The Systems Mindset Analogy
that Changed my Life

Written by: Ben Meer

Systems Thinking


I credit much of my systems philosophy to Sam Carpenter, author of Work the System and The Systems Mindset. These books are required reading for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of systems and take control of their life or business. (Download a free PDF of the first four chapters of The Systems Mindset here.)

Carpenter uses a brilliant analogy to teach the systems mentality.1 Below, you’ll find an excerpt of the chapter that gave me an intellectual slapping and changed my life for the better.

None of the italicized words below are my own. They are the words of systems genius Sam Carpenter. I’ve included them here to help spread this life-changing message.

After the passage, I follow up with my commentary and insights. Enjoy!

Imagine a small house. You’ve lived in this house for a long, long time. It’s single story, and inside is everything in your life, including the TV, coffee maker, dog, furniture, your clothes, and even your significant other and your job. In the house is everything you are, too. Your college degree (or lack thereof) is also there, as are your relationships with your lover, relatives, friends, and colleagues. Your health and personality take up residence, too. How you look, how you communicate with others, your politics, even your personal habits are all there. Everything about you occupies this little house.

This dwelling represents surface reality, your total accumulation of life results: the elements, conditions, relationships, and situations of your existence. And if you’re like most people, you are ceaselessly shuffling these life parts around, attempting to get them to form a pattern that will deliver life control: freedom, peace, the best for those around you, and the ability to have the future turn out the way you want it to turn out.

And if you feel that sometimes you’re beating yourself to death to live the existence you want, here’s what’s up: Your world is unsatisfactory because you are not deliberately and intensely controlling the machinery that creates your life results. The results you are getting are random, and that means they are not often the results you want. This accumulation of assorted consequences delivers an existence that is chaotic and unsatisfying.

So back to the house analogy. Imagine that this house has a secret, hidden basement. You didn’t know it was down there until this moment. It’s filled with the machines—the systems, the processes—that produce the results of your life, upstairs where you live. Via the 1→2→3→4 = Result formula, this machinery is working 24/7/365 to produce the elements of your world upstairs, good and bad.

Whether you see this machinery or not, it’s grinding away every minute to produce your life components. And it will continue to grind away tomorrow and next week and next year. It will never let up until your dying moment.

Because the machinery has been invisible, you haven’t directed it, adjusted it, or maintained it. How could you?

But now, today, in this moment, on these pages, you’re here with me in this house, and I’ve just shown you the hidden doorway that leads to a stairway that goes down into the basement, the basement full of machinery you didn’t know was there.

Now you’re tentatively descending the stairs as I stay up on the first floor, standing in the open door, watching, encouraging you to continue downward. Halfway down the staircase you see, for the first time, the scores of machines nestled side-by-side, quietly rumbling away as they work. These are the system machines that have been generating the random outcomes of your life upstairs on the first floor. You stand there on the stairway, watching the machinery churn.

You just “got” how your life operates!

And now that you see the machinery, your next move is obvious, isn’t it? Of course it is. You will quickly—right now!—finish descending the stairs into the basement and immediately start to adjust those machines, one at a time, so each produces precisely the results you desire upstairs.

All of a sudden, you’re a mechanic.

And what of the future? You will spend much time in the basement. You’ll want to spend time down there, making adjustments, creating new machines and removing others, because every time you finish working down there and ascend those stairs back up to the first floor, you’ll see that your results have improved. Up there, life is fuller and richer and more satisfying. Things just seem to click along better and better.

Your life is improving because of the work you’ve been performing down there in the basement. You’ll be getting what you want, and your self-confidence will surge.

So to achieve success, stop trying to rearrange the bad results of unseen and therefore unmanaged systems. That’s fire-killing. Instead, see and then manage your machinery so it produces the results you desire.

What I like most about Carpenter’s analogy is this idea of getting in the basement—the lab—to work on ourselves.

And as Sam points out, the best way to work on ourselves is to work on our systems.

His “secret room” analogy reminds me of the Iceberg Model (a classic framework in Systems Thinking).

systems mindset iceberg model

Below the tip of the iceberg (below the house) are the root causes that lead to our results:

  1. Underlying structures (systems)
  2. Mental models (beliefs)

Each descending level offers increased leverage for influencing future results. In other words, addressing issues at the “Structures” and “Mental Models” levels is the best way to engineer the future outcomes you want.

Now, in practice, here’s the way it works.

Imagine a cluttered inbox with distracting, undesired emails (hard to imagine, I know).

Your first response may be to delete the unwanted messages. Here, you’d be reacting to the events of a messy inbox. And we all know, if that’s how you deal with the issue, you’ll be right back to inbox overload faster than you can say, “Spam this!”

Any gardener will tell you that trimming a weed is not enough. To ensure the weed doesn’t return, you’d need to (literally) address the root cause.

Back to the email example. A better solution than deleting the email would be to unsubscribe. (I use Unroll.Me to manage my email subscriptions. It’s free!) Through Unroll.Me’s portal, users can bulk unsubscribe from unwanted emails or “Rollup” their favorite subscriptions into a single email. I typically clean up my subscriptions twice per month. Rather than simply reacting to an unwanted email by deleting it, I try to prevent that email from ever occurring again.

A method for unsubscribing operates at the system/structure level. We can take this one step further to address our beliefs about an overflowing inbox to ensure belief-system congruence. Aligning your beliefs to your systems is vital for removing internal friction and ensuring follow-through.

Perhaps you adopt the empowering belief that your digital life should be as clutter-free as your physical life. And you genuinely believe that, as James Clear says, “Environment is the invisible hand that shapes behavior.”

Now, you’re committed to doing everything that you can to design your physical and digital environment in a way that makes it easier to do whatever you want to do.

Internalizing the belief, “I am organized,” might make you think twice about signing up for email subscriptions in the first place.

Sidenote: I realize this example is ironic coming from someone who writes a newsletter. Your attention is your most valuable resource, which is why I’m obsessively aware of my need to provide value in everything I share. (Learn about my editorial promises here.)

Ritualizing Your Lab Work

The “underground lab” to work on your life is always there for you.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing the actual work in a dream mountain home or a cramped apartment (where I first started). Incidentally, I used to think of my windowless lab as John Galt’s secret room in Atlas Shrugged. While the room has changed, the process has not.

Because the secret is…

The lab is a headspace of strategic thinking and system building.

defining the lab

It’s why I created System Sunday: to provide you inspiration and innovation to make “the lab” your favorite place to be. At System Sunday, we ritualize getting in the lab and building our systems on—you guessed it—Sundays.

Why? Sunday is the day we’re LEAST likely to have other commitments. So, on Sunday, we reclaim 30-60 mins to work on our lives, not in them.

Please note: System upgrading does not have to be exclusive to Sunday. You may find another time of the week to ritualize your system building. While Sunday works best for most, the real secret is the doing—whenever that may be.

Soon you’ll discover that there is, perhaps, no better feeling than having your proverbial (and literal) house in order.

You can get started by joining the free System Sunday newsletter, where I share a personal system insight every Sunday. The idea is to integrate that week’s featured system right there and then.

And if you don’t like the newsletter, you better unsubscribe (with Unroll.Me) from my sorry ass! At least, in either case, you’ll have learned something from me.


  1. The Systems Mindset by Sam Carpenter, pgs. 37-39

About the Author

Ben Meer writes about technology, systems thinking, and conscious living. Tired of non-actionable life advice, Ben started System Sunday to teach people how to use tech-enabled and data-driven systems to accelerate personal growth.