In my research, I regularly stumble upon the role of visions. But why are visions so important? Not that I will provide a scientific explanation for this question in this blog post. It is more are self-reflection that I want to share.
Visions are goals we strive towards. From systems thinking, I have learned that all systems have a goal. The goal is what organizes and structures the system. If my goal is to be the best contortionist on the planet, then I will organize my life accordingly. I will train in a certain way, I will eat in a certain way, I will try to accommodate earning money with this goal, etc. My interaction will be impacted by this goal. I may choose to have a lot of contortionist friends who can give me advice and I might avoid people who have a lifestyle that conflicts with fulfilling my goal. Clearly, the goal affects everything within a system (and beyond that system).
I was wondering if a system can be without a goal. I think it is not possible for a prolonged period of time to not have a goal. Maybe humans are not always aware of the goals they have chosen, but I think we all have a goal. May it be to have a comfortable life, to die rich, to get recognition, to spend much time in nature, to become a famous painter, to make the husband happy, to find pleasure, to fill the void inside. Some goals need more long-term planning than others, but they are all goals. If we lose sight of why we do something, we might get into a crisis.
When I was in school, I did not know why I was doing this. Just going to school because it was the expected thing to do was not enough for me (to the disappointment of my parents). Going to school to study or achieve something, was not enough for me, because I did not know what I want to study or achieve in life. The result was that I dropped out of school and started a search. And that search was my new goal. Only when I had figured out what I wanted to do, could I continue a regular path. I have cursed myself for always needing a reason. And I am jealous of those who seem to not need a reason. But maybe I am wrong, and everyone has a reason. As stated, some might have other priorities. Others might see their work as a means to an end. Potentially, it is a problem of privilege to choose an education or a job that makes one happy. Many people on this planet cannot afford to think about such things (as Maslow teaches us).
The question of whether everyone searches for meaning brings me to other systems. If systems thinking is right, then any system (conscious or not) is directed by a goal; survival. We are born with the instinct to survive. Animals are born with the instinct to survive. All actions are subordinated to this goal. I would argue that even finding meaning has no other goal. Especially in dark times, when we think that there is no way out, we search for meaning. That is because it helps us to survive. Viktor Frankl’s book Man's Search For Meaning. The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust explains this in great depth. He describes how people who lost hope died soon after. If a system loses its goal, it ceases to exist.
It is no coincidence that socio-ecological transition theory highlights the role of the human mind in processes of transition and stagnation (Gunderson & Holling, 2002, p. 108). Reading about transitions and change agents the role of visions (goals) is also highlighted (Mintrom & Rogers, 2022). In German we say: “der Glaube versetzt Berge” and “du kannst alles schaffen, wenn du nur willst“ (belief moves mountains and you can do anything if you only want). Thus, common knowledge and transition theory acknowledge the vital role of goals, visions, beliefs, and hope. Indeed, belief is not everything. If there is no bus station in my city, I will not manage to go by public transport, just by praying that a bus will come along. But hope keeps us going, and a vision makes us set up a plan with many small steps that hopefully will eventually make us achieve the vision.
When I went back to evening school, I made a plan on a little A4 sheet of paper and placed it in my room. The goal of finishing school seemed big, but I listed all the exams I had to do and, bit by bit, I added tick marks. I did the same for my studies and my PhD (for those who know, yes, I also lost hope there… but found it again). People know me as a sportive person, but I am not like that naturally. My father once confessed that he was worried about what would happen to that weak child of his. I surprised him… At some point, I started running. I somewhat hated it, but I had this vision of myself in my head. So I thought of Beppo the Roadsweeper (from Momo and the time thieves) and told myself that if I just put one foot in front of the other, I will eventually manage to finish my running route. Eventually, I ran about three times a week, sometimes 25km. Still thinking about putting one foot in front of the other.
Small actionable steps toward a bigger goal seem to be important when starting a new journey and staying on it. I had to think about this when I did research on how people change their mindsets, values, and beliefs. I was wondering what the connection between small actional steps, and a mindset change is. I still do not know about the dual directionality of this relationship. So, could we e.g. be nudged into a new mindset without wanting to abandon the old mindset? I am not too positive about this (because if it was possible, things would be easier. We had changed much more already). I think we always at least need a commitment to change. But once the commitment is there, the small steps are vital. Because of the sporty person I am now, I will use another sport-related example.
I was a very dedicated ashtangi (well, a bit overly dedicated, at least to the physical practice). Ashtanga Yoga is a specific form of Yoga, where you repeat the same sequence six days a week (unless your teacher grants you to progress to more difficult things, but let me not go down this road). In Yoga generally, the physical practice (Asana) is one step to enlightenment. The big goal thus is to achieve enlightenment (though they say when you strive for it, you will not achieve it…). A system of eight steps was built to increase the likelihood of achieving this goal (others are Meditation and Breathwork [Pranayama]). My first Ashtanga teacher also used the step trick to make students commit to the practice (which takes 1,5 hours and is very demanding). Her trick was saying: “Just unroll your mat and step on it. Then do one sun salutation and a second one. See what happens.” If I followed this instruction nine out of ten times, I would do the whole practice. Small actionable steps lead to the achievement of bigger goals. I never went into this, but the program of the AA seems to follow a similar approach. The program consists of a list of actionable steps that lead to enlightenment.
I think that actionable steps are especially relevant if the goal is too daunting. When a goal seems unachievable, we may lose hope and fall into apathy. I think this is partly why we see so much climate change anxiety. The goal we have to achieve seems too big and clearly, one person alone cannot achieve it. Furthermore, the steps to get there are far from clear. Maybe even worse, since this is a collective endeavor we need to agree on a collective goal. Though, our goals, visions, and beliefs seem to be in question and we have not agreed on new ones. What about capitalism, neoliberalism, economic growth, justice, democracy, etc. If we cannot all have a car (because of planetary boundaries), who is then allowed to have a car, and who decides that? Or should no one have a car? And what about meat, cute cows, and cultural landscapes? What about traveling to faraway places and cultural exchange? The dispute over future visions is typical for times characterized by a crisis. Our beliefs have weakened, what we believe in has not delivered, yet we have nothing new to replace it with. This crisis of visions is described by Thomas Kuhn (2012) when he discussed how paradigms change within science. We can also find this in Gramsci’s writings: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Maybe we are in the stage I was in when I quit school. We are collectively searching for a new meaning, new beliefs, values, goals, and visions.
The relevance of small actionable steps is also featured in Gramsci’s work. For an alternative to gain traction, it needs, amongst others, to be supported by visible examples of how to do things differently. In terms of sustainability transition these examples, are transition towns, community-supported agriculture, or tool libraries. These examples may help us as a society to embrace a common new vision, but they are expressions of specific visions of individuals. Individuals who have a specific vision and started to take small steps to make it become reality.
Actionable steps are key to achieving a goal, to making a transition happen. But can we plan the achievement of the goal? We can, but potentially things will not go according to plan. The messiness of transitions (as illustrated in the adaptive cycle by Gunderson and Holling) does not allow to predict the outcome of a transition process. The complexity of the involved systems will not allow for following a perfect plan. Returning to systems thinking though, I think that once we have a goal, the systems will reorganize automatically in alignment with the vision (of course not without pain). If we are in a transition period, if – what I hope – our common societal vision is in dispute, then I advocate for some individual and collective soul-searching. Systems cannot be without a goal. If we do not consciously agree on a common vision (that hopefully is also synergistic to the ecosystem), then alternatives that can happen. The system ceases to exist, or it will switch to survival mode.
Frankl, V. (2008). Man's Search For Meaning. The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust London: Rider.
Gunderson, L. H., & Holling, C. S. (2002). Panarchy: Understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Washington, Covelo, London: Island Press.
Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition (4th edition ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Mintrom, M., & Rogers, B. C. (2022). How can we drive sustainability transitions? Policy Design and Practice, 5(3), 294-306. doi:10.1080/25741292.2022.2057835