If it's not one thing, it's Structure

abergseyeview structure incentives

Do you ever feel like you are being led along a very specific path?

That the universe is telling you something or that you are being fed very specific breadcrumbs?

I think it happens to everyone. Humans have an excellent ability to see patterns in information. Even if they sometimes don’t exist. Think about shapes in clouds or constellations. We can’t help drawing lines and seeing fluffy elephants.

I feel like this has been happening to me recently. It feels like every new article I read or topic I learn about connects back to somewhere else. Whenever I learn something new, I am placing a star in the sky and eventually, I can’t help but see the pattern connecting them. One new article or podcast and suddenly 10 stars that had nothing to do with one another line up in a constellation that becomes impossible to ignore.

This phenomenon recently happened to me after reading a summary of the book The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life by Robert Fritz. In it, Fritz introduces his theories about how structure defines everything from nature to personal relationships, to organizations. The overriding idea is that all things follow the path of least resistance. In nature, this concept is easy to see as water always travels downhill along the easiest path, but the concept is every bit as true in our lives as well. According to the Fritz the structures of our lives, both implicit and explicit, define a path of least resistance for our behavior. Without changing the underlying structure, we will always revert back to that behavioral path of least resistance irregardless of the amount of energy and willpower we throw against it.

It’s why diets don’t work, means are regressed towards, and people revert to behavioral patterns. Structure defines incentives. Incentives define behavior.

Reading this summary felt like the capstone in an intellectual journey. In some ways, it began 6 months ago when I read the excellent Loonshots. In it, author Safi Bahcall explains why some organizations innovate and others don’t by analyzing the underlying structure of the organization. In other ways, it feels like this is a journey I have been on for the better part of my life.

I’ve always been obsessed with incentives and the idea of structure feels like the missing piece to the puzzle.

In the words of Charlie Munger:

Show me the incentives and I will show you the outcome.

I’ve always thought through this mental framework where actions are explained by incentives and where people, in general, operate rationally based on the information they have. What was missing from this paradigm was a way to explain why people so often act against their own very explicit interests. Structures do this. We may have all the incentive in the world to exercise and eat healthy, but without the proper structures in place, we will never be able to sustain long-term lifestyle change.

I can see this so clearly in my life.

A recent example is working out. I recently wrote about how I have been trying to double down on exercising more. I have been trying to get on a good workout routine for years now and could never sustain anything. Now after two structural changes, getting up and exercising is easy. I went from not being able to get up to exercise more than once or twice a week, to doing it every (work) day. Easily. First, I changed how I was working out. Instead of focusing on becoming a better runner which I sucked at and didn’t enjoy I focused on lifting which I am good at and I do enjoy. The second thing I started doing was preparing my pre-workout drink the night before and setting it next to my alarm. I turn off my alarm and take a sip of caffeine and all the sudden falling back asleep isn’t an option. Two small structural changes to the system and suddenly the path of least resistance is getting up and exercising where it used to be crawling back into bed and going back to sleep.

Another example that has had a big impact on my life is networking. I used to hate it. I thought of it as brown-nosing and avoided it at all costs. It didn’t help that I struggle with social anxiety and just flat out am uncomfortable in many of the environments where “networking” is supposed to occur. Now networking is THE favorite part of my job. Why the sudden shift? Structural change. A former colleague who excelled at networking told me that he doesn’t think of networking as “networking” but simply as trying to make new friends and learn their stories. Suddenly the lens through which I looked at networking fundamentally shifted. No longer was networking some transactional way to climb the corporate ladder, but an opportunity to foster and cultivate genuine, value-add relationships.

That’s the beauty of structure and my biggest takeaway from The Path of Least Resistance. Structure is a powerful force that guides how we think and act.

But at the end of the day, we are the ones who get to shape the sand that the water will flow through.

We are the artists of our lives. Once we are aware of them (not a trivial matter) we can architect structures of our own choosing to pull us towards the actions and behavior we want to practice.

You know me. I’m a big choice guy. Part of everything in life being a choice is that sometimes (often) our choices manifest themselves in the ability to choose how to design structures in our life to get the outcomes we want. Because if your incentive structures are messed up, no amount of hard work or endurance will allow you to get the outcome you want (at least not sustainably).

Next time you are kicking yourself for doing something you know you shouldn’t or going back to bed when you know you should be hitting the gym, think about the structure in your life that is pulling you towards where you don’t want to go.

Believe me, it is easier to change the structure that is defining your behavior than to fight your way up the waterfall of going against your incentive structures.

Personal life. Business. School. Sports.

It’s all just structure.

And the great thing about structures is that they can be changed.

The sad thing about structures is that people almost never choose to do so.

So the question for you and I is, once we are aware of our structures, do we have the courage to change them?