« Writing

How to build a fractal, nourishing system of practice, in business & in life

April 01, 2021

Part one: A story about productivity systems, personal growth, and discovering alternatives to both

I was on a podcast the other day, and the host asked me, “Are you a startup CEO or a maintenance CEO?”

Fifteen or even five years ago, I would have absolutely identified with the passionate, impulsive nature of the visionary—someone who’s good at kindling fires but bad at keeping them burning. My natural bent is to pour myself totally into some grand pursuit (and, if I’m being honest, to run hard and fast away from outcomes I dread).

But at some point, that changed. My unflagging optimism and determination to push hard toward possibility became a liability rather than a strength. It wasn’t wisdom that convinced me to change as much as my inability to force myself to do things anymore. If I could have kept going in the way that came naturally, I would have.

&yet as a company faced a different, but parallel challenge when I became CEO in June 2019. Our team has historically been full of optimism and the tendency to go all in on a grand vision. Like many startups, it also showed signs of “founder syndrome,” being highly dependent on the energizing force of its founder’s will, influence, and initiative. And while one of the main reasons the company exists is to prioritize the well-being of the people who work there, its own health has been through the wringer. For as many victories as we’ve celebrated, we’ve had our share of downturns to recover from. Luckily, resilience is one of our strengths. Each time we’ve rallied together and come through, and that experience has seeded within us a commitment to deep-rooted sustainability, while at the same time being true to our passionate, weird, “beyond category”1 selves.

And so we’ve been experimenting with ways we can build our future without being entirely dependent on the “fire” of creative leadership. We’ve been looking for systems that will stoke that fire within us, individually and collectively, and keep it burning. Systems that will help us to learn, and build on what we’ve learned, rather than starting over and over and over again with each new flame of insight.

This isn’t a confession piece about burnout though, or the challenges of agency life. It also isn’t a declaration that we’ve got it all figured out—we’ve still got a ways to go to harvest the fruit of the seeds we continue to plant, and there are plenty of risks we haven’t yet mitigated. It’s more about what I’ve found along the path, and what a gift it has been to me, no matter what’s going on around me. Maybe it will be a gift to you, too.

The most obvious thing I’ve found is a system of practice that works for me personally. This is no small feat. As a recovering personal growth and productivity junkie, I’m a lifelong lover of building systems. However, until the past couple of years, I haven’t been so good at maintaining them for myself. I’ve been able to incorporate them in spurts, advancing 100 feet and then retreating 90, and that has thankfully been enough. Even done imperfectly (which I encourage!), these principles have propelled me through a satisfying, self-made career.

Now though, as I’ve had to learn new ways of working, these practices have supported me even as I’ve faced the challenge of charting a new direction for &yet while leading us through a global pandemic. While I can’t yet say that this approach has made us millions or “10xed” anything2, we’ve taken care of each other during one of the hardest times we’ve faced societally, cultivated a shared vision for our future, expanded our capacity (even though we haven’t expanded our head count), distributed decision-making to more folks, integrated a framework for values-aligned growth, and are building on what we learn every single quarter.

I’m proud of us, frankly. It’s much easier to talk about these things than to do them (consistently) for yourself. I’ve helped a few hundred clients build businesses based on the entrepreneurial side of these ideas and wrote about them in Gather the People. My next book, People-First Growth, is about applying these principles within teams and organizations. But it’s only since I took on the responsibility of the CEO role that I’ve been able to continuously apply them and integrate that knowledge into our team.

That’s been my experience. Yours will be different. But ultimately, this is the gift I hope to give you: a thoughtful perspective on how those of us who’ve been victims of our own optimism and ambition might learn, however awkwardly, to work differently. And also, how to know when it’s time to bring the fire.

In this essay, I want to explore how a system designed for people is different from a system designed for optimized input, minimal error, and maximum economic output. There are several principles I’ve found to be true, or at least part of the truth. I learn new “truths” every day, and I’m sure you have your own. The additive nature of learning and discovery is one of my favorite parts of the process.

In the next essay, I want to share a set of skills that help create a strong foundation for these systems to be built upon. I’ve found these skills necessary to navigate the vulnerabilities and emotional labor introduced when you build systems that allow for the full range of human experience. In many ways, prioritizing economics rather than people is much easier, even for the humans involved. Picking up the end of the stick that includes “bringing our whole selves to work” also means picking up the other end—our whole selves are messy, messy creatures.

And in the last essay, I want to share my current understanding of how to build an ever-evolving, forward moving system of practice, using my personal systems and the systems &yet has built as examples. Self-referential and context-specific as these may be, they’re what I know best, and I hope they’ll be helpful to you.

Principles for a system of practice

The word “system” can be applied at so many levels it’s almost meaningless on its own. What we’re really talking about is a “system of practice3.”

A system of practice is an emergent approach to living and working4. Even though the phrase sounds a bit stodgy, I decided to use it as an alternative to the productivity systems and hustle culture that dominate professional life (and even our personal lives). Our systems of practice are not meant to wrangle us into society’s standard for performance or health. In fact, I arrived at my current approach because I was looking for an antidote to the impact of over a decade of self-optimization.

Instead, systems of practice provide a foundation of service and care for the person or people they’re designed for. While the visible results of integrating these systems may look like expanded capacity, increased knowledge, deepened skill, consistent output, or similar “productive” aims, these are not the point. The point is what is invisible: the person or people themselves, and what they need to flourish.

Also, a warning: if we are truly prioritizing service and care for ourselves as people, sometimes the near-term visible results will not be expanded capacity, consistent output, etc. etc. Sometimes we have a lot of healing to do. In order to do that, we may have to withdraw from or reduce our participation in the very activities that made us feel “productive” and valuable, at least to begin with. As we learn to depend on our true capacity, it’s in the nature of things for that capacity to grow. But we don’t always get to start there.

A system that prioritizes care for people relies on developing an ongoing practice instead of optimizing for efficient output. What are the rituals, the tools, the applications of effort, in short, the “practices” needed to cultivate an environment of well-being? How do we keep our focus on what we practice, rather than on what we produce, when the culture we’re steeped in is constantly tempting us to do otherwise?

In order to have any hope of shifting our view, we can consider the deeply entrenched values that drive our desire for productivity. Efficiency, predictability, and control are fine goals when applied to how we steward our material resources, but they’re terrible “first principles” when applied to how we invest our most precious resources—our time, effort, energy, and attention5.

This seems obvious, but it’s not the default. The underlying hope we have in our productivity systems, for example, is that they will help us create our finest work in abundance and on schedule, fully in control of the level of success we want to achieve. We judge ourselves for our messy humanity and look forward to the day when we finally have our shit together. In other words, we not only want efficiency, predictability, and control over our work processes, we feel that we ourselves should be more efficient, predictable, and in control in order to reach our full potential. This puts pressure on us to heroically pursue an isolating and never-ending pursuit of personal growth6.

Unlike productivity systems, which glorify the individual (often at the expense of the needs of the whole), systems of practice can be both personal and collective. We can build them on an individual, team, organizational, or even community level. Because it’s true that “in the particular is contained the universal7,” we start first with ourselves, and then move outward from there. We’re no longer isolated chasing after our own potential, but are interconnected with the people around us who make our lives rich and meaningful. We naturally provide nourishment and strength to each other as we are nourished and strengthened.

And so, what are the underlying values we can bring to our systems of practice?

Here are a few I’ve been considering.

Think “slow integration” instead of “quick pivot”

To build durable, fruitful systems of practice, the most powerful resource we have is not our intelligence or willpower or the tools we’re using, but the passage of time and the ability to integrate any new approach with our existing way of life.

How often have we tried a new tool or taken a class or implemented a new strategy and thought to ourselves, “This is it! This is The One!” For a few days, weeks, or months, we’re on a roll. The New Thing is going great; we can see our best, most productive, most capable selves on the horizon. Only to realize after a few weeks or months that it wasn’t “It,” it was never “It,” maybe there is no “It8.”

Over time, you might continue to be optimistic, even though you find yourself going through this cycle again and again. Or you might become cynical and give up on systems entirely. But once in a while, something promising will capture your attention, and you’ll wistfully consider “what if…?”

A strong system of practice is built on a few truths: No, there is no such thing as “It.” This tool or that approach is never going to pave the final path toward reaching your full potential. (Not even this one.)

But like many truths, the opposite is also true: once you fully accept that “It” doesn’t exist, you are finally free to actually build an approach that works for you or your team or your organization, long-term.

The trick is understanding that how you build your systems is just as important as what you build. Creating an effective system of practice is like building a house while simultaneously observing how you live in it. This is tricky. But by building and observing at the same time, you make a better “house” for your particular self (or selves, in the context of a team) to inhabit. You also learn that the entire point of the house is to be lived in. If you end up building a place you ultimately don’t want to be, you’ve wasted your effort.

And yet, that’s what many of us do. We love building systems for ourselves. So fun! So much possibility! We don’t much love living within the systems we’ve built.

Our two most valuable tools, then, are not our tech stack or our goal-setting framework. Those are just bricks or an extra staircase. Our two most important tools are time and iterative integration. Slow growth is the name of the game here. There are times when we need to make big, quick pivots to something totally new, but not in the context of building a sustainable system of practice.

A commitment to slow integration sounds simple, but it takes gentle discipline9: the kind of nurturance that stems from cherishing our present and future selves and committing to being in our own corner. This doesn’t mean being perfect; it does mean that when we don’t show up for ourselves, we ask ourselves, “What’s going on? What do you need?”10 Developing that kind of discipline means taking the space to get curious and be patient with ourselves, not pushing through and “getting things done” but pausing so we can tend to what’s going on underneath.

We love the idea of “slow” movements, but in a business context, we have a deep bias toward urgency, hurry, and stress. Time feels like a luxury we may not have. Even if you think you have it in theory, try slowing down instead of speeding up the next time that urgent feeling hits. It’s enormously difficult, and can even feel irresponsible or risky.

But giving ourselves time is not only good for our nervous systems and sense of well-being (even if we have to sit on our hands11 in order to do it), it also makes us better decision-makers. Our conscious and unconscious minds need breathing room to do their best work, connecting new ideas with previous knowledge and gathering information to validate or invalidate those ideas. When we give ourselves the gift of time, our ideas are allowed to take root (or not), intermingling with the other roots we’ve already established.

Time also allows us to gradually, intentionally include other people in our thinking, even if we are introverts who do our best work in private. We don’t have to rush to make something happen in order to receive the social, economic, or career benefits of having done it. We can create out loud12, letting our ideas develop on a more organic timeline, seeing what resonates with others even as we’re paying close attention to what’s resonating with us.

Moving slowly and allowing for the passage of time is not a passive activity. It’s incredibly active as we start integrating one small facet of our idea after another. It’s not about waiting until you have everything figured out; it’s about acting intentionally, in small ways, as soon as it feels right to act.

Often my first act for a big idea is a conversation. If that feels good, I might try a small tweak in what I’m already doing. I might introduce the idea to a larger group. I might make something small and share it. I might notice that one part of my idea resonates with ease while the other parts feel like I’m pushing a boulder uphill, so I’ll drop the clunky parts and focus on the ease. A process of slow integration is a daily, sometimes even hourly, practice.

Still, there will be times when you’re sure that a quick pivot is needed, and that may be true. But consider where that desire is coming from. Quick pivots are satisfying because the high of discovering a solution alleviates painful emotions like frustration, apathy, and fear—at least temporarily. But over time, a habit of reacting out of those feelings (and seeing that those pivots are rarely the miracle cure you believed they would be) can leave you burnt out and apathetic about activities you used to enjoy. Pivoting quickly not only plants new seeds, but ends up ripping out some or all of what you already spent time and energy planting.

While it may be hard at first, taking a slower, integrative approach will deepen your sense of safety (and yes, joy) as it expands your capacity to allow for things to grow rather than force them. When those things grow, their roots will be strong and well-nourished. You’ll start to experience a sense of ease where it used to feel like an exhausting, never-ending push.

That ease is not necessarily comfortable. Sometimes we’re so used to the constant striving that anything less feels strange and awkward. As much as we think we want more ease in our lives, we might wonder if we’re doing enough if we’re not constantly rushed and anxious. We might question our value or feel antsy or vaguely dissatisfied. Those feelings, too, are normal. As we practice living out the values we truly want in our lives, we’ll also practice letting our emotions co-exist with our process13.

I often think about that Victor Frankl quote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Time and iterative integration give us the gift to deliberately respond to whatever life brings us, allowing us to build the kind of lives that are nourishing for us to live.

Think “potency” instead of “efficiency”

Efficient systems reduce input and expand output. We want to get the greatest benefit for the least amount of effort. The underlying desire for efficiency is to produce more, better, faster.

But people aren’t designed for more, better, faster. We have limits. We have emotions. We are constantly taking in new information. We are driven by narrative; our worlds are layered with meaning that we have a hard time ignoring for efficiency’s sake. To be human is to be constantly asking why and to eventually change course when the answers don’t line up.

Designing a system of practice to be as efficient as possible may work for a while (when our willpower is at its strongest), but it ultimately works against our nature. Potency is a more sustainable aim.

A potent system uses human thoughtfulness as its core strength. We explore the highest impacts we want to see in ourselves and in the world to know where to best leverage our resources. Sometimes these impacts are less tangible than others. After all, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.14” We create the most potency when we integrate our heads with our hearts to make our way through.

This kind of thoughtfulness can be inefficient in the moment, as we fluidly question the status quo and subtly re-align our movement in response to what is really needed. But over time, it allows us to act on new information in a way that efficiency does not.

As we do this, we look for opportunities for alignment. Alignment allows us to work fractally, where working on the small and the close-in is also working on the large and the far-away1516. When we align what we want with what we need, and then align those needs with the needs and desires of others, we create significant opportunities for potency. Working fractally means that any time we work on any of the pieces involved, we are working on the whole thing.

Fractals are a fascinating efficiency of nature. A fern looks like a fern, whether you’re looking at one stem or the whole plant. Each leaf is repeated, over and over, in the same way that each stem is repeated over and over, in the same way that each frond is repeated over and over, creating a unified pattern for the whole.

The truly amazing thing is that if you were able to change the pattern of one single leaf on a cellular level, you’d be able to change the entire plant. One precise application of effort would be exponential in impact.

When we approach our work fractally, we realize that we ourselves are the basic fractal unit of everything we touch. The same patterns that show up within ourselves have a way of showing up in everything we do. The same is true of each of the individuals we collaborate with. This happens regardless of whether we think at a fractal level, but if we understand this truth and are intentional about it, we can use it to our advantage.

A fractal system is potent because it allows every person to make an impact that is greater than their individual effort. Within a fractal system, when you make just one thing better, you improve the system. And by improving that system, you improve the whole eco-system in which that system operates.

Even as we honor our human and material limits, moving in the direction of potency expands our capacity. This allows us to engage with our lives in the context of abundance rather than scarcity, facilitating a self-reinforcing cycle of growth rather than lack.

Think “flexible” instead of “predictable”

Systems and plans give us a feeling of comfortable predictability. We know what to do and how to do it. We know that we have enough fuel for the road. We may not trust ourselves in any particular moment, but we trust in the ability of a well-thought-out and consistently executed plan to see us through.

We make our systems and plans as an act of preparation, before we get started on the actual path. This makes sense, sort of. It helps us think through what we’re about to do so we can attempt to take the shortest path with the least obstacles, avoiding the dangers we most fear. At the same time, rigidly adhering to plans we made at the beginning makes no sense at all. We know the very least about where we’re headed before we’ve begun.17 Still, we trust that version of ourselves and its well-laid plans more than the version who now sees what was previously unseen.

Since the world (and we ourselves) is always changing, our systems must fluidly adjust as we go. Like a unicyclist trying to stay balanced, these shifts might be imperceptible to others, but they are happening in every moment.18

The trick is to make these shifts in an additive way, rather than a subtractive one, building on previous discoveries rather than tearing down what we’ve already built. If we do this in the spirit of slow integration, we limit the need for destroying the old to make way for the new. We find ourselves spiraling ever forward and upward, revisiting our same old selves at different points, but always from a higher perch.

Predictability says, “Stay the course, and you’ll get where you plan to go.” Flexibility says, “Stay the course, and reshape it in response to what you discover. You’ll end up somewhere even better than you could have imagined.”

In order to be flexible, our systems must also allow for spaciousness. Instead of maximizing every resource, we must allow some of our resources to just sit there, apparently doing nothing. Whether we’re talking about our time, money, energy, effort, or attention, letting some of it be “unoptimized” allows us breathing room to respond to opportunities as they come up. It also keeps us from constantly pushing ourselves to points of stress because we failed to take into account that we often need more time, money, energy, etc. than we think we will.

A few years ago, I “decided” to become a runner (I say “decided” because it was one of many half-hearted attempts). I used an app that was supposed to gradually increase my extremely limited running capacity. Every day, a voice in my ear would coach me on that day’s run. The first day, that “coach” said two things that have never left me.

First, every person who can physically run has a pace at which they can run the entire time. This was a total shock to me, as someone who believed I could barely run to the end of the block. But when I tried slowing down, it turned out to be true. That pace may be excruciatingly slow—for me, it was almost slower than a walk. Watching me run is like watching an underwater relay race. But that pace exists.

Second, if your goal is to run every day, most days are either maintenance days or recovery days. You’ll have the rare days when you’ll practice increasing your speed or your distance. You may have even rarer days when you compete. But most days are for maintaining where you’re at or for recovering from having stretched beyond what’s comfortable.

Flexible systems leave space for the unoptimized and the underutilized. By only committing to a pace we can keep up on most days, we give ourselves room to honor and gradually increase our true capacity, rather than constantly push ourselves to a limit that only seems to shrink until our next vacation. We also build our capacity for self-trust, as we follow through on the promises we’ve made to ourselves, over and over again.

Think “nurture” instead of “control”

Part of the appeal of our systems is not only that we hope to predict the unpredictable and control the uncontrollable, but also that we want to predict and control those things within ourselves that feel unpredictable and uncontrollable. If we’re honest, our productivity systems often stem from a lack of self-trust. After all, we’ve been breaking our own promises to ourselves for as long as we’ve been alive. I’m not sure why we think that this time we’ll keep it up, but we do. It’s both our strength and our weakness.

I appreciate the principle of “basic goodness19” to counterbalance this “basic badness” we believe about ourselves. Our lives teach us that whenever a living thing is planted in the environment it was made for and given the nourishment that it needs, it thrives. Whenever it’s in the wrong environment or goes undernourished, it withers.

We’re part of the natural world. We have needs, either provided for or not in the environments we find ourselves in. When we wither instead of flourish, we can ask ourselves, “What kind of environment do I thrive within? How can I cultivate that environment for myself in some small way?”

We can stop blaming ourselves (and our friends, families, and co-workers) for environmental failures. Yes, we are responsible and accountable for our lives and our choices. And we are living organisms that need nourishment. No matter how strong or “good” we are, we will fail to thrive, eventually, without it. And that withering can look like any personal “failure” you can imagine, including, in this context, the inability to follow through on our own best plans and practices.

Any enduring system of practice must be rooted in nourishment, allowing for ongoing cultivation of the environment we thrive best within. We are all so marvelously unique, so this will look different for everyone. In my fantasy world, we would all be sharing our systems of practice, alongside who we are and how they meet our needs as individuals. Then maybe we can be more forgiving of ourselves when something doesn’t work for us, knowing that what will work is particular to the kind of person we are and the kind of nurturance we need. And the options we have for meeting those needs are as endless as we are in our brilliant uniqueness.

What’s next

This series is likely to be a slow one, in keeping with the principle of “slow integration.” (Also? This took me three and a half weeks to write, so there’s that.) If you’d like to be notified when I release the next one, sign up for my newsletter.

There’s a lot in this essay alone, and we haven’t even gotten to the practical, “how do we actually do this” stuff yet—which is what I actually want to write about. On the one hand, I read so much about how awful things are now and why they’re so terrible. On the other, I read a lot of philosophy about the way things should be and could be. The thing I’d like to see more people writing about is how they’re bridging the gap between the two, however imperfectly. That’s my intention with these essays (and for the book I’m writing—these essays are helping me explore the next few chapters in more depth).

So if any of this speaks to you, let me know (you can email me at sarah@andyet.com). I’d also love any questions or feedback as I continue writing. If there’s anyone who I forgot to include source information for, please tell me. And if you have any “Sarah, I really wish you would do [THIS] with this,” ideas, I’d be grateful if you’d complete that sentence. Right now I’m focused on simply finishing the essays, but I’m always thinking of new ways I can share whatever I’ve learned that’s helpful.

  1. As the story goes, “beyond category” was the phrase Duke Ellington used to describe his highest praise for a musician or a musical experience. We use it at &yet to remind ourselves that our creative impulse to make new, cross-disciplinary, and hard-to-describe “labors of love” (whether it be a gathering, a piece of software, an interactive digital experience, or even a pair of socks) is a strength, even if it means we don’t always fit neatly into a set of boxes.

  2. I still laugh every time I hear people say “we 10xed” this or “we 20xed” that. How do you even write that? I still don’t know.

  3. I was inspired to think about the term “systems of practice” as an alternative to productivity systems through Melissa Gregg’s work, Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy.

  4. I’ve been deeply inspired on the principle of emergence by adrienne maree brown’s excellent work, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.

  5. I was inspired to consider stewardship of “our most precious resources” by coach and Needy podcast host Mara Glatzel.

  6. There’s so much I could say here. For more context on the history of productivity culture and how it’s become the water we swim in, I again point to Melissa Gregg’s Counterproductive as a great (if somewhat depressing) resource.

  7. Yay James Joyce.

  8. Ask anyone who knows me, this is totally me. I still get teased about my brief but passionate love affair with Trello boards. Now it’s Roam (I currently write daily-ish updates at roam.sarahavenir.com). How I do love new tools.

  9. I learned the term “gentle discipline” from teacher and Hurry Slowly podcast host Jocelyn K. Glei, in her Hi-Fi course.

  10. This is another skill I’ve been learning from Mara Glatzel this year. It’s been incredibly transformative.

  11. “Sitting on our hands” is another gem from Mara Glatzel. It describes how uncomfortable changing our patterns can be (largely because we developed those patterns in an effort to keep ourselves safe). Sometimes we literally or figuratively need to “sit on our hands” in order to do what we know is best for us, to keep us from reacting in our old ways.

  12. I could write a whole book on this idea. Oh wait, I have! For the curious, you can read more in Gather the People.

  13. As an emotionally sensitive person, this is one of the hardest and most valuable practices I’m learning.

  14. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is one of my forever-favorites.

  15. I first learned about working fractally from Havi Brooks of The Fluent Self, where she talked about “fractal flowers”—a way of viewing the things in our domain as completely interconnected. I’ve also learned so much from what adrienne maree brown has written in Emergent Strategy about fractals as a model for organizing.

  16. “Close-in” is a reference to David Whyte’s poem Start Close In, one of my favorites to inspire my own knowing about where I should begin.

  17. I’ve learned this irony from my partner Adam, who often references Pablo Picasso’s, “You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.”

  18. I learned the metaphor of the unicyclist from my friend Brooke Snow, in a podcast we did together many years back.

  19. “Basic goodness” is a term from the Shambhala Buddhist community, popularized in the U.S. by Chogyam Trungpa in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.