The importance of pattern recognition.

It happened during a recent trip, while visiting a church and hearing the sermon. It happened in a recent conversation. It happened when I was looking for a sermon to listen to (around the 18 minute mark at that link). A documentary I stumbled on started talking about patterns of evidence. I was studying a Bible passage (2 Timothy 13:14) for the women's event I had been planning for, and there it was again.

It was everywhere, it was a pattern. A pattern of people telling me to learn to recognize patterns. So much so, that it was almost a little annoying. Ever had it happen where it feels as if God is trying to get your attention through strange "coincidental" repetition?

"Julie, pay attention to this. Learn about patterns."

We see patterns all around us in nature, and we've learned to interpret it, patterns of animal migration and weather patterns and seasonal patterns. We understand them. But for some reason I, at least, didn't always see it in life. A pattern of behavior, a pattern of activity, a pattern of just about anything.

There are positive patterns, and there are negative patterns. I'm going to focus on the latter in this post because we are sometimes confused by negative patterns and allow them to dictate situations while feeling unable to break them.

My mom and I just finished a Bible study (Trustworthy, by Lisa TerKeurst) that contained the statement that patterns determine the outcome. That seems pretty obvious  the very nature of a pattern is a predictable finish, because that's what makes it a pattern  but I can't say that I had grasped that clearly before.

Maybe we get caught up into thinking "habits determine outcome" which is kind of true. But habits are a personal, slightly different beast. Patterns can be observed from individuals all the way up to large segments of the population. Habits are subsets or logical conclusions of patterns.

Look for the pattern.

Patterns reveal what's really going on even when the words or exterior apperance is meant to suggest otherwise. You can't hide a pattern.

If you don't see patterns, you get taken in. You are easily lied to. You go a long way up a path to nowhere. You end up second-guessing yourself because it's almost like we can sense an underlying pattern but our eyes, peers, and fears keep us from pattern recognition.

What makes us unable to see patterns?

For one, the immediate talk. Lip service. Appearances. We are so taken with how and what a person is saying that we forget a pattern in their life that would completely negate what's coming out of their mouth. The Bible has some things to say about this, how our actions should line up with our talk. Perhaps this is why people get fixated on the smooth talk of a leader instead of the pattern of actions that leader actually takes. (See: Current politics.) We see leaders who receive accolades and credit when other people have done the work, building their reputations on other's backs. The appearance is there, but the actions are not.

"I find it easier to have an obviously cruel boss than one who smiles at you while stabbing you in the gut," I told a friend recently. "At least the cruel boss makes sense."

The exteriors and their peripherals hide the patterns for those not looking too hard. 

I suppose wishful thinking is another thing that keeps us from seeing patterns. We don't want to admit seeing the pattern because it would mean we'd have to do something uncomfortable.

In high school, when one girl left the room, the others would often join in and talk smack about her. Foolish was the girl who didn't think that the same thing happened when she left the room, but I suspect we often didn't believe the pattern we saw would apply to us. As an adult, I'm still surprised how easily I forget that a person who spreads half-truths about others is going to do the same about me in the right situation. I also didn't understand that when the pattern of all negative talk about someone is all I hear, I should have questioned the lack of positive talk.

It's wishful thinking that traps us into false trust that hides the pattern.

Another reason (and probably the most painful) is when the pattern you see doesn't fit another pattern you see. Conflicting patterns are confusing. They seem to be mutually exclusive in your mind, but there they are, existing at once. You don't know how to process it and it causes great internal anxiety, confusion, and chaos.

We also confuse habits with patterns. Your habit might be binge eating, but the pattern might have something more to do with depression or loneliness. You can fix the habit, but that pattern is still there and will manifest itself some other way. Your habit might be procrastination or bad time management, but the pattern might have something to do with lost interest in work or a desire to simply be in control or in power above all else. In that scenario, time is wasted on these other things that could be spent doing work.

Sometimes, we sort of sense a pattern but for these reasons (and others), we don't register the pattern. We ignore it. We deny it. When that's going on, particularly if its a pattern that indicates something negative, we have an uneasy sense and we don't quite know how to put our finger on the source.

How do you spot a pattern? Or, more importantly, how do you determine its source? You have to get to the source if you want to break the pattern.

The easiest way is to find a common denominator.

For example, if, over a period of time, you realize people have left an organization, that's the basic pattern: People keep leaving.

Since that's not a good thing, you need to find the source of the pattern. Find the details in the pattern to understand why that's happening. Why are they leaving? Is it the same kind of people leaving? Do they leave at a certain point? Have they worked with a particular person? Were they all in a particular situation at one point?

If all of those people leaving are of varied personalities, ages, and places in life, the common denominator must be something else. It isn't demographics. Maybe they end up working closely with someone you'd never dream was a problem, but if that's the only commonality, what you have there is the common denominator. It's the one common and shared thing found in every instance where the pattern repeats itself again.

It is valuable for us to learn to recognize a pattern at work, not only in our own personal lives, but in our work lives, church lives, and other relationships. Even if we aren't in a position to break a pattern, we can at least draw boundaries to protect ourselves from the pattern.

Remember, patterns determine outcome.

If you want a different outcome (e.g. people stop leaving your organization), the pattern will lead you to the common denominator and it is there where the change has to happen.

If you don't effectively change the pattern, it will keep on happening.

Just understand that. Don't be surprised to see it continue if no real attempt is made to adress the common denominator of the pattern.

A Quick Read
By Julie R. Neidlinger
Photo book