Alleviate the inherent inefficiency – case of small, local initiatives

— Anh NGUYEN

Having founded, participated, and followed the activities of several associations and small teams serving social/environmental causes in Vietnam and in France, I have always found the unwavering resilience and great passion admirable. At the same time, there is always this frustration to see almost all of us struggling to find a working model for their internal organisation, for the selling or dissemination of their offers and/or expertise, or the finding of fundings, etc. 

The struggles do look familiar though the cases and their specifications might vary. It feels like seeing the wheel being reinvented again each time. Is there an efficient way to transfer the knowledge and experience of people or teams who already achieved something before to people or teams who just kickstarted their own ventures and activities? Can there be, for example, a knowledge base storing case studies and proven practices of what has been done before, to which anyone can have access to browse and get answers to their own case? 

For example, if I have a team of X people who would like to create an eco-village with Y Z W features, what are the most important 5 things to install first? I enter these specifications to the knowledge base and then a list of these 5 things will be printed out: one) the optimal funding models would be A B C, two) the best practices to solve tensions between team members would be D E F, three) the most important administrative procedures are G H J. 

Because someone, somewhere in the world has very much likely gone through these steps. And their knowledge and experience should be passed on to someone who just started somewhere else, even if there might be significant contextual and cultural differences to be taken into account. It’s a global knowledge base used and modified to the local context.

It sounds tempting, and it probably will help small teams and organisations cut out on the trial-and-error loops that might hinder their development a great deal. I personally would have loved to have this tool back in 2011-2014 founding and running JasterLife, a small charity team of 10 college students. But still, there are two reasons why small, local teams and organisations will probably continue to reinvent the wheel – or humans in general, even if there have been myriads of predecessors with rich experiences that have been before. 

It sounds tempting, and it probably will help small teams and organisations cut out on the trial-and-error loops that might hinder their development a great deal. I personally would have loved to have this tool back in 2011-2014 founding and running JastenLife, a small charity team of 10 college students. But still, there are two reasons why small, local teams and organisations will probably continue to reinvent the wheel – or humans in general, even if there have been myriads of predecessors with rich experiences that have been before. 

At this point you should beware, this article is now more the side of a meta-argument rather than a practical, step-by-step guideline on how to scale up your local initiative. The scope of the argument is centered around an inherent inefficiency of our kind, that is probably not solvable and not eliminable, but can only be alleviated. 

Humans learn by doing

Humans are, sadly and probably, not computers. Our brains cannot be plugged into the vast amount of existing and previously proven knowledge/experience since our birth, and then we can spend the rest of our lives acquiring and proving the next important understandings. We generally must learn stuff from scratch, and knowledge/experience therefore will be acquired painfully and meticulously after a certain amount of years in existence. 

In this article on Aeon “The empty brain”, the author argues that “our brain is not a computer” – it does not “process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories”. One of the examples to demonstrate his point is from the book Remembering of SirFrederic Bartlett, in which “no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way”, and worse, “over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more.”. There is no fixed story or text being stored in our brain, so that we can retrieve the original anytime we want, like opening a file stored on our computer. 

This means two things for the author: one) inspirationally, it means “each of us is truly unique, not just in our genetic makeup, but even in the way our brains change over time.” and two) downloading human minds to a computer to reach immortality or to simply transfer earned knowledge to another human mind is impossible. Get over it. 

However, in another article on Medium “Yes, the brain is a computer…”, the author argued on a different definition of “computer”. Instead of defining “computers” as the storage of information, he leans towards defining it as computing ability – “we can think of neural networks as a sort of programming language: the synaptic connections in a neural network define the functions that they implement, so the set of all possible neural network architectures is effectively a programming language.”. That’s all well and good, but that does not counterstrike the fact that humans learn by doing. We are equipped with the ability to learn, but not any pre-stored, inherent, concrete knowledge/ behavior/ skill/ understanding/ value/ attitude/ experience/ preference itself. 

This means that even if we can learn about the experience of others, we can understand it and sympathize with it, we must ourselves go through the same process in order to make a knowledge/ behavior/ skill/ understanding/ value/ attitude/ experience/ preference our own

The graph below is a demonstration of a person’s levels of understanding of life and other humans over time. This is by no means a universal, comprehensive roadmap applied to every human being, but let’s imagine that it is.

a person’s levels of understanding of life and other humans over time

There are 2 important takeaways here.

One) There is no way for an unborn to download from a knowledge base the first initial levels, and can kickstart his awesome life at a high level right away No, he has to go through the same excruciatingly long process as his other human fellows, including forming his own character, finishing several side quests, and setting out for the ultimate missions. The same applies to small teams & organisations, which are essentially made up of humans.  

Two) That being said, the progression is not the same for each individual – some will acquire level X faster than others, some will probably stay in the first initial levels for the rest of their lives. This means that the only thing one has 100% control over – is to accelerate that learning process. Any human, or newborn organisations, must acquire knowledge faster by appropriating existing knowledge and previous successful experiences in order to reach the next level of understanding faster. 

*** A side note //Dune Messiah SPOILER ALERT!// This has bugged the hell out of me for a while. Alia Atreides, Saint Alia of the Knife, was born with the knowledge and powers of an adult Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother – a title you can only earn after years and years of crazy training. Basically, Alia’s mother, unknowingly activated a cheat code by drinking some poison, and “downloaded” those knowledge/experiences straight to her unborn child. Imagine what she could have done with all of that great, pre-downloaded knowledge! She could have become the Empress of the whole known Universe, by acquiring even more and greater knowledge. But no, she ends up being a religious leader who has to take some drugs (aka heavy dose of the Melange spices) in order to perform religious rituals. That sucks in comparison to the exciting extraordinary lives of the other characters. So maybe even with downloaded, pre-installed knowledge, one can still risk succumbing to mediocrity? I’ll continue with book 3 to see if her arc gets any better. ***

Originality is overrated

The originality of thoughts and ideas is way too overrated, while the pragmatism and the concrete results of stuff-being-done nicely and/or the mastery over repeated actions is painfully underrated. 

Everyone is taught to aspire to do something new, something never been done before, something unique, especially in the West. The whole culture of original content on social media such as Youtube, TikTok, or Instagram reflects a part of this obsession. Meanwhile, a craftsman who masters a special ceramic technique over 50 years of his career will never become “viral”. This bias can be observed especially in the initiation phase of establishing a new local initiative – the questions most frequently asked would be “has someone done this before?”, “is this original enough?”…

Pure originality, no matter how much we romanticize it, is super rare. There are 7 billion humans coexisting on this planet at the same time – statistically speaking there are big chances that any of your well-crafted thought has already been thought by hundreds of other people, probably at the same time. Moreover, your thought has to stem from some existing knowledge/experience, which inherently bears some resemblances to previous stuff that has already been made/lived through. In that case, all new ideas are basically just old ones combined altogether under a new form – a rebirth, a resurrection. 

Which is absolutely not a bad thing. If that new, patched-up idea can be helpful and can offer an efficient, potentially scalable solution to a problem, then it is very much worth praising. 

So if one has an idea, even if it’s not very “original”, even if it was done before somewhere else in the world (and it has proven to work like a charm), one must go out and make it a reality. Don’t strive vainly to be original, nobody cares, but do strive to make intelligent, efficient stuff done on a large scale. The “urgency of doing”, as our great and wise Leonardo Da Vinci named it (at least according to the Internet), calls for things to be tested out, applied, and made a reality

If you are running some small and local initiative yourself, I do wish you two things:

one) learn faster, accelerate your learning curve through appropriating existing knowledge and previous successful experiences and

two) focus on concrete and impactful results being done on the biggest scale that you can aim at, instead of its originality. 

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