"A system's optimal performance can tell you something about it's design"

I read this sentence this morning in a book I'm reading, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. I was stopped in my tracks and reflected.

The context of the sentence was a discussion the author had with Ed Cooke, an English mnemonist about the performance of the brain.

Cooke and the author were discussing a memory championship. Cooke says..

I figure that there are two ways of figuring out how the brain works. The first is the way that empirical psychology does it, which is that you take a look from the outside and take a load of measurements on a load of different people. The other way follows the logic that a system's optimal performance can tell you something about it's design. Perhaps the best way to understand human memory is to try very hard to optimise it"

Optimise a system and it can reveal how it works. An optimal performance is where the system can sustain maximum throughput and quality without deteriorating or failing.

I started thinking about different systems (city traffic, product development teams, financial markets) and realised that when a system is pushed to maximise it's potential, you find out so much more about how it works than if you observe it when it's running slack.

The same is true of people. I learn much more about myself when I'm challenged than I do when things are easy. I learn more about my team too and about people I partner with. These are learning opportunities.

Think about it: optimising for performance can reveal the design of a system.

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