Getting Clearer: What is Complexity?

One of the most common buzzwords of the 21st century, and a word we use often on, is “complexity.” This word tends to be a scapegoat for challenges and situations that require a hearty combination of nuance, knack, and knowledge to unpack—but what is complexity, really? Perhaps more importantly, when we talk about preparing learners for complexity, what are we talking about?

Complex comes from the original Latin word complexus, which means “entwined”, “twisted together”.

Complexity implies some degree of collaboration and creativity—a means of altering perspective in order to see through the surface level “knot” and get to the root of it.

It’s easy to understand how something like the global economy is inherently complex. Behind closed doors there are legions of laws and policies, regional best interests, imports and exports, language barriers, and so much more—today, however, we are confronted with mounting complexity in nearly every sector. As the world becomes more global and our challenges and opportunities require unprecedented collaboration (climate change, AI ethics, etc.), we must pass on the requisite skills to grapple with complexity.

The El Farol Bar Problem

Neil Johnson is currently a professor of physics at George Washington University, where he heads an initiative in Complexity and Data Science. He recently spoke at length about how to solve for complexity in the form of thought experiments, like the El Farol bar problem.

“So imagine there is some bar, let me call it, for example, El Farol, and you want to go there a particular night a week, say Tuesday nights. You just happen to want to go there, there’s a band playing that you like, you just wanna see them every Tuesday night. You’re not the only one. So there’s some other number of people who probably want to go there as well. Now here comes the problem, that the El Farol Bar, like many bars, only has a finite number of seats, and you want to sit, and so does everybody else,” says Neil Johnson.

The decision becomes whether or not you attend based on the information available to you—ranging from everyone else’s choices to traffic to weather and becomes a question of how likely you are to get a seat.

Thought experiments such as these are intellectual acrobatics, fun conversations to have that ultimately don’t matter where you land, but understanding the conditions that create a situation of complexity and grappling with the many potential outcomes is a skillset primarily taught outside of the classroom.


An education pioneer and friend of Getting Smart, Michael Fullan, wrote in his influential book Leading in a Culture of Change, “Complexity was complex, but now it’s complexified with nonlinear change.” And, “The more complex society gets, the more sophisticated leadership must become.” This call to intellectual arms is one that has yet to be fully recognized in curriculum and even in the hallmarks of success we are looking to instill in learners of all ages.

As we confront global challenges, we will continue to realize the ways in which everything is, at its core, connected. This interconnectedness will show us that the only way forward is through instilling our youth with the tools for wrestling with complexity rather than simply addressing complicated problems. These tools will undoubtedly take a combination of citizenship, design thinking processes, entrepreneurial mindset, and the new superpower, difference making.

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This blog is part of an ongoing Getting Smart series called Getting Clearer. The nature of this series and of our blog is to have a diverse set of voices and ideas to help us and our audience get clearer. Are there topics that you’re interested in #GettingClearer about? Email [email protected] with “Getting Clearer” in the subject line.

Mason Pashia - Getting Smart

Mason Pashia

Mason is the Creative Manager at Getting Smart. He is an advocate for arts education, strategy, design thinking and poetry.

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