Today, many things seem to be discovered, we can travel to space, we can accelerate atoms to the speed of light, and our computers become creepily intelligent. If you search on the internet, you can find almost everything about anything. Where does this leave me?* Something no one ever investigated or researched was my own life. Almost overlooked by everyone, but the most important thing to me. How complex can a life of a single person be? Through the methods of Quantified Self I started analyzing different aspects of myself quantitatively in 2013. Over the years I build an enormous personal database with all my sleep stats, my daily happiness scores, the time I spend on my phone, and many (at least 40) other variables I track daily. Through analytics, experiments, and reflection I learned how complex life actually is. I learned about the dynamics of personal perceptions, the importance of (sudden) variation, the repetitiveness of life, the influence of sudden transitions, and the process of ongoing spirals.
With this vision, I started to develop a love for fractals. Fractals are the symbol of complexity through simplicity. If you look at a tree, the tree might look quite simple. You pass by a tree every day. It is just a tree trunk with branches and leaves. However, if you look closer you can see that it has thousands of little branches, often grown in a coordinated pattern. The pattern of the branching is so coordinated that it can grow up to 20 meters while being perfectly balanced. Branches grow towards the sun, and grow and grow. We can look the same way at rivers and life itself. People, animals, trees, flowers, minerals, and rivers grow where they can exist. This is the same thing that we are doing, we are trying to live where we can live, we grow where can grow, we try to maintain our balance, we need stability, we need variety. Like the tree, we are incredibly complex while we appear very simple. You pass by a person every day. If you look at a crowd it all looks so simple, but if you look at yourself, you are amazingly complex. It all depends on the amount of focus you spend on it**. Once you focus on something, it doesn’t matter what you start to understand how detailed, intricate, and complex it is. On the other side, I also don’t know much about the things I don’t focus on and take for granted every day. I don’t know how a car is able to drive, I don’t know what fire is, I don’t understand music, I don’t know how a butterfly can grow, and I don’t understand you. ***
In my work, and as my hobby, I focus on my life, I focus on wearable technology, and the more I focus, the more complexity appears. Little details, new concepts, and little issues appear that become larger and larger. And as long as you continue to focus on the same thing, new things will appear until infinity. If you start cleaning the floor of your room and look closely, the dust and small spots will suddenly appear in front of you. If you plan to see the world, you will never be finished. If you zoom into perfection you will always find imperfections. I think that for the very same reason our society is always developing endlessly, we will never be there. You can zoom towards the fractals of the Mandelbrot-set until you die****.
Although you can zoom in as much as you want on something, you are still part of this larger thing. If you zoom into the single atom, you shouldn’t forget that this atom is part of the world itself. However, through our specializations between schools, departments, and business we have a tendency to zoom in endlessly while forgetting to be part of the larger system. A person, a company, and an ecosystem are not single units; they are influenced by, and influence the people, the markets, and the ecosystems around them without any central ruler, making them dynamical complex systems*****. While some departments of my university focus on psychology, others on sleep, others on diet, and others on physical activity, it is almost forgotten that each person needs to deal with all of them every day while each single factor interacts and influences each other factor. For example, if I feel down for three days this directly influences my work, sleep, diet, and physical activity into a vicious spiral, who studies that?
Complex dynamical systems
By discovering the complexity, spirals, and patterns within my life, I stumbled upon fractals and system thinking which brought me towards the study of complex dynamical systems. This area of study aligns very much with the vision I already had. This area of research is an area where it is believed that every natural thing on earth can be regarded as a system, where Quantified Self data is a valuable source of knowledge, where complexity is important, and where fractal analysis is used to understand the world. Complex dynamical systems appeared to me while being curious. Nonetheless, it seemed like it was there already. But now it gives me a framework to discover, discover, and to discover.
*Discovery is still possible on top of aspects that are researched quite well. Because in the details there is always room for new discoveries that become a new world of research. Complexity will emerge. But I prefer relatively empty sheets.
**You can debate about what focus is. With focus I mean zooming in on something, paying attention to it. Personally, I wonder how “broad” focus is.
*** I understand parts of them, because I focused on them a little. I know that a car has an engine and wheels, but I don’t really know how the combustion works. And I hardly know anything about fire.
**** Watch this video of the infinite fractals within the Mandelbrot set.
***** I think that one of the best quality (at least for leaders) is to be able to zoom in- and out rapidly. To be able to look at the details but also to understand and respect the larger system.