Stability in Instability


March 2015
Ivan Obolensky


We all like to have stability in our lives. Stability is usually associated with longevity and predictability, yet it is this very stableness that sometimes prevents people, organizations, and systems from responding appropriately to a changing environment.

Here are a few questions one could ask:

  1. How stable is my life, i.e., does it follow a regular routine?
  2. How stable is my job?
  3. How stable is my family?
  4. How stable are my finances?

With stability comes the tendency to keep on going in the same direction, using familiar methods and similar thinking. Too much and altering course becomes difficult, if not impossible.

What is needed is the opposite: some instability to shake things up and add flexibility. In spite of its negative connotation, instability can be a positive attribute.

As an example, the flight of an arrow is made stable by the rear-feathers, or fletching, that ensure the arrow flies straight to the target. Of course, if the target moves, the arrow will probably miss. To counteract this, one could fit a computerized vane on the fletching that corrects for tracking errors so the arrow will change direction if the target moves. Guided missiles and laser-guided bombs use this method to hit what the operator illuminates with a laser. There are of course limits to how well a normally configured arrow or missile can follow a moving target even with computer-assisted tracking.

For extreme maneuverability an arrow or a missile must utilize instability. Imagine an arrow that is fired so that the point is at the back and the feathers are at the front. This arrow is constantly trying to swap ends. Fired in this way the arrow is extremely unstable. To have it fly at all, a computer on board must input thousands of tiny corrections each second. When a change in direction is called for, the arrow’s inherent instability (its tendency to swap ends) is unleashed to accelerate its ability to turn or alter course. Here the instability that is the result of its unnatural configuration creates an object that can outmaneuver a normal arrow with ease, let alone a target.

Several modern combat aircraft as well as drones have utilized such instability to gain extreme maneuverability in flight.1

Instability in the above case is turned from a distinct liability into an asset.

Political and economic systems too require some inherent instability in order to thrive. Too little can mean that they don’t respond to evolving conditions even if the environment is changing slowly. Whole organizations and economic systems can be the reason change is needed in the first place.

As an example, by 1300, the Catholic Church had been in existence for a thousand years and was the richest and most powerful institution in Europe as well as the largest landowner. It operated within an economic system called Feudalism that had likewise been around for almost a thousand years and formed the underpinning beneath what is known today as the Middle Ages.

Feudalism had come about through several means. The early capital of the Roman Empire was the city of Rome, but by the end of the 5th century, the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist. The Roman legions had collapsed before the onslaught of the barbarian hoards that swept over Europe. Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, became the new Rome until it too fell in 1453.

Walled cities and towns became the only means of defense against these incursions. Castles in particular sprang up at strategic points that were difficult to attack. Populations remained close for protection. The Roman Empire had splintered into countless holdings of all sizes and a social contract of mutual obligation between peasant and lord became necessary to deal with the new circumstances.

The Catholic Church survived the fall of Rome and retained much of the empire’s administrative infrastructure as well as its prestige. It offered itself as source of hope in a world that had turned upside down. Both the church and the feudal system in conjunction became stabilizing influences in medieval life.2

Feudalism grew also as the result of tax collection. Tax laws and collections methods around Constantinople in particular were oppressive. The plight of those who owed the empire grew so dire that often their only option was to seek the protection of a rich lord to whom they pledged their lives in exchange for the lord paying the tax collector what they owed.3 These people, successive generations, and others in subservient positions throughout Europe became bound to the nobility and the land itself. They were called serfs (from the Latin servus slave).

This system was based on barter where serfs worked the land in exchange for protection and the lord received rent in the form of goods. The lords answered to a king. Kings were not like those of later times, at least until the 15th century, but rather firsts among equals. They did not have their own standing armies but relied on the nobility to supply arms and men in exchange for their right to rule. With serfs tied to the land, invasion became a royal occupation. The more land; the more wealth. The easiest way to accumulate it was to invade. France invaded England and England invaded France.

Two events destabilized this arrangement.

First was the Crusades which lasted from 1100 to 1300 and managed to substantially reduce the number of Europe’s nobility while introducing Europe once again to the riches of the East (see The Spice Trade). As the King-Noble-Peasant hierarchy broke down, kings filled the vacuum created from deceased nobles by seizing control of their lands. Stronger kings created kingdoms (king’s domains) which eventually turned into the nation-states of the 16th century. Each of these kingdoms were united by a single ruler and a common language.

The second destabilizing event was the appearance of plague which entered Europe in the mid-14th century and reduced the population by as much as 40%.

With their numbers cut back, there were no longer enough serfs to work the land and economies took a sharp downturn, at least until systems of crop rotation increased food production. Those that survived and were able to adapt found themselves much in demand. One of the byproducts of plague was that labor became a much more valuable resource because it was scarce. Landowners began to pay money for the use of skilled labor. In addition, there was no longer sufficient manpower available to police and compel serfs to remain in a particular location. Peasants became mobile, and could move to wherever they were needed most and to wherever the pay was best.

With fewer lords to call on to supply the men necessary to wage war, kings often hired peasants directly, but for this kings needed money. Coinage had been in existence for centuries, but with the feudal system, barter had greatly reduced the need for cash, and coins were scarce. The Crusades opened up trade to the East, which also required the use of money. Many of those who returned settled in Northern Italy where banking and trade began to flourish. Coinage grew more plentiful and gradually began to undermine the barter system as its utility was discovered.

Those in the North needed cash as well and trading fairs were established so that raw materials could be exchanged for finished goods. Towns sprang up around these fairs, and the nobles of the area grew prosperous as they got their share of this new economy through taxes and fees. What threatened to destabilize this growing and profitable enterprise was the Church.

The Catholic Church controlled much of the routine of the Middle Ages. Every hour was accounted for and prayers prescribed for each. The number of feast days to honor saints were numerous, which curtailed work and trade. The Germanic princes of the time were particularly irked because their efforts to amass money to foster trade were hindered by the steady stream of coinage flowing towards Rome in the form of tithes. How were they to control their economies when funds were constantly being withdrawn from the system?

This unchecked outflow set the secular leaders on a collision course with those of the church. The church still held the high ground in the form of moral suasion including the nuclear weapon of the day: excommunication, but the church had become rich, materialistic, and ossified in its policies. Church offices were bought and sold amongst the clergy, who also offered to the discerning buyer a place in heaven for a price. In the minds of the rulers of the budding nation-states, the Church had become too intrusive, too rich, and too corrupt. It was no wonder that in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences on the church door of Wittenberg Cathedral, he started a movement that although not supported outright, was sanctioned by those who held secular power. This minor protest eventually led to the Protestant Reformation which freed the northern parts of Europe economically from the South. No longer did all roads and coinage lead to the Church in Rome. Within twenty years the majority of those in the North were Protestant.

The Catholic Church was not able to easily respond to this new twist. There were internal reforms, but too late. Entrenched attitudes and the apparent stability of the ecclesiastic regime meant that voices for change fell on deaf ears. The Church, in a time-honored fashion, dealt with those whose protests became too strident by the simple expedient of declaring the protester a heretic and promptly holding a bonfire in their honor where their attendance was compulsory.

When the clamor up north became impossible to ignore, the reaction was the use of ill-considered force. Protestants were met by political machinations and armies while those in the South that felt inclined to agree that change was needed were introduced to the Inquisition.

Another reason the church was unable to weather the crisis effectively was that the economies of Europe and the overall lot of the common man had begun to markedly improve. How could this obvious betterment compare with a Church doctrine that preached that most if not all in this world should be sacrificed to ensure eternal life in the next? The concept that it might be worthwhile to hedge one’s bets by participating in the secular world that existed in the here and now was an idea that took root, be it ever so slowly.

Ultimately the Catholic Church was forced to give up its position of religious and secular control of the Christian world. It was a victim of its own inability to respond effectively to a changing political, economic, and social landscape.

Sovereigns, as the rulers of the new secular nation-states were known, did not have it all their own way either. Within five hundred years they too would be more or less extinct, supplanted by all those ‘peasants’ in the King-Noble-Peasant hierarchy who had transformed themselves into an educated middle-class that not only wanted a place at the table but demanded it.5

It is not just governments and institutions that must thread their way between stability and conservatism on one side and instability and change on the other. We as individuals must do so as well.

We also know that change is a constant in our lives, but by classifying volatility and instability not as things to avoid, we might find our minds more open and our lives more enriched. At the very least, we will be less likely to come unraveled the next time big changes enter our lives.

Perhaps we should take those four questions and rephrase them?

  1. How much variation is in my life?
  2. How flexible is my job, my employment?
  3. How open am I and my family to new things?
  4. How prepared are my finances to weather change?



  1. Kutschera, A. (2000) Performance Assessment of Fighter Aircraft Incorporating Advanced Technologies. Retrieved March 12, 2015 from
  2. Freeman, R. (2013) The Renaissance. Palo Alto, CA: Kendall Lane Publishers
  3. Armstrong, M. (N.D.) Taxation. Retrieved March 12, 2015 from
  4. Freeman, cit.
  5. Barzun, J. (2000) From Dawn to Decadence. New York, NY: Harper Collins

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© 2015 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

  1. Craig Houchin
    Craig Houchin03-26-2015

    Great article. Embracing instability can be liberating.

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