How Pattern Recognition Gives You an Edge

Patterns tell us what outcomes we can expect based on a given set conditions. Although pattern recognition is commonly associated with computer science and engineering, it also applies to nature, people and social systems.
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Apollo, favorite son of Zeus, was the Greek god of light and music. In Hellenistic times, Apollo became identified with Helios, god of the sun, who pulled the sun across the sky each day with his golden chariot. We can also credit Apollo with the philosophical concept of the golden mean, the call for moderation in all things. His golden light brightened the lives of all it touched.

Such mythical figures represent archetypes or universal patterns of human nature. Like humans, Greek gods and goddesses often had a balance of virtues and vices -- and in many cases, a double dose of talent was a double-edged sword. For example, Icarus, son of the master craftsman Daedalus, ignored his father's warning of flying too high or too low. Flying too close to the sun caused the wax in Icarus' wings to melt, hurtling him into the sea where he drowned. The personification of ambition, Icarus serves as a warning to those who want too much.

Patterns tell us what outcomes we can expect based on a given set conditions. Although pattern recognition is commonly associated with computer science and engineering, it also applies to nature, people and social systems. In fact, even animals and babies are born with the ability to recognize patterns. Sharpening our pattern recognition ability helps us cultivate vision, which is crucial for gaining an edge in a rapidly changing world.

Fortunately, technology delivers innovative tools to see and leverage patterns for success. In consulting, my business coach relies on the Baldridge Criteria, an open-access set of best practices established in the 1980s. Internalizing this blueprint, she can map any business plan against it and identify where the holes are. She even has a mindshare group, "The Baldrige Babes," to share perspectives on it. Such tools are just a click away if you know where to look. (Unfortunately, technology also allows powerful interests to recognize patterns in big data to manipulate voters and consumers, but that's another story.)

Pattern recognition helps in the personal development department also. For instance, according to my Myers-Briggs type profile, I am a "people lover." For the sake of comparison, I took a "What Greek Goddess Are You" quiz (probably based on patterns similar to the Myers-Briggs) and got Aphrodite, goddess of love. No surprises here; these basic patterns reflect what casual observers have been pointing out for years: "Anna, you are such a people person!"

The problem with relying too much on personality patterns is that they can become an excuse or even a cage. My sister is a mechanical engineer, so I've also grown up hearing, "Amy is such a math whiz!" This is fine with me; I'm content to let her run the numbers while I play social director. But when a pattern of being becomes so dominant that we let it define us, it can hold us back from developing potential in other areas, which is ultimately limiting.

We can become slaves to patterns. Extrapolate this tendency broadly and you can see how a society becomes fixed in its ways. For instance: "We Texans are self-reliant and independent. Nobody tells us what to do!" A population buys into that and before you know it, you end up with legislators that reflect that ethos. Even though the world out there is changing, a closed system with closed minds perpetuates old policy patterns, and societies are left worse off for the inertia.

Pattern recognition only serves as an edge when you know how to use it to your advantage. Going back to Texas, my home state has the highest GHG emissions, the result of coal-fired power plants, oil and natural gas production, inefficient buildings, relentless economic development and a car-based culture. However, the emergence of new economic and ecological patterns is spurring the development of renewable energy.

While corporations continue pumping dollars into and out of fossil fuels, a number of forward-looking companies have been investing in clean solar power and products with increasing returns. It's early yet, but these pioneers are rapidly developing the infrastructure, processes and distribution methods to help our independent-minded populace become "energy independent" by harnessing the power of the sun. Apollo would be proud.

Visionaries and laggards alike recognize patterns -- they just see them in different ways. One sees the glass half full, and the other, half empty. Teams become inbred when the same people keep affirming the same beliefs, whether positive or negative, perpetuating a sort of ignorance even among very smart people. Having a multitude of perspectives is like a prism with many facets; it makes it easier to see the light.

A kaleidoscope of perspectives also adds luster to life, which sometimes gets dulled by the force of our own habits. This became clear, of all places, at a Katy Perry concert. When my 9-year-old daughter and I put on special glasses for the Prism tour, I suddenly saw yellow, orange and red lights dancing with green ones. As a sustainability consultant and writer, I usually focus on green, but the multi-chromatic burst of light reminded me how much I miss when I'm mired in own mental loop.

The myopia that comes with sameness afflicts companies, boards, cities and countries. Surrounding yourself with new people, especially those who see through a different lens, is the best way to escape the dullness trap. Opening yourself up can entail some awkward moments, but letting new people flow into your circle not only gives you an edge, it brings more joy as well.