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Need to paint a room? You'll need systems thinking...

Making distinctions is like painting a room. It's the boundaries that need the most attention.

My parents hired a professional to paint our garage every couple years. As a curious kid, I would pepper him with questions. "How do you get it smooth? Would it be faster with a sprayer? Who picked the color?" A few years later my mom gave me the job of painting the bathrooms. I then advanced to painting houses as a summer job in college. I’ve painted more walls, doors, and window frames than I care to remember. 

When it gets down to actual painting, the first step is typically to begin with the edges. We always called that part "cutting in." It involves carefully painting 2-3 inches of the edges all around the room. After the edges were done, you would then fill in the middle of the walls.

Nowadays many painters use tape to prevent getting paint where they don't want it. Back then I learned that with a little confidence and a steady hand, it was faster, easier and cleaner to just pull a straight line of paint along the edges.


A few weeks ago it was time to change our beige bathroom to Lake Michigan blue. I guessed it would take me about 4 hours. Turned out I was right, but not how I thought.

It took me over 3 hours to cut in the edges, but less than 1 hour to fill in the middle of the walls with the roller.

Having recently completed my STML500 systems thinking certification, I was hit by something profound.

We had learned that distinctions are about the boundaries between a thing and other things. Clean edges for your distinctions are what take the most time and attention. And yet it’s easy to think that the stuff in the middle of a distinction is what matters most. 

Painting a house is about changing the color of some things, but not others. But what really distinguishes the areas that changed color from the areas that didn’t? Not the middle of the areas. It’s the edges. What takes the most time? Making the edges clear, well-defined, and exactly where you want them. Anyone can start painting from the center of the wall outward. The trick is deciding where to stop. 

Our eyes are drawn to edges, and we see when they're wrong. What does “wrong” mean? We notice when edges don't match our mental model of where we think they should be.

The Distinctions rule is about the co-implying elements of Identity and Other. You can’t have an Identity without simultaneously having an Other. The less-obvious skill is thinking about the location of the boundary between them. If we make the boundary more specific and tightly defined to the Identity, then what’s excluded (the Other) will increase. If we make the boundary broader and more inclusive, then the Other decreases. 

In a painted room it's easy to see where one color ends and another begins. That's because our eyes observe and give us feedback before we even realize it. We are always making distinctions, even when we aren’t aware we are doing it! With abstract concepts however, it can be much harder to notice the edges. Unless we observe our thinking (metacognition), we might not notice that our conceptual edge isn't where we thought it was. “I thought ‘safe’ included X, but now I’m not sure.” We might not notice that someone else has their edges in a very different place than we do… until they say or do something that creates that unpleasant twinge when we know our invisible conceptual boundary was crossed. “I meant X, but somehow they thought I meant Y.” 

What requires real effort when thinking by ourselves, or in dialogue with others, is getting clear about where the edges are.

  • What did my co-worker mean when they said it would be done "soon"?
  • Where do we cut to remove the tumor, but not the healthy tissue?
  • What does “drive safely” mean?
  • How much money is "rich?"
  • What am I anxious about?

These boundaries are easier to see AFTER errors have been made. Instead, why not get ahead of the curve? Since we often make (or inherit) the boundaries around us, it can be really helpful to try to get clear about (and maybe even agree on) where they are ahead of time. We might even realize maybe we want to move them a bit!

Good painting might be mostly about how carefully you handle the edges. Good thinking depends on the same thing.

As we begin a new year, what are some edges you could look at and maybe touch up?

  • What will 2022 include for you?
  • What will 2022 not include for you?
  • Where could you place those edges so it’s a better year for you and those around you?


You might have more influence over that than you think!


Want to learn more about the art and science of Distinction making?

Check out our other blogs on identity-other Distinctions and read the book Systems Thinking Made Simple.

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