Seeking Order. Embracing Uncertainty.
For centuries, we have sought to understand what the world around us is made of. The ancient Greeks postulated a simple set of four elements—air, earth, water, and fire—from which every other substance is composed. This rudimentary theory was, of course, disproven over time.
Fast forward to the middle of the 19th century, and 63 elements had been discovered. But there was still a big hole in our understanding. No one had been able to explain how all of these elements fit together.
Our fundamental understanding changed, but one thing had remained constant—man's desire to impose order. To organize. To have a framework. A random collection of elements was intolerable. Some principle was needed to explain the relationships between the elements. Many tried to impose such a framework. They all failed, being rejected out of hand as futile and arbitrary. Many chemists gave up on the idea of finding some organizing principle. But not Dmitri Mendeleev. The Russian chemist and inventor took a different approach.
Mendeleev started by identifying a quantitative measure, one that remained constant in all conditions—the atomic weight. Lining up the elements by their weight, he noticed that every seventh element exhibited similar behaviors. These two variables—the atomic weight and the observed behaviors—became the basis for the first version of what is today the periodic table of elements.
Today, we take the periodic table as a given. This wasn't the case back then. In fact, Mendeleev was a laughing stock. His early versions were nothing like the neatly arranged and comprehensive table we have today. Hydrogen, for example, was not in any column and was instead floating above the table. Some rows didn't have an element in their seventh column. Other rows had elements crowded together in one spot. To top it all off, Mendeleev "invented" elements to fill the holes in his table, going so far as to predict their atomic weights and other properties.
It seemed preposterous. This was not the comprehensive and tidy framework his peers were after. It was messy and incomplete, not to be taken seriously.
Over time, however, Mendeleev was vindicated. Every element he had predicted was eventually identified. To top it off, his predictions about their respective atomic weight and other properties were astonishingly accurate. The comprehensive framework that chemists wanted to impose was there all along. It simply took time to emerge.
As humans, we want order. Patterns. Explanations. We want clear-cut cause and effect. We want all the puzzle pieces to snap together.
When we groom our project backlog.
When we sort our task list.
When we layout our company strategy or outline our next company memo.
Organizing principles have their place; they also have their limits. We bump into these limits when we force it. Like the scientists who came before Mendeleev, we seek perfection... now! We work top-down, imposing arbitrary frameworks. We try to bring chaos into perfect order. We tie ourselves in knots trying to make everything fit neatly into little boxes.
Consider Mendeleev's example instead. Work from the bottom up. Don't force the information into a preconceived mold, allow the information to shape your mold to begin with. Like Mendeleev's use of atomic weight and observed behaviors, start with the intrinsic order. Then, remain patient. The pattern isn't always obvious, and the process cannot be rushed. Sometimes, all we have is a theory. Sometimes, the pieces don't fit together perfectly. Don't force it. Embrace the messy uncertainty. Keep working. Allow the order to reveal itself.