Lane Becker


All Human Systems are Enormous Trash Fires

At the tail-end of a recent organizational re-organization, and reflecting on how messy it is—frustrating, disenchanting, seemingly unending. Remembering yet again how a change that only takes a moment to swap out between two slides in Keynote takes months and months to play out in real life, with far less entertaining interstitials.

Hard, too, to watch all these people I genuinely love working with struggle to stay above water as each successive wave of change crashes over them. In particular, the ones who care the most—who have put their hearts and souls into this frail endeavor, who showed up wanting to leave the place in better shape than they found it, who, you know, believe. Tough to watch them realize that this place—the best place they’ve worked so far, all possibility and promise and maybe-this-time—will also disappoint them.

Here’s what I say to them, whenever I get the chance: All human systems are enormous trash fires. Every single one, no matter how pretty it looked from the outside, or how enchanting those first gossamer months were, will eventually prove to be a goddamn disasterpants clusterfuck. Your company, your organization, your church, your campaign, your band, your political movement, your city, your dinner party, your revolution: At some point, you’ll look up, notice everything around you has been torched, and say to yourself, “Holy shit, this place is an enormous fucking trash fire.”

So if you’re wondering why the particular system you’re in is always such an enormous trash fire, the answer is because there’s no other way for it to be. No other place is going to be any less of an enormous trash fire. Everything is ablaze, always and forever.

Realizing this can be revelatory. Once you recognize that all human systems are enormous trash fires, you stop trying to figure out how to switch to a system that isn’t an enormous trash fire, since they don’t exist. Instead, you ask better questions about your current trash fire. Like, “Am I doing everything I can to contain this enormous trash fire, even though I know it will never go out?” “Do the people in charge recognize that this whole place is an enormous trash fire?” And, most importantly, “Am I surrounded by a team of firefighters or a team of arsonists?”

Eventually you even start to appreciate the beauty of it. How impressive it is that we manage to get anything done at all, given how completely trash everything is, and how on fire it is all the time. How good it feels when you manage to put out even a tiny piece of it. How lucky we are that we get to try, even as the world burns all around us.

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