Introducing the Coherence Stack

In so many ways, one of the most fundamental problems the world faces could be described in one word: confusion.

We’re confused about our place in the world and the meaning of our lives. We struggle to translate our sense of what meaning is into a set of tangible and ambitious goals for our lives.

Even for those who do have clear goals to aim at, putting our finger on an effective strategy for ensuring those important goals are attained can frequently elude us.

It is self-evident that human-nature is characterised by limitation. Yet, we all have an intuitive sense in which life can be genuinely meaningful.

And yet when we lack clarity, or motivation, or effectiveness, it can be hard to figure out why, adjust our stance and re-engage ourselves in pursuit of what matters.

This is where the coherence stack comes in.

What is the Coherence Stack?

The Coherence Stack is a visual model of the areas of life which we are all responsible for contending with. It is a tool for evaluating ideas concerning how to live coherently, meaningfully and effectively in the world.

When we’re honest with ourselves, our choices are often substantially arbitrary. Our dreams, perspectives and values often emerge from within. Indeed our culture often actively encourages us to look inward to find direction to our lives.

I became consciously aware of this tendency in myself many years ago. I realised that in order to have a stable and dependable orientation for my life, I needed to look outwards, rather than inwards, and to be intentional about deriving my life’s direction from within a coherent and actionable framework.

Since then, I have sought to develop an iterative process for gradually integrating my worldview, decisions and actions, more closely together into a coherent way of living.

It’s a process I plan to continue for as long I live. You can think of this as a work-in-progress that will never be finished, but ever-refined.

Over the years, I’ve shared this model with a broad range of people who have said they’ve found it a helpful way to evaluate the coherence of their own lives. So today, I’m sharing it with you.

Figure 1: The Coherence Stack

Please note: This is a model which encompasses one’s entire life. As such, using it to evaluate areas of our own lives can be challenging. It exposes weaknesses, inconsistencies and past mistakes. As such, it is a hugely humbling experience. My hope is that — while it may expose significant problems — you will benefit from using it by integrating it into your daily routines.

Much of my published work, on this website and elsewhere, reflects my current thinking in many of these areas.

But as to how you specify and refine your Coherence Stack, well that part’s up to you!

How does it work?

Each of the 11 layers of the Coherence Stack represents an aspect of how we live. These aspects are arranged in a hierarchy of abstraction, from the ‘big-picture’ aspects of life (such as our worldview, identity and values) through to the more tangible aspects (such as our actions and results). Each layer should be consistent with the others.

In general, the more abstract concepts are used to derive or validate more concrete concepts. Although inconsistencies in the lower-level concepts may be helpful at exposing problems in higher-level concepts.

Use of the coherence stack involves constantly asking whether each aspect of our daily living is mutually-consistent with the other layers. It is a life-long iterative process of refinement.

As each of the 11 layers operate more harmoniously with each other, our lives can manifest a greater degree of meaning, effectiveness and consistency with truth.

The three basic types, as illustrated in Figure 1, are:

  • Perceive. Utilise the senses to observe, interpret and understand the world, and how to live successfully within it.
  • Resolve. Derive an explicit and actionable roadmap for how you plan to live your life in a way that reflects how the world is.
  • Act. Expend your time, energy and resources intentionally to effectively implement your roadmap and achieve those purpose-driven ambitions.

Let’s explore how each of the 11 layers of the Coherence Stack flesh out these concepts to help us live more coherent, meaningful and effective lives.

1. Worldview

Your worldview is the most fundamental way in which you conceptualise reality. It encompasses the entirety of your observations, assumptions and interpretations of reality.

Worldviews can have a variety of basic types, such as philosophical, ideological or religious. They ask questions such as:

  • What is reality like?
  • What is wrong with the world?
  • What solution(s) does the world need?
  • What are we here for?

Examples

  • Secular naturalism, Christian theism, Monism

Coherence test

Your worldview should provide a suitable foundation for the other layers of the coherence stack. It informs the ways in which we see our place in the world and therefore shapes how we should act within it. You should ensure that the way you resolve to act is consistent with your worldview.

2. Identity

Your identity is who you most essentially are by virtue of the implications of your worldview. It helps us understand what constitutes human dignity, rights and obligations, and to identify the characteristics of legitimate authority.

Use your worldview to inform who you are as a person and to orient you towards what matters. Image from Unsplash.com.

This layer prompts questions such as:

  • Who am I?
  • What am I here for?
  • What value do I have and why?
  • Who am I accountable to?

Examples

  • Infinite human value and dignity
  • Spouse, parent, companion
  • Citizen of [country], academic or healthcare professional

Coherence test

Your identity provides the foundation for our moral and purpose-driven agency. It informs our obligations to ourselves, towards others and (according to some worldviews) towards God.

3. Values

How often do you stop and think about what you spend your time doing? What story does your calendar and your bank statement tell about what you care about? It’s easy to blindly find ourselves committing huge portions of our life to things which don’t align very well with our values.

Lots of things matter, sure. And there is great freedom in focussing on values that particularly resonate with your passions and interests. But this layer enables us to clarify why they matter and to determine what matters most.

It empowers us to conform our personal values with what truly matters, rather than remain inside our own subjective ‘inside-out’ value-systems.

This layer enables us to ask questions such as:

  • Where is meaning and purpose found?
  • What objective significance is there in life (if any)?
  • What is worth making sacrifices in pursuit of?

Examples

  • Family, faith, freedom, impact and joy
  • Human rights, democracy and technological advance

Coherence test

This layer is critical for evaluating whether our actions align with what matters, as well as helping us figure out if there are things which matter more which we’ve as yet ignored or been unaware of.

4. Wisdom

Does life ever feel like you’re swimming against the tide? You set your sights on something, but the world seems to fight against you as you move towards it. You’re convinced the goal is meaningful, but you seem to get in your own way at every hurdle.

Devote your mind to identifying and articulating the principles which tend to lead to a successful life. Image from Pixabay.com.

This is what wisdom is for. It’s rooted in your worldview, but informed by learning from your own successes and failures, and those of others. It tells you how to flourish, how to thrive, how to live well — in short, how to succeed.

Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding. Proverbs 15:31–32

Wisdom is concerned with ensuring the way in which you live your life runs consistently with the way the world works, rather than against it. It prompts questions like:

  • What patterns of behaviour tend to lead to success?
  • What patterns of behaviour tend to lead to failure?
  • How might my habits, character or perspectives be hindering me?

Examples

  • Results reinvested compound over time
  • Choose your friends carefully
  • A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger
  • Roughly 80% of outcomes come from 20% of the causes (the Pareto rule)

Coherence test

It’s all well and good knowing what matters. But without wisdom, our lives will fail to display results consistent with them. Wisdom is a weapon, which can be used for good or ill. If it’s aligned with a coherent worldview and set of values, it will be instrumental in making your life’s output consistent with what matters: the good life.

5. Vision

People like to talk a lot about ‘progress’. Political, business and social leaders invariably describe themselves as ‘progressive’. I certainly do.

But how often do we stop to think about what exactly that means?

By definition, it means that we are trying to improve things. In other words, we recognise things are not all they could be and we are willing to play our part in helping things to move forwards towards a better future.

This ‘better future’ is your vision. It is what you want the future to be like. It is a mental picture of the way things could be, and should be, based on the worldview, values and wisdom which you hold to. This layer prompts questions such as:

  • What should I want — and not want — for the future?
  • What could the future be like?
  • What kind of future am I able to contribute towards?

Examples

  • To live in a beautiful, clean and sustainable world
  • To be surrounded by opportunities to explore, create and thrive
  • To experience the joy of life as it was meant to be lived

Coherence test

By representing your vision in the context of the Coherence Stack, it is easier to evaluate whether your conceptualisation of ‘progress’ is consistent with what matters (values) and what works (wisdom). It can help us avoid well-intentioned naïvety and enable us to create intentional and profound ambitions for our future.

6. Goals

These are the identifiable targets which we resolve to achieve. They are commonly defined using the SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound), which is a helpful set of criteria for coherent life goals. However, these criteria should be interpreted flexibly. You don’t want your goals to be defined too rigidly as they will evolve over time, and need to be scalable to encompass all of your desired achievements.

Your goals should be bold and courageous. They should be the tangible outcomes which when combined, constitute the realisation of your vision. Goals should be defined specifically, but not necessarily have a defined completion criteria. Many of the most important things in life never end (i.e. they are ‘infinite’). If it’s meaningful enough, there can never be ‘enough’ of it around.

This layer prompts questions such as:

  • What should I seek to accomplish?
  • How will I define success?
  • What are the greatest problems in the world? How can I address them?

Examples

  • To raise a joyful and generous family
  • Achieve financial independence in 15 years
  • To accomplish meaningful work
  • To leave a financial legacy for ongoing philanthropy

Coherence test

Use this layer to ensure that your goals are coherent with the other layers. In particular, your accumulated goals should contribute towards manifesting your overall vision. Check that your goals are suitably ambitious and that most of them are ‘infinite’ in nature. Ensure that they are broad enough to encompass all your values.

7. Strategy

A strategy is a specified plan of action. It usually takes the form of a time-based sequence of actions, and a corresponding description of the required methods and resources, arranged into a structure that will, in all likelihood, lead to the attainment of your goals. Your strategy should be tailored to achieving your goals and should utilise the four ‘Act’ layers described below.

Specify a strategy that will lead to the attainment of your goals. Image from Pixabay.com.

Defining a coherent strategy prompts questions such as:

  • What are the critical (or most difficult) steps to achieving my goals?
  • What are the key risks? How can they be mitigated?
  • What order should the steps be executed in?

Examples

These examples are based on the example goals shown above.

  • Raising family: marry a wonderful spouse, learn to be an effective parent, and set a good example of integrity and self-sacrifice to [e.g. 4] children throughout their lives.
  • Financial independence: acquire skills to generate at least £70k of value per year, invest 50% of post-tax income into globally diversified index funds, re-invest all gains, continue for 15 years.
  • Meaningful work: determine what matters, acquire skills and knowledge to contribute towards what matters and commit daily effort towards manifesting what matters.

Coherence test

Evaluating your strategy should be to ensure that it is directed towards your goals. It should be specified in terms of the components of the four lower layers of the Coherence Stack. Your strategy should be a complete (but necessarily flexible) roadmap which will lead to your goals being attained. Review your strategy regularly, asking the question: ‘How could this strategy fail to deliver (i.e. which parts are insufficient)?’, and refine it accordingly.

8. Activities

Some people are all talk and no action: what they say they believe or want simply doesn’t match what they’re working towards.

Someone claims that they want to be a millionaire. But what they really mean is that they want to go out and spend £1m. That’s a very different person to someone who wants to create £1m of value for other people, through smart, targeted and persistent enterprise.

Ensure that what you actually expend your energy on is aligned with your goals and strategy. Image from Pixabay.com.

Your activities are the jobs, contracts, side-hussles, start-ups, programmes, projects, tasks, courses, exams and other active undertakings which constitute steps in your strategy for success.

This layer is highly dynamic, meaning that it is one of the most volatile layers. It will be the primary focus of daily refinement. It is important to get rid of activities which don’t align with your values, goals and strategy, and to ‘dial-up’ the activities which most directly contribute towards the attainment of your goals.

This layer prompts questions such as:

  • How can I deliver my strategy?
  • What key activities drive progress (‘Progress Dials’)? Which don’t?
  • What key activities mitigate risks?

Examples

  • Get a degree in an important and meaningful subject
  • Write a book on an important and meaningful subject
  • Get a job in which I can works towards [a goal]
  • Buy a buy-to-let property as a long-term investment

Coherence test

Using this layer involves ensuring that the actions on your forward plan are consistent with your strategy. You should use your activities to inform the necessary methods to use, as well as what resources you will need. Ensure there are no unnecessary activities. Ensure you give appropriate focus to the activities which are most closely correlated with producing results.

9. Methods

Abraham Lincoln once said “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”.

Most of us are taught during adolescence that hard work pays off. However, in isolation, this is terrible advice. The reality is that smart work pays off and hard work (and resources) amplifies its effectiveness.

The methods you use are the techniques, tactics and procedures which make the execution of your activities possible. They are the strength multipliers which can be deployed to leverage our own efforts in order to optimise effectiveness.

This layer prompts questions such as:

  • How can I systematise my routine to guarantee success?
  • What can I leverage to amplify my efforts?
  • What techniques have been proven to be effective?
  • How can I integrate tried and tested tactics into my approach?

Examples

  • Leverage compound interest to build a long-term investment portfolio to fund meaningful activities
  • Master the art of saying “no” to things which don’t align well with your values
  • Hire an executive assistant who shares your vision to free up your time to focus on growth

Coherence test

When using this layer, ensure that you are using all available methods to improve the chance of completing your activities. This involves identifying and utilising methods which reduce friction, remove risks and amplify your effort in order to improve your effectiveness.

10. Resources

This layer represents the accumulated capability at your disposal. It includes your knowledge, skills, team, wealth, technology and infrastructure, among others. They are a vital source of leverage to accelerate progress towards our goals.

If you are lacking required resources, or if more resources would have a significant effect on your results, this layer may prompt you to refine your goals, strategy and activities in order to acquire them.

This layer prompts questions such as:

  • What do I have at my disposal? What am I lacking?
  • What do the activities and methods require?
  • What should I seek more of to assist in furthering my values?
  • What additional resources would have a direct impact on my results?
  • How can I integrate necessary resource acquisition into my strategy?

Examples

  • Use Google Calendar to intentionally design your week to achieve your goals
  • Buy a home to help manifest your value of generosity through hospitality
  • Build a network of like-minded collaborators to support your goals

Coherence test

You can use this layer to assess whether your strategy is realistic given your resource limitations. You can also use it to motivate the acquisition of resources in order to achieve more ambitious goals. Look for weak spots in your resource portfolio, such as not having the right team, money, technology or skills to deliver your strategy.

11. Results

‘Don’t tell people your plans — show them your results’, or so the saying goes. In other words, layers 1 to 10 don’t exist arbitrarily. They exist for a purpose: to achieve results.

A tree is recognised by its fruit. So ask yourself: ‘what fruit am I bearing’?

Measure results to gain feedback for iterative refinement of your stack. Image from Unsplash.com.

Are your actions producing anything? Are your results consistent with your goals? However you measure it — whatever you’re seeking — you need a way of identifying your desired results.

This layer prompts questions such as:

  • How do I know my strategy’s working?
  • What are the key activities which drive results?
  • How might my actions be hindering my results?

Examples

  • Keep track of your financial net worth
  • Regularly talk to your spouse about the health of your relationship
  • Skim through your journal for signs of spiritual, professional or relational growth
  • Analyse the income streams which produce the greatest chunk of returns
  • Track your time in order to identify the ‘time wasters’

Coherence test

Use this layer to validate your method. There may be a time-delay, but if your life stacks up, it will produce results. Use your results to validate progress, identify opportunities, diagnose problems and refine each layer of your coherence stack to eliminate friction and optimise impact.

What can it be used for?

The Coherence Stack is nothing more than a visual model. Models are low-resolution representations of reality from a particular perspective or for a particular purpose. By nature, they hide detail and nuances, and as such are always limited. However, good models — while limited — are also useful.

There are range of uses for the Coherence Stack and I hope you will benefit from using them. In the interest of brevity, I’ll describe some them, in no particular order, with just enough detail for you to grasp the essential point.

  • Visualising human life. When we can ‘see’ our lives from an objective birds-eye perspective, we become empowered to take action that would otherwise be more difficult.
  • Facilitating iterative progress. We are limited, weak and naïve. But we can still grow and move forward. This happens slowly and iteratively, but must be done intentionally. It happens as we routinely monitor the level of coherence between each layer of our Coherence Stack.
  • Identifying inconsistencies. We know when something’s not quite right. We’re not staying on track. We’re not seeing results. We don’t feel like our efforts are meaningful. Invariably, these are due to inconsistencies between layers of the Coherence stack.
  • Validating progress. How do we know that what we’re doing is worthwhile? How do we know our views and perspectives are correct? By conforming our thought processes to an integrated stack of coherence, we can more objectively assess the merits — or otherwise — of what we direct our effort towards.
  • Comparing alternatives. By evaluating two alternative decisions, beliefs or actions in terms of how they fit within the Coherence Stack, we become empowered to make more truthful, meaningful and effective decisions.
  • Prompting relevant questions. Sometimes, we know something’s not right, but we can’t put our finger on precisely how to unpick the problem. By using the example questions above, alongside your own, we can be more immediately drawn to the most important questions to ponder.
  • Removing blind spots. A key principle behind the design of the Coherence Stack is minimal sufficiency. The model isn’t excessively complex, but each layer is critical. If we’re wildly off-the-mark in just one or two layers, it can send our whole lives off-course.
  • Diagnosing problems. By identifying where problematic symptoms and their root causes lie in the stack, the relevant diagnosis and remedies emerge far more directly and unambiguously. We become able to see what would otherwise remain obfuscated.
  • Mitigating naivety. Hanlon’s razor is a powerful rule-of-thumb, which states that we should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. In other words, it’s far easier to be foolish than we think. Progress is as much about preventing inadvertent decline as it is about striving to advance. These 11 layers can help us ensure we progress in a coherent way, rather than by inadvertently weakening links between each layer.
  • Validating solutions. “How do you know?” is one of those questions you can ask in an infinite regress without approaching a concrete answer. However, in the context of these 11 layers of coherence, each time we ask that question, we iteratively move up and down the stack, improving and refining our life’s choices. With each step, we can become more confident that the adopted approach is coherent.
  • Improving resilience. Facing trials and suffering is part of life — indeed it’s perhaps one of the most defining features of human existence. However one principle of human life stands greater still: in some sense we are able to transcend suffering as we pursue meaning. The Coherence Stack helps us try to identify the authentic ‘good life’ and thereby equips us with the tools to withstand trials and suffering in its pursuit.
  • Motivating progress. This is the other side of the same coin as ‘improving resilience’. The more tightly each layer is coupled to the others, the more clearly the meaning to it will emerge. This can be a profound source of motivation. If you know precisely and confidently what will most directly contribute to the things you most deeply care about, how could you not take action?
  • Defining progress. We all want the world to progress, but we all disagree about what that is. Many people have spent their entire lives fighting wholeheartedly for something they perceive to be worthwhile. But it takes the hindsight of history to judge whether it did in fact constitute genuine coherent progress.
  • Accelerating progress. As the coherence layers align, it will — by definition — produce results. As we trace the causes and levers of result generation back through the Coherence Stack, it becomes easier to identify the ‘dials’ to turn in order to amplify those results and quickly become more effective.
  • Motivating tolerance. Using the Coherence Stack is a humbling experience. It shows us how little our lives make sense (at least at first) and how inconsistently we live (even according to our own standards). It therefore gives us a sense of tolerance towards those who have completely different, but equally deeply-held, convictions as our own.
  • Facilitating meaningful discussion. Have you ever asked yourself what you think conversation is? In its most basic form, I think it’s an exercise in showing respect for others. It’s a collaborative pursuit of moral and intellectual progress. It’s a tool for strengthening relationships and demonstrating the greatest of the human virtues. The Coherence Stack can really help here! It gives us a genuine curiosity about others’ lives and perspectives, a framework for identifying important topics of conversation and the motivation to become a more eager and sincere listener.

The Coherence Stack and this article are both works-in-progress. I hope you find them helpful!

Methodology

The development and refinement of this model follows an interative methodology based on the techniques set out by Noy and McGuinness ([1]) and by Ferndndez et. al. ([2]), among others.

By implication, you (yes, you) are part of this process. If you have any comments or suggestions for refinement, please get let me know by getting in touch, submitting feedback, or commenting below.

References

[1] Natalya F. Noy and Deborah L. McGuinness. “Ontology Development 101: A Guide to Creating Your First Ontology’’. Stanford Knowledge Systems Laboratory Technical Report KSL-01–05 and Stanford Medical Informatics Technical Report SMI-2001–0880, March 2001.

[2] Mariano Ferndndez, Asunci6n G6mez-P~rez, Natalia Juristo. “METHONTOLOGY: From Ontological Art Towards Ontological Engineering”. AAAI Technical Report SS-97–06

Cyber Security Consultant at Roke, Researcher @UniofSouthampton. Local Councillor in #Southampton. Author of ‘Programming: A Primer’. www.tomjbell.com

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