Systems Awareness: Tackle Huge Issues With an Outward Focus

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Focus" by Daniel Goleman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is systems awareness? How can it help us solve global problems such as climate change?

In his book Focus, Daniel Goleman outlines three main directions you can aim your attention: inward, toward others, and outward. He connects each direction to certain skills. He associates an outward focus with the skill of systems awareness.

Keep reading to learn how tackling the biggest problems requires systems awareness and learn some concrete steps we can take to achieve it.

Systems Awareness

With outward focus, you direct your beam of attention to large circles of influence and connection—the systems in which you live. Goleman writes that, to address large-scale issues that humanity and the planet face, like inequality and the climate crisis, we must collectively master this direction of attention, which he calls systems awareness

Our lives are embedded in many systems, large and small. A system is a set of patterns and rules—they include natural systems like ecological and biological systems and human-made systems like economies, governments, and families. 

(Shortform note: While Goleman’s definition of a system as a set of cohesive patterns is not incorrect, it may be more useful to think about what is interacting in a cohesive, patterned way to create the system. In Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows explains that systems are composed of three things: the individuals in the system, the relationships between the individuals, and their collective purpose or goal.)

To achieve systems awareness, you have to detect and map the patterns of a system by using data and information from external sources and make analyses. Recognizing patterns takes top-down mental cognition and therefore requires more effort and comes less naturally than feeling empathy or reading body language. To attain systems awareness, your attention must be agile and capable of zooming in and out to see details and the bigger picture. Then, you must be able to make sense of that information. 

Concrete Steps to Systems Awareness

Meadows agrees with Goleman that systems are challenging to understand, and she lays out some concrete steps you can take to understand a complex system:

Observe. Gather data and information from individuals inside the system, research the history of the system, and aim to observe what is working well in the system and what isn’t.

Don’t ignore qualitative data. In human-made systems, elements such as emotion, motivation, and hope are factors that should not be ignored simply because they are subjective.

Widen your focus. We tend to focus on the short-term rather than the long-term, but systems play out over long periods of time. If your lens is too narrow, you may miss important information about the system.

Put it down on paper. Writing or drawing your system can help you visualize and understand the relationships within it. 

Systems Awareness and Climate Change

Goleman draws a connection between our attention skills and the climate crisis. He argues the crisis facing our planet now is partially due to the challenges it poses to our attention and that effectively addressing the crisis will require us to develop systems awareness and long-view, future-oriented attention.

The climate crisis challenges our individual and collective attention abilities because long-range threats like the climate crisis do not produce the physiological and emotional responses in our bodies that result in active attention, fear, and action. Therefore, there are different responses to the crisis depending on where you live. Many people face real threats to their survival, which motivates them to demand more attention be paid to the climate crisis than those who live in less affected parts of the world. 

(Shortform note: For developed and wealthy nations like the United States, the climate crisis may not feel like an urgent threat to our lives and livelihoods because many of the most dramatic environmental changes, like rising ocean levels, will not impact us as greatly or as swiftly as poorer island nations such as the Maldives. But even so, our physical proximity to the damage of environmental changes is not the only factor influencing our level of concern about the crisis. Research shows that your gender, your age, and your politics also predict your level of concern.)

Paying attention to the crisis is also difficult because it is upsetting and overwhelming. Our attention naturally gravitates away from negative, frightening, shameful things and toward what feels safe and manageable. 

(Shortform note: In many cases, people may find it difficult to engage with overwhelming, frightening, and shameful situations. But this idea contradicts what psychology calls the “negativity bias,” which contends that we tend to pay more attention to negative stimuli than positive or neutral ones. This bias is thought to be a fundamental aspect of our psychology and may have evolved to help us survive by being more sensitive to potential dangers. However, some researchers have argued that this bias is not universal and may be influenced by cultural and individual differences.)

Systems Awareness: Tackle Huge Issues With an Outward Focus

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Daniel Goleman's "Focus" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Focus summary:

  • How to understand, strengthen, and use your attention to lead a more fulfilling life
  • The three directions you can aim your attention: inward, toward others, and outward
  • How spending time in nature restores your attention

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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