The Upstream – Downstream Mental Model

Kelly Starrett’s, Becoming a Supple Leopard, changed my life when I read it 10 years ago. It helped me to understand how to insource basic rehab and prevent injuries. Some of the concepts in that book transcend fitness. The “upstream – downstream” approach presented in his book is when you don’t just treat the injured area but also what is above and below that which may be the cause of the initial injury. For example, if you experience knee pain you may want to also treat upstream (upper leg, glute, low back) and downstream (lower leg, ankle, foot).

This concept of the “upstream – downstream” approach has served as a mental model for working through other problems I face at work. When trying to identify root cause of an issue, don’t just think about the specific pain point – also consider what happens before and after, same goes for solutions that are put into place.

It turns out, as with most great ideas, this one has ancient roots. This past week I was reading Epictetus’ Enchiridion. He recommends thinking through upstream inputs required and downstream outcomes before deciding to march towards a goal.

Here is what he has to say:

In every act observe the things which come first, and those which follow it; and so proceed to the act. If you do not, at first you will approach it with alacrity, without having thought of the things which will follow; but afterwards, when certain base (ugly) things have shewn themselves, you will be ashamed. A man wishes to conquer at the Olympic games. I also wish indeed, for it is a fine thing. But observe both the things which come first, and the things which follow; and then begin the act. You must do every thing according to rule, eat according to strict orders, abstain from delicacies, exercise yourself as you are bid at appointed times, in heat, in cold, you must not drink cold water, nor wine as you choose; in a word, you must deliver yourself up to the exercise master as you do to the physician, and then proceed to the contest. And sometimes you will strain the hand, put the ankle out of joint, swallow much dust, sometimes be flogged, and after all this be defeated. When you have considered all this, if you still choose, go to the contest: if you do not, you will behave like children, who at one time play at wrestlers, another time as flute players, again as gladiators, then as trumpeters, then as tragic actors: so you also will be at one time an athlete, at another a gladiator, then a rhetorician, then a philosopher, but with your whole soul you will be nothing at all; but like an ape you imitate every thing that you see, and one thing after another pleases you. For you have not undertaken any thing with consideration, nor have you surveyed it well; but carelessly and with cold desire. Thus some who have seen a philosopher and having heard one speak, as Euphrates speaks,—and who can speak as he does?—they wish to be philosophers themselves also. My man, first of all consider what kind of thing it is: and then examine your own nature, if you are able to sustain the character. Do you wish to be a pentathlete or a wrestler? Look at your arms, your thighs, examine your loins. For different men are formed by nature for different things. Do you think that if you do these things, you can eat in the same manner, drink in the same manner, and in the same manner loathe certain things? You must pass sleepless nights, endure toil, go away from your kinsmen, be despised by a slave, in every thing have the inferior part, in honor, in office, in the courts of justice, in every little matter. Consider these things, if you would exchange for them, freedom from passions, liberty, tranquility. If not, take care that, like little children, you be not now a philosopher, then a servant of the public, then a rhetorician, then a procurator (manager) for Caesar. These things are not consistent. You must be one man, either good or bad. You must either cultivate your own ruling faculty, for external things; you must either exercise your skill on internal things or on external things; that is you must either maintain the position of a philosopher or that of a common person.

Epictetus, Enchiridion XXIX

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