle Through Complexity

7 January, 2015

Nathan Morris

Nathan Morris

The Axioms for Efficient Firms are core values espoused by the founders of Filevine that they believe guide legal professionals to a more productive practice. To both Ryan and Nathan, the axiom to “muddle through complexity” carries a unique significance. Learn how this principle can help you in your law firm.

Nathan Morris

The word “mud” in the verb is no accident: muddling through complexity requires some mud-level humility. “Humility” as in the word tied to “humus,” the soil, the Latin word for ground.

To see what humility doesn’t look like, listen to TV pundits hurl about answers to the world’s problems. If you listen closely you’ll sometimes hear a reference to people who are “on the ground.” These are first-responders, teachers, parents, and others of the unnamed masses who may be doing fine work, but lack the certainty and one-note clarity required for television. On the other hand, we can presume the ones with high-powered prime-time Answers aren’t “on the ground.” Perhaps they never touch the earth, working in high-rise offices, living in penthouses, and jetting to their destinations.

when a person commits to muddle through complexity — or better yet, when an entire organization decides to honor this behavior — the rewards can be a giant’s strength and resilience.

From up above, off the ground, their mind can retain a sweet simplicity. Away from the mud, sound bites and cliches sound almost credible. These simple explanations tempt all of us; they are alluring. We love the ones who speak them. We buy their books; we elect them to high offices.

Ryan Anderson

It isn’t only on TV, of course. If you walk into most institutions of higher learning, you can see the next generation of Answerers practicing their art. The subject might be the nuances of Heideggerian philosophy or international law or quantum physics, but the facial expressions will be eerily similar. Boredom, rather than confusion. In all but the most remarkable groups, nobody asks a real question. Confessing confusion in an environment like this lands you smack at the bottom of the knowledge-ladder (again, close to the ground). Instead, class comments are performances of Knowingness, each more confident than the last, wrung dry of curiosity.

But as Bertolt Brecht put it: “People who understand everything get no stories.” We’ve all received the training to “understand everything” — and ignore, streamline, or abstract away anything we don’t understand. Unfortunately, this means we miss the story, and the answers we drum up out of all this certainty fail us.

There’s a giant named Antaeus in Greek mythology, whose mother was the Earth, and who was unbeatable as long as he was in contact with her. Hercules tried to kill him, but every time he knocked him down the giant only jumped up stronger. But when Hercules lifted him high off the ground in a bearhug, Antaeus became weak as a baby. Whatever our field’s ground-level, when we distance ourselves from it out of pride, fear of confusion, or preference for simple answers, our conclusions grow brittle. Having lost contact with the source of their strength, they shatter at their first brush with reality.

Returning to the ground — or being knocked there, flat on our backs — is painful. In most social and institutional settings “humility” is almost indistinguishable from “humiliation.” Committing to the ground means confessing to confusion; it means tossing our beloved, ready-made answers — and our myth of omniscience — and beginning all over with questions.

But when a person commits to muddle through complexity — or better yet, when an entire organization decides to honor this behavior — the rewards can be a giant’s strength and resilience. Those who recognize they don’t understand everything open up a space to receive the gift of a story. What really happened? What went wrong or right? What does all of this rest on? Where can we go from here? The story might be a long one, but your labor is to learn it.

Just look at humusy soil some time: riddled with insects, woven-through with roots and fungi, teeming with microorganisms. There is nothing simple about dirt, mud, humus. The easy answers? They’re sterile as gravel and asphalt. Your fertile ground rests in complexity, where something new can sprout.