In the lower-left corner of our map, we find the cornerstone of the modern age: conceptual order. It's our invisible operating system forged from intricate patterns of information, rules, and tools that stabilize and empower lived experience.
Without conceptual order, we're stuck in a Dark Age loop.
The less robust our concepts, the more we rely on our social fabric to hold us together: a temporal, fragile web of norms, hierarchies, and emotions.
These embodied relational patterns may sustain us for a season, but they wither with us as time passes. Most discoveries get buried with their discoverers.
Partial knowledge and techniques transfer to future generations through story, mimetics, and ritual. But children are fortunate if they can act out what they've learned from their parents any better than the prior generation.
Likewise, when you or I lack robust conceptual order, we toss in the tides of our relationships. Our self-concept morphs extrinsically with each unkind word, a credential gained or lacked, and how well we keep up with the fashion of our tribe.
Our ambitions and dreams grow so entangled with others that we become more dependent on everyone except ourselves to reach them; Worse, we may arrive and discover our dreams weren't ours in the first place.
How do we escape a collective or personal Dark Age loop?
The first step is to tend to our roots in conceptual order in direct relationship with our relational order.
To tease out this two-world interplay, let's consider a once-familiar experience: dining in a restaurant.
The order of a restaurant
When we dine-in at a restaurant, our experience is created from two worlds: a visible felt relational world and a hidden conceptual world.
A restaurant's relational patterns – it's environment and people – feeds our expectations and feelings. As we enter the restaurant, we instinctively soak in the decor, smells, music, and kinds of people in the room. The aesthetic ambiance quickly signals if we fit in or if we shuffle back out the door (or wish we could).
Then, the waiter's performance takes center stage. We judge them by how well they navigate relational patterns in real-time, subconsciously recognizing their:
- Natural charisma.
- Attentiveness to social norms (e.g., who to give the check or ask to order first).
- Signals of competence (e.g., well groomed, able to pair a recommendation to our taste).
- The correct amount of deference or intimacy our table is comfortable with.
The dramatized social experience is what separates a fantastic date or dinner group from getting take out.
But a restaurant's invisible world determines if we leave satisfied and return.
If we wait too long for our seats or plates, we can't afford what's on the menu, or we find a tiny hair in our food, there's little the environment or wait staff can do to salvage our experience. These things are dependent on the restaurant's behind-the-scenes conceptual order:
- How reliable is their system for estimating wait time and capacity?
- Is the kitchen adequately staffed with skilled-enough cooks who can match what its environment, brand, and prices suggest?
- Do sanitation standards and practices keep dishes hair-free?
- And so on.
We think of restaurants as social experiences, but their conceptual order is surprisingly complex. The more robust and fine-tuned its order becomes, the less we see it, but the more we feel a relationship to it.
All these external and internal ingredients form the order of a restaurant, and when one side fails, the other suffers as well.
But this relational-conceptual interplay isn't unique to restaurants: everything works this way. So how do we evolve the hidden conceptual order that empowers our organizations, teams, or selves?
Conceptual order evolves in two directions.
We vertically evolve conceptual patterns by abstracting from the gaps in our relational order and seeing if they improve.
We horizontally evolve our concepts from taking leaps into conceptual chaos.
In this essay, we'll focus on vertical evolution:
Vertical evolution: we shape concepts from our experience, and then our concepts shape our experience.
Concepts don't evolve in a vacuum, but when we need them.
More often than not, the seed for a new tool or rule is a desperate need to disembody an insufferable pattern in our relationship with ourselves or others.
First, we observe functional or dysfunctional patterns above us in all their dramatic, primitive messiness.
Then, we use logic, methods, and tools to distill abstract patterns from the sensation.
Finally, we try out our shiny new abstraction in real life to see if it gets better or worse.
This cycle is how concepts transform primitive practice into science, technology, and law.
"We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us."
— John M. Culkin expounding on Marshall McLuhan
We know we're onto a useful concept when it reshapes our felt experience above for the better. Laws evolve to fill the holes in our social fabric, and technology scales our efforts beyond imagination.
Best of all, these well-honed, reliable concepts get compressed and lay a foundation for future generations to build on.
But facts, science, and technology have a limited view.
As we evolve our concepts, our upward view of relational order limits us to the past - what's already worked or not worked. And our only testing ground for new concepts is the present.
Here, honing our concepts depends on direct observation and manipulation (i.e., the Scientific Method).
Anything that may happen in the future is an irrelevant distraction; Anything not directly observable is suspicious, at best.
There's little room in this corner for intuition, vision, or immaterial ideas. After all, studies that don't replicate can't be trusted. Code that works only sometimes is a bug. Inconsistent rules are insufferable and ineffective.
While evolving conceptual order objectively is essential, dwelling only here means missing the forest for the trees and presents a danger of getting blindsided by the future.
To avoid vertical evolution's pitfalls, we must balance it with horizontal evolution, but that's a topic for a future essay.
Prompts to help you vertically evolve your conceptual order.
1) What relationship patterns (with yourself or others) can you observe in the present or past year that you'd like to change?
For instance, do people you care for feel they can rely on you? Can you rely on them? In what social spheres do you feel a lack of meaningful relationships? Where are you presenting yourself as something that's who you really are?
Once you've spotted some relational gaps, see if you can identify the impersonal factors underneath it: could the gaps be filled with knowledge, systems or technology, or adherence to rules (disciplines)?
Finally, what could you do to gain the information, rules, or tools to change your future relational experiences?
Here's a personal example for reference:
- Relational gap: Reflecting on the last year, I feel some loss around time not spent with friends.
- Conceptual root: Pretty easy to trace the impersonal cause here: I've not scheduled times to communicate (a rule or discipline).
- Concept evolution: In 2021, I'll create recurring reminders (a tool) to schedule hangouts with friends every six weeks.
2) Where is your knowledge or core beliefs inadequate or unreliable in your lived experience?
For instance, what ideas or skills have you avoided surfacing to others for fear of appearing shallow, incorrect, or confused? What would you need to learn or practice to confidently bring these ideas out of your mind and into your relationships?
Here's another personal example:
- Relational gap: I often don't bring up the Chaos Map socially as it's too strange and vague to apply to everyday concerns.
- Conceptual root: While I, and a few others, use the Chaos Map productively at work and in life, I haven't developed reliable, practical applications that are quickly and readily recommendable to others.
- Concept evolution: In 2021, I'll shift my monthly essays towards application and run some experiments. If you'd like to experiment with me in developing practical techniques, let me know! Additionally, I'll distill bite-sized ideas from these rambling expositions on Twitter and perhaps other social media.
3) What are you avoiding measuring that impacts your lived experience?
Relational order is adept at ruthlessly quantifying and measuring anything it can. Measurement is a useful tool for regulating or motivating our relational order, wether it’s our bank account or waistline.
- Relational gap: spending too much money on food, social events, and fashion leads to short-term relational patterns but isn’t sustainable.
- Conceptual root: Our relational order is regulating one of our most important, ordered concepts: money.
- Concept evolution: use a readily available concept - a budget - to regulate our relational patterns.