Recursive

Adaptation in nature builds off of past successes.  Organisms don’t just appear out of the blue, but are modified through time as they and their ancestors overcome challenges in the environment.  We can replicate this recursive process in our own lives by growing and expanding from a base of our past successes.We are increasingly told by business consultants and leadership gurus that we need to “Learn from Failure”, and at first glance this sounds good—a little dose of humility to counteract the charge ahead at all costs and never apologize attitude that has tended to get us into trouble recently.   But learning from failure in nature is a dead-end—it means you died without reproducing yourself.  Every organism in nature is an example of learning from the success of its ancestors. Every evolutionary advance builds off past successes (the failures are rotting back into the Earth – there’s nothing left to build off of). Learning from success creates recursive processes – that is, processes that build and change off some past state.  A quick example is the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13…) which starts with a seed (adding 1 to zero) and grows by creating a new number based on the sum of the previous two numbers.  Recursive processes are everywhere in nature, from the shell of an ancient Nautilus, to the process of evolution itself.  The beauty of a recursive process is that it doesn’t require you to start from scratch every time you face a new challenge or need to grow.  We can simulate natural recursive processes mathematically, as in this Fibonacci spiral (to make one, connect arcs between the diagonal corners of squares whose side lengths are determined by a Fibonacci sequence), which kind of sort of looks like a nautilus shell.

But our efforts to incorporate the natural adaptability of recursive processes will be far more effective if we don’t just try to copy them, but to activate them in our own lives and practices.  The best way to activate recursive processes is to intently focus on and reward successes.  This does not mean that learning from failure is useless—it’s essential not to make the same dumb mistakes twice—but we do focus far too much on failure.  The government’s Townsend After Action report for Hurricane Katrina focused almost exclusively on failures, and indeed there were many that we’d never like to see repeated.  But by ignoring success, it missed an enormous opportunity to learn adaptively.  For example, nothing was said about the successful containment of a 9 million gallon oil spill by the Coast Guard after Katrina.  When would learning from cleaning up a huge oil spill, under difficult circumstances, in the Gulf of Mexico come in handy? Oh right, during the very next major disaster—a huge oil spill, under difficult circumstances, in the Gulf of Mexico—the Deepwater Horizon blowout.