What Does It Mean To Be Human

I started my career in systems thinking long before I realized I was, in fact, a systems thinker. In the spring of 2013 I started asking my students in Long Beach Unified School District a superficially simple question, "what does it mean to be human?"

The answers read off like a late-night infomercial. Humans create. Humans think. Humans communicate. Humans build things. Humans suck. Humans have outsized potential. Humans have evolved. Humans are God's figurines. 

The variation in response and the tone each student struck fascinated me to no end. At the time, I knew nothing about systems analysis or nested hierarchies, but I know that what I felt were the creeping tendrils of passion gripping my mind. Twenty-five years young, I knew this would be my life's work. 

Philosophy notwithstanding, I truly wanted to know what did it mean to be human? The question beckoned me as I tore through tomes upon tomes of literature spanning science, history, and art. The greatest thinkers of our fledgling species have offered up their answers for millennia and every culture the world over has had plenty to say about our purpose and position in the cosmos. But, were the answers forthcoming?

Yes, if you knew how to look for them...

Before I truly considered myself a systems thinker, I obsessed over finding facts and reality-proper structures as they pertained to human interaction. I have been content with seeing many of the world's phenomena as factual: physics offers up more than sufficient evidence for stable bodies and their properties to be categorized as extant. They exist. They are real. There are jobs to be done with them. Medicine, construction, and technology all require that phenomena operate upon factual lines.

But, what about those fields that hinged heavily upon interpretation? Law, education, and psychology? What about all those fields that pivot on social structures rather than physical ones? Did they render facts or stable observations that did not vary through time and space?

More to the point, what about those structures that straddle physical and social understandings? In these worlds, facts and fact-finding are not as simple as identifying this and that; they are not purely lexical-semantic. There are meanings, motivations, drives, and biases that operate as engines. Therefore, truth in these contexts is anything but stable. It is necessarily constructed, nuanced, and requires attention to a level of detail stretching beyond conventional analysis.

Analysis in most settings is granular; an analyst gathers data, which might be consumer behavior, industry or sector trends, or central planner announcements. Reports are written, graphs are designed, and presentations made championing this strategy or that. 

The curiosity is this: employees, managers, and consultants are more than their data. These professionals hide behind data because an executive needs tangibles in order to justify a decision. Humans enjoy facts and reality-proper structures; however, a great deal of our exchanges are intangible dynamics like "who we know" and "what we prefer". 

Within systems such as ours, it is a beginner's mistake to proffer naked advice. You must dress up hunches and friends in the finest data-intensive regalia. 

One major piece in "what does it mean to be human," is the rapid exchange of information and the need to establish exchange rates that make information about these exchanges as obvious as possible. We do this through words and behaviors: I call this meaning. When something means something, it will cause behaviors unique to a particular system. 

The rate of exchange, the accuracy of the information, and how fast the system updates that information gives rise to information quality (InQ). InQ helps thinkers and designers like myself troubleshoot more effective responses to system problems with minimal negative aftereffects. 

So, what does it mean to be human? It means that we integrate physical facts with special psychological programs to create the endless -ologies and social systems we know to be society, technological prowess, and the rest. 

In my work with executives, their teams, and their teams' teams, it is not my desire to tell them how to do their jobs better. I do not believe I am qualified to tell CEO or CMO how to do something they have been doing day-in and day-out for years better. However, I can help them evolve into better thinkers by showing them the underlying, unspoken, and hidden dynamics that give rise to the all the systems they are a part of. 

This is my job as a thinker and designer. To help people understand the meaning of the human condition and translate those insights into assets useful in meeting organizational objectives. 


Bryce Brown

Southern California Neuropsychology Grou, 21031 Ventura Blvd, Woodland Hills, CA, 91364, United States

Bryce Brown is an consultant and partner at people + organization strategy firm Conover+Brown and executive produces learning and development channel, OrganizationTV.