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20 January 2019

Three Ways to Cultivate Complexity Fitness

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin


Last month, in a blog about what I learned on the mountain, I introduced the term Complexity Fitness.  As a reminder, Complexity Fitness

  • Means being well-adapted—in a holistic way, which includes not only your cognitive self, but your identity[1] and our soma[2]— to the complexity of your context.
  • Matters because as humans, we are naturally fit for a more predictable world and, like it or not, much of what the world offers us is NOT predictable.
  •  Requires that you develop the capacity to
    • See the complexity of your context for what it is;
    • Notice and pay attention to both identity-and soma-related dissonance in the face of that complexity;
    • Stay with that dissonance (rather than reacting to it by trying to wrestle it to the ground or run for the hills); and
    • Tune the instrument of yourself, through practices and over time, to be fit for purpose, i.e., fit for the complexity of our context.  

There’s lots to explore about Complexity Fitness.  It’s a relatively simple concept, but, as with many things having to do with how we change and grow, the difference between understanding and acting can be quite significant.

In my own practice, and as I work with clients, I find it helpful to remember that the resilience of a complex adaptive system depends on (among other things) the existence and ongoing cultivation of three core qualities—fluidity, stability, and connection.  This is true whether the system in question is a country, a community, a company, or an individual.  For all of us—from CEO to individual contributor, from seasoned diplomat attempting to negotiate a challenging peace deal to 53-year-old woman attempting to climb her favorite iconic mountain for the first time–getting fit for the reality of the unpredictable, uncontrollable world we live in comes down to awareness and practice.  And for those of you out there who might be a bit put off by the idea of “getting fit,” this kind of fitness tends to reduce, rather than cause pain! 

Fluidity:  See, embrace, and flex with the inherent complexity of the environment.

One of the key things to remember about complexity is that, by definition, it’s not controllable.  This may seem ridiculously obvious, but this realization has huge implications. The feeling of no control shows up in our bodies as a threat, to which the most common responses are either flee (deny, avoid) or fight (work harder, garner more resources, do anything to gain control of the situation.)  And yet, most of us know not only that we cannot control every detail of our lives but that it is futile and even anti-helpful to try.  Experienced climbers know to be prepared for any weather, to stay present to the changing conditions, and to change course as necessitated by the environment as it emerges moment to moment.  Effective negotiators—assuming all parties are working toward at least a similar objective—understand that there is more than one path from here to there and that a decision made today may well have to be changed tomorrow in service of the ultimate purpose.[3] Parents know from experience that what works with one child won’t necessarily work with another. 

So how do we bridge this gap between our theoretical knowledge that we must adapt to changing circumstances and our deep physiological and psychological desire to know and prepare?  Here are a few suggestions. 

  • Engage in deliberate practices that activate your nervous system in some way and then practice staying with that activation just a little longer than you normally would.  Breathe, center, ground, face into the trigger and move toward it.[4] What does it feel like in your body to move gently toward the thing that is activating, or triggering, you?
  • Learn about Adult Development.  Get a map that enables you to both see the ways you are probably already more fit for complexity than you were earlier in your life, and also lays out a possible future where your way of making sense of yourself and the world could, with some support and practice, be more flexible and expansive.[5]
  • Try things in your day to day life that cause you physical, emotional, or cognitive dissonance. Just a little and see what happens. Make them safe to fail but not so safe that they won’t run the risk of actually stretching you. 

Stability: Find solid ground and use it

When I introduce my clients to the idea of complexity and suggest that much of what they have previously thought they could control is not as controllable as they thought, their first reaction is generally a sigh of relief.  Liberation.  But relief and liberation are often quickly followed by worry. Does this mean there is nothing solid? Nothing I can do that I can count on?  Is everything I thought I knew no longer helpful?  It’s really helpful to remember that in the midst of complexity, there is always something relatively stable.  Find or create stability and amplify it where you can.  Climbers find stability on the mountain by using ropes, practicing their knot tying, rope coiling and uncoiling, and their belaying skills again and again until they can do them with their eyes closed.  Effective negotiators know what their non-negotiables are.  Parents create stability for their children through consistency and unchanging rituals such as family dinners or bedtime stories.  From a solid root system, the branches of a tree can grow long and beautiful, can sway in the wind without breaking. 

Here are a few stability-enhancing practices.

  • Centering and grounding.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Learn to find your somatic center.  For many of us this lies somewhere just below the belly button, literally the center of our physical and energetic self. Once you find it, you can return to it again and again when you are thrown off balance.  And practice finding your feet; wherever they are is the present moment. Feel gravity pulling you down, feel heavy and solid.  Think of this centered, grounded somatic place as a kind of home.  It’s always available, no matter where you are.
  • Anchor the bridge at both ends. Guard against the urge to grow and change so quickly that you lose appreciation for and access to what got you to this point in the first place.  Our expertise and our core values, over-used, can make us rigid and inflexible, but they are also part of our history, something we can rely on to keep us on course in the midst of a storm.
  • Do this in your organizations as well.  Emphasize and embody core values.  Encourage and develop expertise where helpful, but don’t believe that expertise will conquer complexity.  Know and understand your organizational history, but don’t assume that the past will be a predictor of the future.

Connection: Don’t go it alone; connections enable and enhance both stability and fluidity

Connection is the lifeblood of Complexity Fitness. Mountaineers know that climbing with the right partner is easier and safer than going it alone, no matter how expert and experienced they might be. Diplomats spend an inordinate amount of time cultivating personal relationships partly because they know it is much harder for people to take advantage of someone they know personally.  And when it comes to parenting, the saying “it takes a village” reminds us that raising children, one of the most complex endeavors I know, is a team sport.  True complexity fitness requires the cultivation of both intrapersonal and interpersonal connection.  Intrapersonal connection starts with understanding and embracing the self as an integrated system whose thoughts, feelings, language, emotions and sensations are constantly shaping and being shaped by each other.  Our Identity and ultimately our actions in the world emerge from the constant interplay among these, and so it is critical that we attend to all of them, especially when we need to adapt to a changing context.  At the interpersonal level, connection enables trust and collaboration, both of which are absolutely essential in times of rapid change.  They enable individuals and collectives to respond flexibly, rapidly, and resourcefully to events that couldn’t have been predicted. 

Here are a few simple suggestions for cultivating connection.

  • Practice seeing and experiencing your self as an interconnected system.  Having a thought?  Where do you notice a sensation in your body happening at the same time?  Notice a sensation somewhere in your body?  What feeling are you having?  Don’t think of these as causation, simply correlation.  Which things tend to arise together?
  • Try intervening in non-obvious places.  Maybe you’re standing in front of a room giving a presentation and suddenly you think, “I have no idea what I’m talking about.”  Instead of telling yourself, “yes you do, you totally know what you’re talking about,” try bringing your attention to your feet.  Feel the ground.  Breathe.  What happens in your thoughts when you do this?  Feeling butterflies in your stomach and find yourself asking “Why do I get butterflies just when I most need to be calm?”  Try asking a different question, something like “Hmmm, what’s my stomach trying to tell me?” What happens to the butterflies?
  • In organizations, it’s all about finding ways to increase trust and true collaboration.  Trust tends to be higher in cultures where it easy and safe to be both honest and vulnerable.  When people trust each other, they tend to collaborate not because they have to but because they want to, and because they see that it makes their lives easier and movement toward their purpose more likely. The best way I know to increase trust is through the encouragement and practice of honest, compassionate, and ongoing feedback.  


The thought of getting yourself or your organization fit for complexity, like the thought of getting physically fit, might be a bit overwhelming.  Try not to overthink it.  Just try something.  Anything that amplifies one or more of these three qualities—flexibility, stability, and connection. See what happens.  Learn.  Adjust. Like physical fitness, complexity fitness is a lifetime practice.  And as it is with physical fitness, the benefits are well worth the effort.

[1] The sense of self in which we are invested. 

[2] The integrated wholeness of our physical self

[3] For a great read about what complexity fitness looks like in the context of high stakes international diplomacy, I highly suggest reading Not for the Faint of Heart, by Wendy R Sherman.

[4] See my article Coaching Practices of Body and Mind to Support the Transition to Self-Authorship for further descriptions of these and other practices.

[5] See Jennifer Garvey Berger’s recent blog for more on this.

One thought on “Three Ways to Cultivate Complexity Fitness”

  1. Understanding and learning how to be with complexity myself and supporting clients to do so as well, is a gift. Thank you for the work you’re doing in this area. I’m looking forward to your upcoming sessions.

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