The Systems Mindset: Managing the Machinery of Your Life Sam Carpenter

Your personal attributes will not deliver you what you want in your life. They can help, of course, but they won’t be directly responsible for your success. What matters is the machinery you create and maintain—and that machinery doesn’t give a whit about your personal qualities.

Will you become permanently happy? No, of course not. Although the road bumps will decrease significantly, they will still materialize now and then. But for sure, the ones that appear will be easier to negotiate when you’re strong, resilient, and calm.

The opposite of being in control is to be out of control, and it’s the out-of-control parts of our lives that cause pain. Is being out of control ever a good thing?

Relationship Mechanics

So your best bet is to stay within your circle and take the necessary steps to manage yourself, to get your own self under control. Sometimes it’s cleaning the house. Sometimes it’s breaking off a relationship or doing what is necessary to begin a new one.

Never mind the individual personalities and consider the relationship as a separate closed system: two people in a pact with certain needs, expectations, and goals. This is the external perspective in which the linear, mechanical dynamics of a system can be analyzed without a power struggle ensuing. Ask, what are the unemotional, mechanical rules of this marriage? Get specific about the details. For instance, when exactly is my time mine, and your time yours? How, precisely, is the money to be spent? Who earns the money? Who manages it? What are our promises to each other—clearly defined promises that have to be kept to preserve trust and the marriage itself?

Look around: in your home, on the street, or at work. Let’s start by considering your car, a primary system, which, like any system, is intended to accomplish a task. In this case, the task is to deliver you from point A to point B. And like any primary system, your car is a collection of independent subsystems. Prove that to yourself by asking, what does the radio have to do with the brakes? Or in what way does the transmission affect the air conditioner? And what is the involvement of the headlights with the speedometer? In each pairing, there is no relationship.

Everything happens for a reason? Let's take another look...

But doesn’t everything happen for a reason? As it is usually applied, this is an annoying platitude not grounded in reality. It sounds good. It’s why we hear it all the time, but think about it. The inference is that God is watching over us and knows better than we do about what should happen next. If something goes wrong, well, that’s OK, because God made that happen and we should just conjure up a smile and go with the flow. I viscerally disagree. Yes, every “thing” does happen for a reason, but the reason for each of those things is the linear system that preceded and then produced it. Is God involved? I’m certain of it. But God’s gift to us is not a preordained future or a series of divine blessings we’ve earned through prayer, good deeds, or deep faith. God’s gift is bigger than that. It’s that every one of us has been granted the power to choose and act, to adjust the mechanical elements of our lives to make things better. The question is, do we put that power to good use?

Your world is unsatisfactory because you are not deliberately and intensely controlling the machinery that creates your life results.


If you find yourself in a bad state of mind or outright depressed, that doesn’t mean life isn’t good. It just means your immediate mental comportment isn’t good.

In this world that is an immense collection of systems, man-caused interference is huge. How can anyone deny pollution and wars as we disrupt perfect natural systems, as well as human systems that were previously working just fine? There’s no question that the human negative aspects of fear, ego, greed, etc. are the root cause of the interferences.

Although not as often, storms will continue to blow in, no matter how much you improve your mechanical world. Lots of time and money won’t ensure that the people who love you today will continue to love you tomorrow, or that you won’t get sick, or generally speaking, that your world will proceed precisely the way you want it to proceed. But then, it’s unquestionable that having lots of time, extra money, and plenty of self-confidence will make unanticipated problems easier to handle. When the storms occasionally hit, it will be a good thing to be resilient and powerful.

In my own personal life, like anyone else, I get caught up in emotional swings. Like you, I’ll have my downtimes. And once in a while, like you, I’ll obsess a bit about others’ behavior and the condition of the world. But I’ve learned these emotional dips are almost always by-products of my immediate mechanical condition.

When there is a decision to be made and one of the solutions is more complex than the other, and you really, really can’t decide which solution to take, pick the simplest option. And of course, many times this decision making has to do with buying something, donating time, getting involved with a group or other person, or committing to some new venture of one kind or another. If this is the case and you’re not all that excited about the new idea, then “no” is the simplest solution.


“Go with the flow” is the mantra, but it’s not an effective life stance. Get right down to it and going with the flow is a silly notion because, if the flow is unmanaged, we don’t have a say in how it will proceed.

The ones who are calm are those in control of their days and who are relatively sure of what’s going to happen next.

It’s not about overtly manhandling things. I want you to be able to acquire more power and control for yourself, not just so you can reach your goals, but also so you can find serenity. Don’t quibble about it: You can only chill out long term by controlling your machinery and thereby determining the outcomes of your life.

So many times, especially in the beginning of a Systems Mindset realignment, it really is a matter of discarding whole primary systems. But, be careful. For instance, in your romantic relationships, often it’s only a matter of removing some small bad habit subsystem to please your partner. Of course, the toilet seat struggle within a relationship—whether it should be left up or down—is the classic illustration of how a small disagreement can escalate into a huge power struggle, when the mechanical truth is, it’s just a tiny difference that is easily remedied by an unemotional systematic approach. (C’mon guys, it’s not a big deal. When you’re through, just put the damn seat down!)

And what about personal health? Visualize yourself as a robust primary system and then fix or remove any subsystems that are working against that, perhaps dropping the subsystem of obsessive overeating, or maybe modifying the informal subsystem of watching three hours of TV every night (maybe one hour is plenty). Or perhaps it’s about altogether eliminating an addiction subsystem.

The bigger question is, should the world be made to be “fair” in every instance? My position is that the world is inherently unfair, that we’re all different, and since that is the case, there is no “global solution” to this natural order of things. Each of us already has an inherent “personal fairness filter,” there are cultural expectations, and we have laws, so let’s just leave it alone without further legal or social manipulations and punishments.

If an outside overriding criteria such as “fairness” is inserted into a decision about a particular system improvement, we’ve introduced foreign interference into the decision making that has nothing to do with improving that particular system. The end result of this? There will be a bad decision based on exterior criteria that introduces inefficiency, rather than improvement, in that particular system.

My favorite ethereal adventure is travel. Try this: At the airport, while you’re waiting to board your plane, take a deep breath, relax, and look around. With everything that’s going on, notice that all the pieces work. For every waylaid traveler there will be a thousand others who will get through the incredibly complex maze to reach their destinations just fine. And consider all those airplanes in the sky at the same time. How many crashes of commercial airlines are there? Here’s the statistic: Less than one ten thousandth of one percent of all flights crash. That’s an incredible tally, considering the intricate assemblage of people and the complex flying machinery that must constantly challenge the incessant grip of gravity. Consider the personnel, hardware, software, and logistics: the airport buildings, the aircraft, the maintenance and fueling of those aircraft, customer service facilities, ticketing, security, restrooms, electronic flight scheduling and displays, escalators, elevators, moving walkways, janitors, managers, shops, security personnel, pilots, and flight attendants. And this list doesn’t even scratch the surface of the total separate systems necessary to make it all work. As you sit there alongside the other waiting passengers, quietly observing the independent processes—both visible and invisible—all in motion at the same time, you can have a magical experience. As you sit alone, watching, it will be your little transcendental secret. And what of the scores of people sitting there waiting alongside you? I guarantee that the majority of them are not gazing in wonderment, and that’s because they don’t “get it.”

Let’s start with the subject of health. Seventeen years ago I was very sick and headed for the most catastrophic end. But then the Systems Mindset struck, and I knew immediately what to do. Reasoning that my body is a primary system composed of chemicals—chemicals that can be measured—I broke my body down into separate subsystems via a full-screen blood test (sometimes called a “comprehensive wellness profile”). My results indicated five chemicals were out of balance, and my doctor and I immediately knew these imbalances were the cause of my horrible physical condition. With the exception of one result that pointed toward chronic dehydration, the other four indicated long-term stress was my root problem. What was the solution? First, I learned to de-stress through yoga, meditation, and a number of adjustments in lifestyle (there’s much more detail about this in Work the System). Second, through over-the-counter and prescription supplements, and by assertively drinking more fluids, I worked toward getting all these body chemicals back into the normal range. It took two years and a dozen more blood tests to accomplish, but I’m certain the lifestyle changes and the direct tweaking of those few bad chemical subsystems saved my life. For the last decade and a half I’ve taken a full-screen blood test every six months. Results have been precisely on-target every time, not because of the supplements—I stopped taking them long ago—but because I’m now an expert in monitoring and managing my body. I eat right, exercise properly, get enough sleep, and do everything I can to ward off stress. It’s a job for me, and I take it seriously, paying attention to the subsystems and then doing what must be done. I work the system!

The repair process started with measurement, proceeded with measurement, and ended with measurement. And now that my body system is in great shape, the measurement continues.

The same methodology will work to fix relationship problems. If there is something that’s not right, start by taking the relationship apart and dividing it into its separate components. Boil things down and then find the subsystem that must be tweaked. Although it might be a terrific relationship overall, a major dispute can evolve out of something as innocuous as who takes out the trash, control of the TV remote, or whether the bed is made. Or maybe it has to do with personal hygiene or a bad communication nuance. And yes, it usually ends up being some kind of struggle for control, but the isolated dispute is probably not a symptom of fundamental incompatibility and is more likely to be an isolated glitch, something that can be removed or tweaked, thus allowing the overall great relationship to thrive.

Here it is: There is no single most important element in a life, such as “my family” or “my health” or “making money,” yet we feel driven to rank these life processes in a 1-2-3 order of importance.

Whenever we’re not immersed in what we deem number one on the list, we feel guilty, and when we are working on number one, we feel guilty about not attending to numbers two, three, and four. It’s a losing proposition, so the best way to remove internal remorse and the personal uptightness that accompanies it is to stop ranking what is most important.

Most days, I spend almost all of my time in the three components (and of course, on some days one gets more attention than the other two). Today, for instance, is a Monday morning. It’s 2:00 a.m., and I’m at home working on this book, but in another half hour I’ll go back to bed and get a few more hours of sleep. When I get up again, I’ll handle some emails and do my daily thirty-minute personal organizing routine. After that, I’ll work more on this book and then drive down to the office to see what’s up and to hang out with my staff for an hour or so. In the early afternoon, it will be a visit to the gym and a good StairMaster workout. Late in the afternoon, I’ll hike the river trail for an hour or so with my granddaughter Lexi. I’ll be home and showered by 6:00 p.m. Then I might go out for dinner with a friend and afterward, catch a movie. Or maybe I’ll stay home and sit here on the couch in front of the fire and read until 10:00 p.m. or so. Then, I’ll go to bed and with no quiet, underlying guilt. It’s going to be a perfect day, loosely but deliberately choreographed, and almost all of it expended within my clusters, nearly every minute well spent.

What about my spiritual and other deep-seated beliefs? Shouldn’t they be listed in the primary cluster? Are they not important enough? It’s not that at all. My personal beliefs are continuous threads that weave their way through my day, like breathing, and it’s the same for my certainties about how reality mechanically operates—my Systems Mindset. Some of the things of our lives don’t need categorizing; they’re just always there.

Here’s a favorite quote from James Allen’s book, As a Man Thinketh: “A man becomes calm in the measure that he understands himself as a thought-evolved being . . . and as he develops a right understanding, and sees more and more clearly the internal relations of things by the action of cause and effect, he ceases to fuss and fume and worry and grieve, and remains poised, steadfast, serene.”

And what about “deleting?” Maybe the simplest illustration is to imagine you’re in a romantic relationship that is not turning out to be what you had hoped it would be, while the other person thinks it’s going fine. Rather than try to make it work when you know in your heart it never will, use the “delete” part of the formula to simply end it. The alternative is a frustrating, wasteful expenditure of energy for both of you (and of course it will ultimately end anyway, just further down the road). Being able to decisively walk away from a dead-end scenario like this is a powerful personal attribute.

In the morning after you wake up, shower, dry yourself off, hang up the wet towel, get dressed, and then go about your day’s activities—have you ever thought back about that wet towel, hung up and drying, back there in your bathroom, requiring zero attention or additional input from you? There is significant importance here if you can see it: This towel-drying system is a perfectly automated machine that requires no maintenance or management, and it’s 100 percent successful every single time. Hanging your towel up to dry is maybe the ultimate act of automation, one that you haven’t thought about until this moment. You hung up that wet towel, and the drying system flawlessly executed over a period of time, to completion. With one small initial effort, you made it happen! And now that I’ve laid this out for you and you’ve considered it, I guarantee that your future towel-hanging will be accompanied by the comforting thought that “this is a wheel that will turn to completion all by itself with zero additional input from me!”

Be militant about protecting your focus time: On your smart-phone, don’t constantly check for messages! It annoys the people around you while it adds a degree of mania to your own personal composure. But you know that already, don’t you? Check for messages every couple of hours or so.

The silent treatment: Failure to respond to a message is rude. The perception is that you are not paying attention, are overwhelmed, and/or simply don’t care. If in a given situation you’re not sure if you should communicate, you should communicate.

Think it through: Thoroughly read messages you receive before responding. And as you compose a message, double-check it carefully before sending. Are there grammatical errors? Does it make sense? Your message is you!

Study your speech: A potent learning technique is to record yourself in a conversation and then review your part of that conversation. For most of us there is incongruity between how we think we sound and how we actually sound.

The above self-analysis will encourage you to deepen your voice and promote conciseness; to drop the colloquialisms “yeah,” “yup,” and “ya know.” Using slang like this will give the impression that you are unprofessional and uneducated. Other common verbal faults include not pronouncing “Gs” at the end of words, endlessly interjecting “umms,” and overusing legitimate words such as “so” and “like.” And you’ll want to eliminate some tired pop idioms such as “I’ll let you (do, explain, take care of, etc.) it,” “I mean,” “to be honest,” and “no worries.” As you listen to yourself, maybe you’ll hear other words you’ll want to use more sparingly/appropriately such as “absolutely,” “exactly,” and “amazing.” And perhaps reconsider use of the cloying “I’ll reach out (to so and so).” If you’re a waitperson in a restaurant, don’t refer to a male/ female couple as “you guys.” It’s too bad that so many good words and phrases have devolved into throwaways, their original meanings neutered via colloquial overuse/misuse.

The above self-analysis will encourage you to deepen your voice and promote conciseness; to drop the colloquialisms “yeah,” “yup,” and “ya know.” Using slang like this will give the impression that you are unprofessional and uneducated. Other common verbal faults include not pronouncing “Gs” at the end of words, endlessly interjecting “umms,” and overusing legitimate words such as “so” and “like.” And you’ll want to eliminate some tired pop idioms such as “I’ll let you (do, explain, take care of, etc.) it,” “I mean,” “to be honest,” and “no worries.” As you listen to yourself, maybe you’ll hear other words you’ll want to use more sparingly/appropriately such as “absolutely,” “exactly,” and “amazing.” And perhaps reconsider use of the cloying “I’ll reach out (to so and so).” If you’re a waitperson in a restaurant, don’t refer to a male/ female couple as “you guys.” It’s too bad that so many good words and phrases have devolved into throwaways, their original meanings neutered via colloquial overuse/misuse.

And remember this about the thinking process: The brain is not capable of processing more than one thought at a time. Thinking is linear, with one thought following another, relentlessly. You can subconsciously multitask (e.g., driving a car, walking and talking, etc.), but you simply can’t multitask your overt thinking.

This ability to watch your own moods and emotions from an outside location really is the simple solution. It’s no more complicated than being able to mechanically reframe your thoughts, to change the channel, so to speak. At home alone on the weekend, lonely? Go see a movie, clean the house, take a nap, eat something healthy, go shopping, call a friend. Take the mechanical approach to channel your emotions into a better place. Boring but true: It’s that simple.

When something comes up, my question is this: In one hundred years is it going to matter? Is it going to have any influence on anyone or anything? If you think about it, leaving writings behind or influencing a family member or a friend in a good way, helping people develop character and integrity, that can improve things way down the line, even a century later.