The Emerging Design of Squirrels

Quit trying to craft the perfect plan. Instead, just adapt.

In the IT world people talk about architecture, and many think it must be planned out well in advance, with great detail. How often has that approach worked well? Is that nervous laughter I hear? When I see attempts at perfect planning I think of a squirrel and what it taught me years ago.

When I’m home I like to end the day sitting on my back porch, watching the day slide away, often with a cool beverage in hand. One evening many years ago I noticed a squirrel sitting on the corner of our newly built fence. The squirrel faced away from me and was swaying back and forth, rocking on his small legs.

It was a sight to behold, very entertaining and humorous, but I was curious. I figured there had to be a reason for the swaying so I paid attention to not only the squirrel, but also to the surroundings. The squirrel was facing a small tree on the other side of our fence. There was a strong breeze and the tree was swaying. It was swaying in tempo with the squirrel. The squirrel and the tree were like metronomes, swinging back and forth in perfect tempo with each other. As the tree swayed towards our fence, the squirrel swayed towards the tree. As the tree swayed away from the fence, the squirrel swayed away from the tree. Back and forth, back and forth. I was mesmerized and then as the tree swayed towards the fence and the squirrel swayed towards the tree, the squirrel leaped, landed on a branch of the tree, and skittered away.

Think about that for a moment. The squirrel timed its rocking to the swaying of the tree in the breeze and then leaped from the fence onto the tree when the distance the between the squirrel and the tree was at its shortest. Additionally, the fence had only been there for a few weeks. The squirrel had adapted to a change in its environment.

Let’s think about that and see if we can make a general statement. Maybe something like: Squirrels are very adaptive, when the world changes, they adapt to the change and before long, they are taking advantage of the change.

Is this true? Squirrels are wild animals, clearly not domesticated, but they have adapted to urban settings. They learn, they adapt to their surroundings and they do this constantly.

Squirrels adapt. Why don’t we? We’re smarter than squirrels, but there are times when we blind ourselves to the realities we face.

Why can’t we do at least as good as the squirrel?

They live in a world they can not control, but they adapt. Can we become like the squirrel, accepting of our weaknesses but learning to adapt to changing conditions? How long does it take for the squirrel to adapt? It doesn’t seem long. Why is that?

Let’s go with some wild assumptions. Let’s assume squirrels have a toolbox of skills and talents and experience they can reference. Maybe this is a collection of memories that the squirrel can apply to a situation, see if it matches against a known pattern or patterns (maybe even using pieces of known patterns to build more complex patterns). This moves the squirrel out of the stumbling pattern we often experience with a new piece of knowledge. If the squirrel can build new patterns to match reality out of pieces of old, familiar patterns, then can the squirrel convince their brain that the new pattern is, in fact, an old, familiar pattern and if that can be done, does that eliminate the learning stumble?

And, if a squirrel can do something like that, why can’t we? Why can’t we decompose the big patterns that make up knowledge into smaller building blocks? Why can’t we then use those building blocks to build new complex patterns on the fly as we need them?  

Squirrels adapt. Why don’t we?


Tony Akins
I've found the best way to get a point across is to tell a story.…

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