Theseus Ship Paradox: People and Institutions
Theseus Ship Paradox is a simple thought experiment about a mythical wooden ship that was decided to be preserved. The people trying to maintain it would replace the parts that would go bad from time to time. As you’d imagine, over a period of time, all the original parts of the ship got replaced, but the ship was still there. The question is, will the ship still be called Theseus’s ship? Did the preservation efforts preserve the ship or destroy the very thing being preserved?
If you think the ship is not the original ship, I have another question. At what point in the replacement process did the ship stop being the original ship?
Let me bring this discussion closer to you, and maybe that’ll add some perspective. Think about yourself, no one’s closer to us than we ourselves. Have you changed? Some say we change every day. Every little experience changes us. So what do you think? Are you the same person you were five years ago? Will you be the same five years from now?
The cells in our body get replaced periodically, so over time literally, every single cell in our body gets replaced. Aren’t we still that very person? If you disagree, I understand where you’re coming from, and at the risk of sounding hypocritical, I even agree with you. There’ll be different opinions about whether we are the same person or not, and if not, when did we stop being the person we were.
What I think is that while we most certainly change and change almost wholly, there is something that ties us to our older self, a chain. Because, unlike inanimate objects such as ships, change in humans isn’t about replacements, change in humans is modifications. So that chain connects us to our older selves. The links in that chain are our memories, our remembrances, our experiences, our learnings. The links themselves can keep changing, but the chain remains. It always exists, and that’s what is important.
That chain tells us our story, where we’ve come from, possibly even where we’re headed and of course, a lot in between.
When we take this discussion and put it in the context of an institution, we see some fascinating things. The basic building block of an institution is the people that work to make the institution what it is. So this intriguing characteristic of humans to change and yet be themselves creates an interesting impact on why and how institutions survive, function and endure.
Imagine a group of people starting a company that designs and constructs skyscrapers. It’s not a simple job, very technical, very specialized, not everyone can do it. Imagine one of the founders leaves the company in two years to start his own, another one meets an unfortunate accident and can no longer work, yet another decides to spend the rest of his life on a beach with the money he has made. Slowly, all of the people there when the company was founded moved out, yet it won’t come as a surprise if I tell you the company survived, even thrived.
So even though all the individual building blocks leave the structure, the structure has endured. Why? How? People leave behind legacies, all of us are storytellers in our own right, so the stories those people tell to the ones that come in fresh, the culture they build, the way they speak, the way they behave, even the little pieces of paper that gather dust in the archives that they’ve left behind, all of it stays even after they’re gone and that is a metaphor for their presence after they have left.
The company isn’t just the sum of all individuals that make the company what it is, it is much more than that. Imagine it this way, all people part of the institution are a dot on a sheet of paper. The dots together form a picture, that picture is what the institution or the company is. So even when the person representing the dot is no longer there, the dot remains, and so remains the picture. Now, what about the new people coming in? Well, pictures are art, and art need not know boundaries. You can start with the face, go on to draw the body, then the background and on goes the process.
There’s still one thing left, the picture isn’t just the sum of the dots. It is also equally built by the blank spaces in between. The paper makes its own contribution to the picture. Those spaces represent the institution’s memory, legacy, culture, stories, and so much more, and that’s what makes an institution, that’s what makes a company.
The collective is larger than the sum of the individuals.