Years ago, I heard from somebody that Murray Bowen had been asked, “What is the single best indicator of level of differentiation?” And that he answered, “occupational attainment”, or “educational attainment”.

I don’t know if he said any of this. I’ve never been able to track it down. My silent reaction to the answer to the question was that that doesn’t sound right. By that time, I was far enough along in my clinical career and had seen too many examples of highly educated individuals who struggled with the consequences of their low differentiation emotional functioning and, as well, individuals with successful occupational accomplishment who were low differentiation in emotional functioning. I was seeing them because they were dealing with the symptom consequences of their low differentiation. Something was not adding up.

As a child growing up with parents without college education and struggling with finances, I developed the belief that educational accomplishment was the path to a good life, to becoming a good person. So, my personal belief paralleled Bowen’s assertion that educational or occupational attainment was a good indicator of level of differentiation. Well, I achieved fairly successful educational accomplishments. But guess what, that by itself didn’t necessarily lead to the good life.

Over the years, I came to believe that Bowen had been in error to even answer that question about the single best indicator of differentiation. Why? The nature of living systems is that no single variable by itself is a strong or decisive predictor of any important variable in a living system. In interconnected systems, any important variable will be predicted by a combination of variables working together, almost never by a single variable. Now, we call that “systems thinking”.

If this line of reasoning is correct, what are its implications for important phenomena of everyday systems we encounter? One implication is that you most of the time don’t really know all the important things about a person or a system from knowing just a few variables. That is, level of differentiation is an important variable to know but by itself doesn’t tell you all that much about the person or system. To me, another implication is that one is advised to be restrained or conservative about drawing big conclusions about a person or system while you are getting to know them. Just because you have learned two or three important things about them is not a sufficient basis for an interpretation or conclusion about them. This is just the nature of systems.

Back to the original point about educational or occupational accomplishment, I began to in my own simplistic way to think that accomplishment in the social world should be considered a sufficiently separate and different part of human functioning from level of differentiation of emotional functioning in systems. Pay attention to both. Neglect of either has unfortunate consequences. Keep them mostly separate and don’t neglect either one.