This weekend I heard a lovely metaphor, an image from economist David Colander that was conveyed by Brian Arthur, pioneer in complexity economics and longtime faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute. Colander compares the development of economics to the climbing of a mountain:
With two mountains enshrouded in clouds, the econo-group chooses to climb mountain number one, the mountain of order. It’s a handy choice, since the terrain is well-suited to the tools at hand, and the group makes steady progress. By the time they reach the top, we have some beautiful models that help to explain part of the world in an elegant and organized way.
However, from this first peak, above the clouds, lo and behold a second mountain looms beyond, far larger than the first. This is the mountain of organism, not order, where the routes to the summit are unproven and the tools for the climb have not yet been gathered. It would be an arduous and uncharted climb, but from this summit we might see an infinitely more complete view.
We all have situations where we’ve climbed mountain number one, only to find that there’s a bigger landscape out there than expected. It would be easy to categorize that first climb as a waste of time, to feel that we took the wrong job, committed to the wrong person, bought the wrong house, made the wrong investment. It would be easy to turn away from the other mountains and refuse to consider them at all. It would be easy to claim that those higher peaks didn’t look all that great anyway, that ours was the best in every possible regard.
Dear friends, our options are not limited to despair over an incomplete journey, or bitterness over roads untaken. From the tops of our little peaks, we could pack up and head to the other mountains despite all of the challenges, true explorers. We could help to create new equipment that would help others to explore different terrain. We could tell the stories of what we can see from our peak – and what we can’t – so that the beginnings of new maps can be sketched.
We can build the capacity for exploration, regardless of the journeys we choose to take ourselves. We can rejoice in what we’ve learned on our climbs, and be grateful that they have revealed mountains beyond mountains. We can enjoy the view, knowing that it has helped us prepare for adventures yet to come.