Examining Our Natural Curves

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By Mark Lundegren

Mark Lundegren

My title may have led you to think I was going to argue for or against Rubenesque body types, or discuss a fitness insight from my work for HumanaNatura. But I actually want to share a strategy insight and talk about the curves of our lives and groups, rather than those of our limbs and torsos.

Though few of us have considered the idea that our lives and social settings can have a distinct underlying curve or shape, these natural patterns do indeed exist and are discoverable by us. What we might call our life-curves are real and tangible reflections of the way we live and, in particular, how we pattern our actions against our progressive potential. In theory and practice, life-curves prove quite powerful, in the results they create for us,  and as a tool of personal and group strategy and aid to higher quality of life and functioning.

The Core Idea

The core idea of natural curves is that elemental patterns can be shown to underlie all of our lives, even as these patterns remain hidden to us. In essence, our personal life-curve is the overall direction that our life or life trajectory takes over time – again, against our progressive or developmental potential. In practice, understanding and seeing our life-curves is a lot like learning about climate. Like the larger conditions that span and influence the weather we encounter each day. life-curves are subtle but ever-present shapes behind the scenes, but ones that are equally accessible and even equally obvious once grasped.

As a model of a critical dynamic underlying our lives – essentially our degree of natural progressivity or tendency to increase the quality of our functioning or health – life-curves describe organic forces or patterns that reflect and ultimately govern our lives in important ways. Because of this, probing these background patterns proves essential to the work of progressive modern living. And, as you will see, life-curves are shapes that reflect processes we can each sense, assess, and ultimately alter ourselves.

To introduce this insight-rich, immediately actionable, and potentially life-changing concept, I’d like to talk about three life-curves in particular. I would also like to again underscore that this simple but powerful model of life applies to groups too. Just as with individual people, organizations and communities, and even whole societies, can be seen as having a distinct and dominating curve or trajectory – one that expresses and predicts its underlying health and progressive potential.

As background, I should add that the idea our lives and the world around us have a tangible and health-impacting shape comes from my workshops and will be discussed in my first full-length book, due out in the second half of the year. As you will see, each of the three curves I will introduce implies a very different mode of modern living or collective functioning.

One Non-Progressive Curve

So, what are my three representative life-curves? As illustrated in the Three Natural Curves exhibit below, the first curve is actually not a curve at all, unless you are a mathematician, but is instead a straight line. I’ll call it an I-shaped curve for consistency.

Three Natural Curves

A person or group on an I-curve trajectory can be seen as moving in a relatively steady direction or covering a fairly consistent range of endeavor over time (the horizontal axis in the graph) and against their possibilities (the vertical axis). One’s I-curve may be relatively level, or it may have an upward or downward slope, as I have indicated in my exhibit. The relative straightness and general direction of my representative I-curves are intended to signify an overall condition of outcome consistency, and states of health or functioning that are either staying about the same or gradually improving or declining against our progressive potential.

While I-curves may be ascending – and thereby reflect a trend toward improved health and functioning in my natural curves model – they are more generally the trajectory of a person or group dominated by relatively strong and unchanging habits. I-curves are thus a trajectory or state of life that is essentially non-progressive – and therefore less than our natural potential for improving functioning or compounding positive change (in possibility space).

This important fact of adaptive health limitation is inevitable with all forms of habituated life. After all, our habits, however small and whether we intend them or not, are enormously powerful and define us to a large degree. Like drops of water against stone, repeated again and again, our habits steadily sculpt the lives we will have and the world that will take shape around us. This shaping, when constant, misses our potential for natural learning and progressive growth in the quality of our lives and endeavors.

Put another way, when our habits are unexamined and escape progressive improvement, whatever their basic direction and initial quality, we inevitably miss enormous opportunities for progress, new vitality, and greater adaptive health in our outlooks and actions. The path that all constant habits trace in personal or collective life therefore can be described symbolically as a straight line (or an undulating one), with a specific long-term slope, against our progressive possibilities.

In this all-too-common pattern today, we are caught up in life dominated by the I-curve, and are trapped in habituated functioning that is always below our naturally progressive and open-ended potential as people and groups capable of learning and change.

Two Progressive Curves

As you can see in my exhibit, the second natural shape or life-curve I want to introduce is an S-shaped curve. Its shape is very different from the I-curve and reflects the effects of at least some new learning and improved patterns of choice and action, and thus at least some natural progressivity or building improvement against our possibilities for positive change.

We can see this very different dynamic of progressive functioning represented when the relatively flat initial slope of the S-curve turns upward for a time and reaches toward a higher position or state of functioning on the graph. This increasing slope or ascent is intended to indicate positive change, increasing health, and a new and improved trajectory in the possibility space represented by the graph – change that is creating a basic shift in the quality and health of an individual or group.

Importantly, there is nothing immediately “wrong” with S-curve living or functioning, and in fact significant health-altering change in any short-term period will often naturally have an S-shape when examined or measured in various ways. The key drawback of S-curve functioning is simply that its new feature of progressive or accelerating change is not maintained, which we can see in the re-flattening of the S-curve as it comes to an end (though at a higher quality state or place). This declining slope is of course intended to suggest a return to habituated life, albeit with at least one new and more adaptive habit added to the mix.

In this sense, when an S-curve describe one’s dominant life or group pattern over longer periods of time, the S-curve can be seen as the shape of episodic progressivity. This more adaptive type of functioning, relative to I-curve living, is marked by one or more advances, new habits, or improved patterns of action. But it is still below our natural potential for sustained progressivity, or an ongoing commitment to compounding learning and adaptation.

To capture the critical health science lesson of our potential for and the natural power of sustained progressivity – of ongoing health-increasing action – my third curve is intended to symbolize our opportunity for continuing and naturally accelerating progressive change. This J-shaped curve signifies personal or collective functioning marked by 1) a dominant process or strategy of progressive health-seeking learning and action, and 2) process consistency in this naturally transformative approach over time (as opposed to the outcome consistency of habits).

Across their many possible manifestations, sustained J-curve strategies are marked by naturally building and synergistic movements toward steadily improving conditions of health and quality of functioning. And because of their inherent propensity to engender accelerating or multiplying change, J-curve strategies naturally work to foster not just improving health and quality of life over time, but a powerful natural and circular dynamic of accelerating health improvement.

The Power of J-Curves

As you may understand already, my J-curves are the natural shape of building change over time, and they appear throughout nature and in many quantitative models. For example, J-curves can be used to describe uncapped population and technology growth, invested money over time, the ongoing cultivation of a skill or talent, and yes, sustained and compounding health investments in people and groups too.

Notably, all of these examples are cases of incremental changes allowed or encouraged to multiply or accrue in time. Because of this reliable result of compounding transformation via small and pragmatic but ongoing change, J-curves are critical shapes for us to study and foster – in our lives, groups, and societies. Unsurprisingly, given their natural power and simplicity, J-curves are also the primary strategy of living nature and describe the evolution of species over time.

In introducing the idea of J-curve strategies to you, and to explain why they are not more common amidst modern life, it is essential for me to add that, as powerful, natural, and useful as J-curve trajectories and strategies are, they are also shapes that are naturally counterintuitive to us. Our potential for J-curve individual life and group functioning must therefore be learned or taught, and consciously and attentively explored.

If you think about it, perhaps you can quickly see that J-curve thinking or sensing was not a capacity we had a need for in our earlier and highly habituated life of foraging in wild nature. For perhaps this reason alone, we therefore did not develop (and today do not have) an innate feel for J-curve contours or opportunities when we encounter them in the world around us. In other words, we do not intuitively sense the ubiquitous presence or opportunity, and enormous power, of J-curves – let alone, that such patterns are the true underlying shape of all of evolving natural life around us (versus our more instinctive notions that life occurs in I’s or O’s).

Instead, we must learn about the existence, power, and practice of progressive J-curve functioning more formally. This includes exploring the natural wisdom and potential leverage of J-curve strategies in theory  and then testing and validating this power through progressive action and discovery in our lives and groups.

Our lack of natural intuition or feel for J-curve dynamics of course explains why we often fail to invest our incomes adequately, or why we frequently fall short in investing more broadly and continually in the quality of our lives and collectives, when we generally should by objective measures. This natural human J-curve insensitivity also explains why the investments of various kinds that we do make are frequently less than optimal and awkwardly biased – often taking the form of over-investing in current functioning, or the making of only episodic and  narrow investments in wholly new capacities, to reprise our two earlier life-curves.

But just as small sums of wisely invested money or earnestly cultivated skills can add up quickly and produce remarkable outcomes over time through progressive compounding change – in ways that genuinely startle us – the small, probing, and ongoing progressive investments in our personal and collective health that mark pragmatic J-curve strategies soon can transform our lives and settings in ways that we do not expect and even cannot naturally foresee.

So for ensuring progressive change (and for managing immediate risks of error), there likely is no match for ongoing and broadly probing J-curve trajectories, strategies, and patterns of action. The inherent natural power of this emphasis on progressive learning and action is the reason why this mode of functioning is still the preferred and dominant strategy of living nature (after over a billion years of trial by natural selection). And the natural power and promise of J-curve strategies is the reason why promoting progressive personal and collective functioning is the main focus of my work and life these days.

Taking Action

A good next step from this potentially life or group-altering discussion is to probe and assess the natural shape of your life or that of a group to which you belong. Ask yourself,  is it life or functioning marked by strong habits and little progressive change? If so, its current shape is likely a steady or undulating I-curve, with either a flat, ascending, or descending health or adaptive slope.

On the other hand, if your life or group is marked by at least some progressive and health-increasing discovery and action, your current natural shape may well be that of a more adaptive S-curve or J-curve. And you will probably know right away which one – simply by assessing if your progressive moves are infrequent, episodic, or narrow, or if they are ongoing, multi-dimensional, and gradually but clearly building, with limited backsliding to earlier states of functioning.

In all cases, you naturally and more than likely have the ability to move to a progressive J-curve trajectory, and to adopt this more vibrant approach to personal living and group functioning, beginning today. All it really takes is a sustained commitment to forward learning and ongoing progressive change.In a perhaps helpful sense, you might think of J-curve or sustained progressive functioning as the exceptional habit of breaking less desirable habits and then replacing them with better ones, again and again. It is the exploring of new and improved life and functioning, all the time and over time, and even for its own sake.

The natural simplicity and power of this approach and J-curve dynamics is at the heart of my Natural Progress strategy method (and the HumanaNatura natural health system). It is why I place so much emphasis on Natural Strategy Plans in my workshops, and why the idea of progressive functioning will take center stage in my upcoming book.

Whatever personal or collective lessons you take away from Exploring Your Natural Curves, I’d enjoy hearing about them, especially as you begin to make use of these important concepts within my overall Natural Progress strategy method.

Health & best wishes,

Mark

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura. This post originally appeared at Examining Our Natural Curves.

Tell others about HumanaNatura…encourage new life and health! 

  1. #1 by Abijah on April 10, 2013 - 07:32

    Using “curves” to make the concept sound smarter than it is. People can’t be classified into three distint “curves” in any aspect, somebody will always be some version of the middle because the first and the last one are too ideal to be possible. Also, how do you measure “quality of life” to make these charts in the first place? The concept makes intuitive sense but if you think about it more none of these quantities are actually measurable.

  2. #2 by mlundegren on April 10, 2013 - 08:09

    Thanks for your comments and good question, Abijah. I’ll return you to the idea of our habits (dominant behaviors), and my proposal that we can: 1) leave them as they are, 2) improve them episodically, or 3) continually improve their quality throughout our lives (in principle resulting in three distinct patterns of life, which the curves symbolize). Quality of life measurement is a complex area of science and beyond the scope of this post – but let’s define it here simply as average happiness x expected lifespan. Using this simple and measurable sense of the term, you can perhaps see that most of us can indeed engage in ongoing and powerful habit and quality of life improvement, by continually eliminating our least desirable habits and substituting better ones. In practice, this process can proceed intuitively, using research on our own or with others, and/or with the aid of teachers or coaches versed in quality of life research. Hope this helps – and I will of course challenge you (and anyone reading this) to identify your three least desirable habits and take action on them beginning today! Health & best wishes, Mark

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