Meaning Guide

How many systems thinkers were bullied at school?

I hesitate to publish this, as I may be barking up completely the wrong tree, but I decided to just put it out there and see if it resonates with people. I’ll start with two (hopefully) uncontroversial points about the world of systems thinking:

  • Firstly, the world of systems thinking is surprisingly tribal and curmudgeonly. Once you get past the people using the word ‘systems’ to sound fashionable or dress up their existing consulting offerings, and get into communities that are properly embedded in the theory as well as the practice, it won’t be long before you hear disparaging comments about who ‘gets it’ and who doesn’t, and you’ll be asked questions by people trying to figure out which team you’re on. This isn’t universal, and things are definitely getting better, but the undercurrent is there. Irony: we prize thinking that can hold multiple perspectives in mind, but when we start talking about how to think that way, we struggle to hold holders of multiple perspectives in the same room.
  • Secondly, the world of systems thinking overflows with frustration that ‘no one else gets it’. You hear systems-led consultants struggling to sell systems concepts into organisations, employees who have caught the systems bug feeling isolated because they are seen as ‘thinking funny’ compared to everyone else, and a general despair that non-systemic thought patterns are destroying the world, but the world doesn’t seem to notice or care.

Now for the third point, and this is where I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb. It’s that a lot of systems thinkers seem to be carrying a disproportionate level of past trauma. I’m basing this on the small proportion of people I know in the systems world with whom I have a close relationship, so I could be wrong, and it’s hard to know for sure because it’s not something that people talk about a whole lot. So let me use myself to illustrate:

As a child, I went to a small, private, religious, parent-run school until I was 11. It was closed-off from the outside world, and there were only about a dozen students. It had good points and bad points, but overall I did fine. From 11 though, I was sent to a pretty rough state-run high school with 1200 students, and it soon became apparent that the social skills I needed to fit into this environment were basically non-existent. Not that I would have even known what that meant at the time – I just knew after a few weeks that I had somehow turned into an outcast, and it was OK for everyone to be consistently horrible to me. I didn’t stop being very bright and very curious, so I got on very well with teachers, because I genuinely found their subjects interesting. It took me a couple of years to catch on that this was just compounding the problems with my peers.

Over that five years I spent most of my time watching. I wasn’t welcome in any social setting in school, so I just observed from a careful distance, and bit by bit started to understand the rules of the game. By the time I was in sixth year most of my worst tormentors had left, I had built friendships with a good number of people, and I was well set to go off and thoroughly enjoy university, which I did 🙂 .

But those first five years of high school were absolutely brutal.

Now here’s the thing: What difference did it make, at that formative period of my life, to have this experience? Many differences no doubt, but one thing it forced on me was to learn to be OK taking the outsider’s perspective. I noticed things that you don’t notice so easily when you’re an insider: How people will say different things and become different people in order to stay in with different social groups, how much more important group identity is for most people than reality, the depths that people will stoop to when driven by a crowd, how quickly false information gets amplified around the system if the right person sets it off, and how all these kinds of factors inter-relate and compound one another. In other words, I was taking a systemic perspective.

This is my story, but it’s amazing how often, when I’ve got to know other people in the systems world well, they’ve shared similar experiences, of trauma either in their family or their school or their work or their personal lives. I’m not saying for a moment that trauma is some kind of pre-requisite for being good at thinking systemically. But I do wonder if for many people systemic thinking is a kind of epiphenomenon, a side effect that happens from going through a period of social or professional ostracisation, and being forced to find meaning in the patterns that only become visible from the outsider’s perspective.

If there’s something in this, then it has a number of implications. For example, could it be that the curmudgeonliness of many systems thinkers, which I mentioned at the outset, is a consequence of the pain from which their way of thinking was born? That the community of systems thinkers is also the community of outsiders, who both desperately want to belong but deep down don’t want to be hurt by getting too close?

And if there’s any truth to any of this, then maybe we have a much bigger problem, which is that the approach to thinking that could help to save the world is being carried around by people who don’t particularly want to be part of it.

I’ll climb back in off my limb now … very interested to know what people think.


  • Well, I can join you on your limb. As someone who unfortunately tends to be both curmudgeonly and chippy, and suffered quite a lot of bullying in school (and other bothersome, long-lasting but not necessarily dramatic ‘traumas’), I think this outsider-ness is a core part of things.

    As on twitter, I also added:
    Also warped minds from e.g. Sci-Fi, philosophy, other life-model breaking events… e.g. anything that develops meta-rational thinking, similar to Jacques or Torbert or Kegan etc etc stage development…

    I’d like to give a quick plug to my ‘four quadrants of thinking threats’:

    You draw out the curmudgeonliness (which we could also – at least partly – attribute, if they’re not too self-defeating, to a positive, and rare, focus on intellectual rigour).

    I think the other quadrants are interesting – I started as a naive enthusiast – THIS is the reason why my ‘warped’ thinking is actually right and all my managers and others are wrong, and I’ve certainly flirted with popularising and the temptation of gooroodom, but the hunger for learning pulls me back the centre (if anything does).

    It would not, I suppose, be surprising if those who have become hyper-alert to threats due to outsider status become particularly interested in deep and sometimes counter-intuitive models of how the world works – see the fun series ‘Lie to Me’ for psychology-lite examples of how this might arise from natural intuition or from trauma.

    And while this power can be used for good, it can also be used to sustain self-harm, and to hit back at others. I think at heart that’s what my quadrants are all about…

    There’s definitely something there. And, obviously, it’s going to be more complicated than that 🙂

  • Interesting! Social ostracisation aside (which is a whole area familiar to child psychologists, especially in these social media times), just being ‘outside’ a system allows one to study it in its entirety, rather than from a viewpoint within and coloured by the system.
    Your point echos the excellent TEDx talk by Caitlin Walker ( in which she says that she ended up learning about Clean systems because of being born and brought up in a number of different countries/cultures which meant that she had to analyse and learn the social rules of those different societies to be able to make sense of them.

  • Yes, that’s my experience too, and I agree with everything you have said, except the comment that “the approach to thinking that could help to save the world is being carried around by people who don’t particularly want to be part of it”. I’ll get to that later though.

    I was an outcast at school from the age of 4, when I started. I wouldn’t move from the wall of the playground for a couple of years, as the brutality of other children was so terrifying. I couldn’t say anything – in any context, other than with my parents – that was not pre-rehearsed in my head, so I was a ‘natural victim’. Added to which, I was the smallest, skinniest child in my year, and completely hopeless at sports. Fights were commonplace, but I refused to participate in them. A few times I would let myself be beaten up rather than hit back. My preference, when out of school, was to spend hours in the bushes behind our back garden, where I delighted in the world of insects. I regularly used to think, if I could switch off all the human beings in the world and still be able to feed myself, I would do it without hesitation – a natural world, or a desert island, with only me on it was far preferable to the reality I experienced every day.

    I had a few close friends outside school from the age of five, but basically being at the bottom of the social pecking order at school lasted until I was 14. It was at that time that my pathalogical honesty (I would never even tell a trivial lie) started to pay social dividends. Children would come to ask me to adjudicate on disputes. I made proper friends. Then, at the age of 16, I made a conscious decision to teach myself to talk without rehearsal. Every lesson in sixth form, I spoke out in some way. For two years I was bathed in sweat in lessons (sometimes my shirt was wet through), and I left at the end of almost every day with a migraine, But at the end of this period, I could talk confidently. I was still a social wierdo (which one or two of the girls relished reminding me of), and I would often blurt out unusual things (removing the rehearsal had its drawbacks!). It took three more years at university to really learn the social skills to understand what was appropriate to say. But I did it.

    Has this anything at all to do with systems thinking? I think the honest answer (at least from my perspective) is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Around the ages of 18-24, I went through the usual paradigm shifts in my thinking: early on, I was fascinated by the mechanistic worldview, and saw the world as a deterministic clockwork toy. Later, I realised the importance of multiple perspectives, and started to embrace total relativism. The third paradigm shift came to me in my late 20s – the realisation that relativism can’t hold when we are situated agents in a context – we have to make judgements, and the question is how to do that in a way that accounts for both the context and other’s viewpoints. This, for me, was the foundation of the worldview that I would later build my systems thinking upon. But I don’t think those childhood experiences led *directly* there, because of those two previous phases.

    On the other hand, what that experience of being ostracised gave me was a moral basis to my actions that is definitely systemic. I resolved never, ever to treat others as I had been treated, which meant that the kind of active listening that other people have to be trained in, came naturally to me. An ethic of mutual respect was meaningful from a young age, as was the idea of not retaliating in kind (still treating others as you want to be treated, even if they don’t do the same) and refusing violence. While I am not particularly religious now, the story of Jesus turning the other cheek resonated a lot for me when I was a young child. This whole ethic, I reckon, is fundamental to a systems perspective, in that appreciating the wider system means decentring oneself (even if we have no way of appreciating that wider system except through our limited perspectives). Likewise, breaking cycles of abuse, mistrust and conflict (which I have regularly done in my systems practice) requires an initial altruistic communication by at least one of the parties. It helps to still try to see the other’s perspective, and refuse tit-for-tat responsiveness – both in terms of our own relations with others, and appreciating what is needed in a conflict resolution process, so we can facilitate effectively.

    Now that comment: “the approach to thinking that could help to save the world is being carried around by people who don’t particularly want to be part of it”. When I first read this, I thought the “it” referred to systems thinking, and I was going to reply that systems thinkers are really strongly attached to this. Then I realised that “it” is the world. We prefer to be outsiders because it gives a certain status (we are critical voices in the margins), while preserving us from getting too close and being hurt.

    One more personal reflection: I am now 58, and I have spent my whole life putting myself in situations where closeness cannot be avoided. That stems from my early success in improving my own social skills, and I rarely let myself settle in a comfort zone. I have done many community development and policy projects, and I go out of my way to support marginalized people in those pieces of work. I have thrown myself in the deep end more times than I can remember.

    One of the most central dilemmas that informs my research is how to bridge between critical thinking (often the province of the outsider looking in) with action for change (often the province of the insider). Outsiders are often critical of insiders for not seeing the bigger picture and accepting constraints that ought to be challenged. Insiders are often critical of outsiders for having ‘big ideas’ that are never going to be accepted and implemented. A large amount of my own systems practice has been about developing concepts and tools that enable critical thinking IN RELATION to action. I think this is common to many systems thinkers, at least in the UK (there are other traditions where people take a more traditional scientific role, divorced from practice).

    So another reflection is that, if my own experience is fairly typical of systems thinkers (tell me if it isn’t), we do indeed want to be part of the world – but we want to bring with us the ways of thinking that give us a critical edge.

    Do I fear being hurt in the process? Well, my honest answer is “more than I did when I was 5, but less than when I was 25”. At the age of 5, my whole world was one of constant hurt – I expected it, and I could take it. Being hurt didn’t matter all that much, as I had so little to lose by way of friendships with others. It was only from the age of 14, when I formed real friendships, that the loss of them really mattered. So by the time I was 25, I truly feared any form of public humiliation. I had put myself through a lot of it in order to learn how to communicate, but my fear of it was at it’s peak in my 20s, probably because I had come so far and didn’t want to fall back. However, I am now far more secure – if I get knock-backs, I have a core of self-esteem that feels pretty solid. So in a way that’s a return to childhood, when I could take the hurt and live with it – except now it’s not because I have so little to lose, but because I have 35 years of deep immersion in systems thinking and practice, which gives me really useful resources for engaging critically in the world. It also gives me a valued social role. Yes, I was an outsider at the age of 5, and still carried that outsider in me at 25. At 58 though, I am being invited by people all over the world, including many mainstream institutions, to engage with them in tackling major issues (climate change, social care, health, violence). They clearly don’t see me as an outsider – they want that critical thinking themselves, and they want it spread throughout their communities. So, while I am still aware of the outsider within, I am more engaged with the world than ever before.

    I also think this is true for others, so I am not so pessimistic. And for the first time in my lifetime, systems thinking is becoming truly mainstream – it has to be so, if we are to have a chance at tacking some of our current global crises.

  • Wow, it’s true which almost hurts to realize. On the other hand I can now reframe it. Well, and I can reflect on ways to use this insight to guide the next generation.

  • I had made the exact same reflection several times and was wondering what the answer could be. I am so glad someone has finally found the ‘courage’ to talk about it.

  • Apparently a disproportionate number of entrepreneur types also suffered childhood bullying 80/90% apparently (cant remember which )
    So systematisation as process applied once learned from the outside etc.

    Philosopher George Lakoff talks about the familial experience transposing into ones outlook in life…

    Most reincarnation-friendly spiritualities also talk about choosing family/social constellations for particular soul learnings etc.

    Definitely interesting.

  • Thanks to everyone who responded to this here and on the thread on LinkedIn Systems Thinking group; I also received a number of e-mails and DMs from people over the weekend who had experienced bullying and ostracism but didn’t want to share publicly. I’ll just repeat here what I said on LI, that there’s definitely something here.

    Although I highlighted bullying, as that’s the experience I know, the actual correlation clearly relates to a much broader pattern, i.e. any kind of social dynamic that forces you into an outside-in perspective to make sense of what’s going on. There are a bunch of interesting examples in the replies: Having family members with very contradictory opinions, travelling a lot, being adopted, seeing one’s caregivers suffering from addiction, military service, but I guess it’s a lot longer.

    I’m maxed out at the moment, but definitely going to return to this when I have more time to fully digest what everyone has said … it would be a really interesting research project to uncover more thoroughly what precursors correlate most clearly with the systemic ‘sensibility’ … in the mean time thanks again everyone for reminding me that I’m not alone!

  • Well, that’s interesting. I thought it’s just a coincidence I have always felt like an outcast and had profound interest in how systems work. It may well be. I think that as far back as I can go in my childhood I had an affinity for thinking objectively and holistically although I was very far from defining that as systems thinking or whatever (I became familiar with the term first in university). So even before I had quite a terrible childhood at school and I’d say not very pleasant adult life even now, I had the seeds of my thinking today. Anyway, I guess being an outsider helps, one has to be a spiritual hermit, not be part of the herd, so to say. As soon as you decide to play into the ideological game that literally everyone falls for you lose your perspective of how the whole system operates. So even if you’re not an involuntary outcast, you need to be a voluntary one (to some extent) to be a really good systems thinker. I would say that is one of the reasons why everyone of your friends has apparently such a different view of how system thinking works. I would say that not being part of a tribe is a prerequisite for clear thinking as a whole. Perhaps, we wouldn’t agree on many topics as well but that’s ok. That’s how it should be.

    • John, the point that “one of the reasons why every one of your friends has apparently such a different view of how system thinking works” is a great one. This is deeper than being an outsider and finding a ‘tribe’ of outsiders who welcome you. That does happen: I have lost count of the number of people coming to a systems conference for the first time who say ‘this is incredible; I’ve found my tribe’. It’s also that, for some (not all), even an affiliation to an outsider tribe is difficult, and the emphasis is placed on critique of ‘mainstream’ systems thinking and the development of something new. That creates a huge amount of variety in the corpus of systems ideas, which is then reinforced within academia by pressure for originality.

  • Very interesting discussion. Thanks Steve for daring to go out on a limb! I do think those who have been bullied and those who are outsiders for other reasons, such as those with multi-cultural backgrounds or those who have had parents with addictions or other significant challenges likely make good systems thinkers because they have been ‘forced’ to think from other perspectives, hone their critical thinking skills, and see social/cultural constructs for what they are.
    However, unless they have done their own healing work, they may not yet have learned how to be appropriate communicators, compromise enough to reach a reasonable consensus, and in general to be forgiving of people and their foibles.

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