The Quest for Learned Complexity

The next time you go for a quick walk outside, take a detour and inspect that innocent looking dandelion in the field. Touch its stem, noting the fine, tactile fuzz in just all the right places. Observe that miniscule ant climbing up the dandelion, well into the process of doing its ant things. The mundane flower, the ant, the soil, the stem, its photosynthesis: these are all wonderful features, which, when woven together, give birth to a complex dandelion. Something so trivial and overlooked suddenly seems so awe-inducing and is all around us. Complexity is beauty.


i really like you dandelion copy


Complexity is function; it is often man-made. A computer, when broken down to its smallest pieces, is a useless array of millions of transistors, cables, plastic and other trash. But when brought together, the otherwise useless pieces come to life and produce one of the most innovative and powerful devices known to humankind.

Complexity, put simply, is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It can be found naturally, from cloud formations, to riverbanks and snowflakes. It can be found artificially, from impressive ancient pyramids, to the Large Hadron Collider. And, especially for our purposes, complexity can be found in human beings, too.


Complexity in humans

We are born biologically complex. A complicated science determines if we get a Y chromosome, blonde hair colour, or thick leg hair. We come pre-packaged with an intricate nervous and immune system, along with some opposable thumbs, ready to grasp life by the balls.

grab life by the balls

Complexity doesn’t quite stop there. Much of our complexity as humans is learned as we grow older. Learned complexity, the subject of this post, means the deliberate physical, emotional, social, creative, intellectual and spiritual development and augmentation to one’s body or mind. These are the constituents (pieces) to the sum of the whole (you). By enhancing your abilities, expanding your consciousness, refining your skills, exploring your capacities, or challenging your paradigms, you are adding another ‘part’ to the ever-changing ‘whole’ of your complex self.


With each passing year from infancy, a toddler learns language, forms a unique personality, and picks up culturally-formed modes of behaviour. In childhood we learn to navigate both bicycles and increasingly complicated social circles. Adolescence brings its own share of challenges which we must learn to manage. Questions of sexuality and personal identity become more important than ever, and insecurities begin to spawn like plagues. And parallel parking. Adulthood usually involves education or training of some sort to prepare one’s entry into ‘the real world.’ Practical necessities like food, shelter and clothing, and a running of various errands all gradually enter into the forefront of priorities to support functional adult life.


However, adulthood is where learned complexity comes to a screeching halt for many. It’s far too easy, even unfairly tempting, to turn on the television and reach for a bottle of your favourite poison and numb yourself to the often harsh realities of life. People stop being as invested in their personal development, ambitions start inching their way to the backburner, and goals become muddled. No one would deny that learning to wipe your ass, making friends and getting a job are essential life skills and are worth learning to do. So why, then, do so many of us stagnate as adults, surrendering a lifelong conquest to learn and improve ourselves—becoming more complex beings in the process—as we once did when we were younger? The reasons are manifold.


Upon reaching a mature age, one finally acquires the necessary skills and talents to survive and get by. The incentives to learn and adapt quickly decrease, and are now entirely voluntary as you’re left to fend for yourself in the world.  There is no longer an omnipresent pressure to grow a human being and be more like ‘mommy and daddy’. Nobody is standing over your shoulder, nudging you in the right direction, pushing you to take on a new challenge or hone a new skill. Bad habits formed in earlier years, like procrastination, become harder to beat and are slowly becoming an embedded paradigm in how you deal with problems. We’re certainly not as quick as we used to be, not as sharp, not as motivated. Consequently, one becomes susceptible to falling into a predictable routine, into the path more travelled, opting for a life of comfort and bad faith. When not proactively managed, adulthood enables a chance to deteriorate into a lifestyle of indifference and complacency.


So Why Bother?

If you’ve followed me this far, you’ll agree that complexity is omnipresent in nature and society. I’ve probably also convinced you that human beings are both naturally adaptively complex, yet markedly less so in adulthood. So why bother at all to nourish your roots of complexity in adulthood, willingly, and grow them larger than those formed in younger, formative years? Are you not sufficiently complex as it is?


Not so. The fact is, our self loves to be challenged and true maturation of the self only happens through growth. Growth in complexity—and simultaneously, the self—can occur in a myriad of different ways, depending entirely on the person. One can strengthen their creative complexity, by committing to learning a new instrument. Another can augment their linguistic complexity by learning a new language or strengthening an existing one. Someone else can develop their physical complexity by taking on the challenge of a marathon. Perhaps whale watching is your calling after all. Everyone’s ‘quest for complexity’ is different, and depends greatly on available leisure time, health, proclivities and priorities.

whale watching


So why should you care? Because mastery over something that was once challenging is deeply rewarding. For it is a ubiquitous, innate feature of human beings to revel in the glory of hard-fought achievement. Take, for example, the ecstasy that comes from winning a final game trophy as a professional hockey player. The rush of incomparable happiness doesn’t just come from the immediate moment, but rather from the infinitely complex series of steps that preceded the victory. The triumph comes from months of brutal training, a perfectly composed team of players with various abilities, effective coaching and courageous ice manoeuvres. The culmination of the aforementioned elements coming together, offering the tangible reward of a sought-after trophy is deeply satisfying. Had the struggle of obtaining the victory not been so deeply rooted in incredibly complex antecedents, it would undoubtedly not have been as rewarding.


Complexity keeps our brains sharp and stave off the onset of mental illness. By keeping our brains primed throughout our entire lives, we stay alert, engaged within our community and, metaphorically speaking, alive. Our brain is neuroplastic, meaning that like that Play-Doh set you had as a kid, our brain’s transmitters are capable of being shaped and moulded. Learning something new or undertaking an unfamiliar challenge rewires and forms new neural pathways in our brain. Fresh neural circuitry is as essential as a regular maintenance for your car to keep things rust-free and functioning well. There are practical health restrictions that come with older age, sure, but regardless if you’re 21 and freshly out of college or 91 and struggling to digest a steak dinner, opportunities to learn are never-ending. The graduate could choose to study Swahili for 4 months in Uganda, while the senior could revel in her 4th consecutive month of doing morning Sudoku puzzles. Both examples are a world away in difference, yet both would constitute a fresh ‘link’ in each respective person’s ‘chain’ of complexity.  A constantly changing influx of hobbies and passions, no matter what they are, fuel a happy and healthy brain. And as we all know, a happier and healthier brain translates into a happier and healthier life.


Complexity births meaning. Nature, unfortunately, did not craft human beings with a pre-set, clearly cut path to blindly follow, from birth to death. This fact is both the liberty and the curse of the human condition, and has spawned the likes of Shopenhaur, Nietzhe and Sartre. Unlike a farm pig who’d be overjoyed with rolling around in shit all its life, human beings require something more profound, something more meaningful, to drive their decision-making. Everyone would agree (except the pig) that a life laden with meaning is far superior to one empty and vacuous of purpose. A guaranteed way to slowly construct meaning is to explore one’s consciousness, preferences and passions, before stumbling into something that ‘clicks’. This slow construction of meaning is a simultaneous construction of—you guessed it—complexity as a human being. The search for greater meaning in life deserves its own separate post, but for now, suffice it to say, building complexity is a sure-fire way of evolving greater meaning in one’s life.

maybe theres more to life than this

Striving for complexity is striving to achieve a greater potential. Everyone loves a ‘rags to riches’ or ‘underdog’ tale. Why? They tell the story of people aiming to defeat a disadvantage, struggle, or opponent, which they have undertaken, were born into or have come to grips with. Mahatma Ghandi fiercely challenged the British ruling of India, helping liberate an undermined country and its people. Ghandi had to make countless sacrifices in the process, ultimately sacrificing himself, yet was indispensible in potentiating the Indian people, and consequently grew enormously complex as a person up to his assassination. Malcolm X, another visionary human rights activist immortalized in history, used his prison sentence for burglary charges to educate and transform himself, radically shifting his priorities, and in the process evolving into 5 times the man he was prior. Both these heroes, in one way or another, are examples of people striving to unlock a greater potential in themselves and in their environment. It is only by conquering personal struggles—and overcoming them like Ghandi did—or striving to be a more skilled and well-rounded person—and earning it through hard work and persistence, a la Malcolm X—that you mature and expand your consciousness and transform into a more complex being.


But what about times of despair or profound loss? It turns out that even in times of misery, the truly strong find ways to add a layer of meaningful complexity in their life. In his exalted 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl details the horror and suffering experienced in the infamous concentration camp. In the later part of the book, he outlines how the only way he was able to get through the harrowing experience was to reframe it internally, learning to shape meaning in the smallest of things, like controlling his voluntary response to harsh stimulus. Frankl’s experience was incomparably complicated, yet he was able to make it complex through an intricate mental paradigm model. I encountered another counter intuitive example in Flow, detailing a series of correspondents who were either born congenially blind, or became blind later in their life. It turns out that doing or relearning routine things like brushing their teeth added a new layer of meaningful complexity in their life; the loss of their sight was described as a positive event in their lives.  Many cancer survivors, too, have reported coming out hardened after their ordeal, becoming invariably more complex in their ability to deal with negative emotions. The takeaway here is that even unpredictable struggles, when framed in a proper context, can develop a person’s fortitude and help blossom their consciousness and complexity.


How to become more complex.

Great, so complexity exists. Complexity is good. So how to go about it all? There is no perfect answer, as each person’s path to increased complexity is uniquely shaped by his or her life. Asking 100 different sages how to reach enlightenment will likely yield 100 different answers. I’ll attempt to be the 101st. Here’s a breakdown of some of the things that I’ve noticed have added profound complexity to my life.

Enter flow as often as time permits. The same book I just mentioned above, Flow, has been indispensable in helping me understand why some activities feel more ‘natural’ and ‘optimal’ than others. Through a series of pioneering research, it was shown that talented people across the board, from surgeons, to saxophonists, to sprinters, all seem to describe the same sublime sensation of feeling ‘in the zone,’ and fully immersed in their respected field or activity under particular conditions. The polled correspondents and their respective ‘art’ could not have been more disparate, yet the language by them used was more or less similar. Csikszentmihalyi instructs that to enter this state of flow, one must: concentrate exclusively on the task at hand, have explicit results, gradually increase challenge corresponding with skill, set clear goals and see clear progress. It sounds super theoretical, perhaps a bit convoluted, but let me assure you it’s very much real. Some flow generating activities for me are writing (I got it a couple of times writing this article), reading, listening to music, creating music, meditation, learning, improvisation, exercise, having intimate conversations and sharing intimate moments with people. The flow state definitely deserves its own separate future post, so I’ll cut my description of it short for now. However, for those interested, I highly recommend reading the book, or at the very least, a summary of its principal teachings.


Change. Change is the ally of complexity, routine its cyanide. Never get too comfortable in one facet of your life that could potentially contribute to your personal development. Try new things, go to new places, meet new people, adopt new mindsets. Insert change and challenge into the stale parts of your life, like your relationships, workouts, job, or even judgements. Experiment with a new cooking herb, take a different path home from work, create new pre-bed rituals. Again, the activity itself doesn’t matter as much as its diversity. When a new hobby or passion gets too easy, a little too predictable, up the ante and spice things up by making it harder or more variable. Tickle your brain in all the right spots by gently sliding change into every possible crevice.


Get inspired by others. Whichever branch of complexity you choose to pursue, there’s no denying a simple truth: mentorship and inspiration are cardinal to results and success. Complexity is no different, and the following is what works for me. I devour an immense amount of media from various sections on Reddit, I periodically check thought-provoking blogs like HighExistence, and I routinely draw bouts of inspiration from sites like WaitButWhy (check it out now, seriously). I read an unpredictable mix of fiction and non-fiction on my Kindle everywhere I go, depending on my mood at the time and current interests. Podcasts are magical sources of portable complexity enhancers, too: I get my fix of stimulating insights from The Tim Ferriss Show, Radiolab for a quick esoteric story and CoffeeBreak to get a quick dose of language learning. As often as I can, I try and travel the world and experience life in a foreign environment. Occasionally, I’d meet other like-minded nomads who broke through the trap of ordinary life and I’ll unearth as much wisdom as possible out of their tales. None of this is meant to be a vain showcasing of all the super duper cool things I’m into and follow. On the contrary, I’m being as transparent as possible about my personal preference of complexity-forming media as an inspiration so you can find yours.


Ask yourself: “what do I like that I don’t know about?” This mantra may seem simplistic, but once properly internalized, is incredibly profound. I promise you, there’s an endless sampling platter of peculiar hobbies and extraordinary interests out there waiting for you to try them. Make it a point pursue an eclectic mix of hobbies and activities in your free time, each of which, ideally, challenge a different facet of your complexity. It may turn out that something obscure and untried by the majority of society is exactly what you needed in your life. You never know what will tug the right string and compel your attention. New passions and novel experiences inevitably produce greater complexity, especially more so if they’re unexpected. So strip all your personal prejudices and dive into the unknown. It may turn out that being a target in a blind knife throwing competition was what your heart desired after all.

target in a blind knife-throwing competition

Be well-rounded. Be multidimensional and multifaceted, wearing a tool belt chock-full of diverse abilities. Remember, to build a sufficiently complex person, the self must be challenged meaningfully in a variety of different dimensions, each activity or passion calling for a different skillset or ability. For the longest time I thought I was creatively inept, and completely overlooked any activity that called for a dust mite of creativity, immediately dismissing it as ‘not for me’. I couldn’t be further from the truth. In the past year and a half alone, I’ve taken up playing the guitar, zumba, theatre, 2 new languages and writing. I would have never considered myself capable of any of these before, yet as it turns out, they have been some of the most fulfilling recent additions to my life.


Final words

Remember, complexity is not complication. That stupid unsolvable Rubik’s Cube you got for your 12th birthday is ‘complicated’ and requires patience. Your polyamorous, vegan, genderless, open-relationship is ‘complicated’. Though both words are often used interchangeably in colloquial language, we’re striving to be complex here. Don’t confuse the two.


I’ve embarked on a lifelong journey to become a more complex self, and there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same. I find myself making better use of my free time outside of work, completely revamping how I spend my leisure time. I’ve substantially reduced the amount of empty consumption in my life (television, gossip, purchases), though not entirely, since every human being needs a certain amount of mindless activities to prevent burnout. I’ve also cut out the majority of unnecessary clutter, both physical and sensory, out of my life. I’ve also found the complexity-seeking mentality has a snowball effect, and like all forms of self-improvement, is contagious. I’ve gained a new ‘sixth sense’ for identifying other people who’ve adapted a similar mindset, and can very quickly dive into more profound conversations with strangers. This is not to say I’ve turned into a self-righteous monk living in my quarantined ivory tower. Far from it; when it’s time to relax or let loose, my attention is entirely absorbed in the act of idleness.


What about you? What have you undertaken lately or accomplished recently that’s contributed to your life long quest of complexity? 🙂