making the complicated simple

December 19, 2011  |  environment, knowledge, life, main blog, philosophy

After my wife read the first draft of this post about making things simple, she said, “you’re guilty as charged – you’ve written a complicated piece on simplicity!” She was right. Complicating things is what we tend to do. But here’s the good news. As information, the pace of change and choice grow quickly, we don’t need to roll over and accept that complexity must prevail.

Edward de Bono said, “Dealing with complexity is inefficient and an unnecessary waste of time, attention and mental energy. There is never any justification for things being complex when they could be simple”.

 I asked a friend who plays golf very well, what tuition books he reads. He replied, “a golf swing is simple mate, you just focus on the ball and hit it – constant analysis complicates it”. On reflection I thought that his comment was a poignant metaphor for life itself.

 Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple defines innovation and creativity. It’s true in technology (think Steve Jobs), art, photography, design and fashion. Coco Chanel said, “simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance”. Leonardo da Vinci offered “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

 Perhaps the greatest challenge in removing complexity is in communicating simply – and this can be a real burden. Mark Twain made a telling comment “I apologise for the length of my letter, I didn’t have time to make it shorter”. It’s not hard to think of examples in our own working lives where we’ve over cooked our written and spoken communication. A former boss of mine claimed that if you couldn’t put it on one page then you didn’t understand it. Something is simple or complex depending on the way we choose to describe it.

 It’s tough getting simplicity in workplaces, where making things appear complex tends to be an art form. Jargon, sounding important and impression management are often actually rewarded in organisations. For leaders who can see the value of a simpler, more inclusive approach concerted effort to de-complicate, achieves reduced costs and mistakes, and improved morale and return on investment. Making the complex clear always helps people work smarter – because it’s a lot easier to figure out what’s important and ignore what isn’t. Note however that Einstein said that “everything must be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
In our personal lives we’ve become so materialistic and self-indulgent that the next new toy or experience isn’t special for long.  Accumulation of “things” has led to clutter in both our living space and inner space.  We’ve also tended to be more excessive with what we try and fit into our lives, what we consume and the way we obsessively protect our kids. It’s also easy to allow the struggle and strife of others to become part of us – which is something the Kinks say we should eliminate in their little known song, Complicated Life.

The old saying, “less is more” resonates with me. The fewer friends, possessions, and experiences we have, the more we appreciate and enjoy them. Simple living, which is about people being satisfied with what they need rather than what they want, is different from living in poverty – it’s a lifestyle choice. The choice might be around frugality, health, ecological footprint, stress or just increased quality time. The people I know who live this way are, without exception, the happiest. The art of having less but enjoying our lives more, involves a few simple changes in perspective, like understanding where our true values lie – and focusing on them.

What else can we do? We can try to minimize the impact of negative people in our lives as part of our search for simplicity and elegance. It doesn’t mean removing ourselves from criticism, but it does mean taking control of our environment. We can also escape from the “everyday” to get doses of perspective by experiencing wilderness, meditating, and volunteering, for example.

Simplifying our unnecessarily complicated lives can also extend to what we eat. I’m reminded of my mum’s sign in her library, “live simply so others may simply live”. There’s also a lot to be gained by being more like children – learning, appreciating what’s around us, being active, having fun and above all keeping things simple. What ideas do you have for making the complicated simple?


2 Comments


  1. The old Chinese discipline of asking “WHY” five compound times usually results in telling ourselves what we are really all about.

  2. Will we leave here knowing future generations will have a choice as to whether their lives are complicated or simple? Individuals may, but it seems that collectively we would rather not contemplate Mother Earth rejecting our excessive and complicated lives and all that is associated with such. Being compelled to change to the point that our mere survival on this planet is dependent upon a return to a simpler life where our demands on ‘her’ resources and our ecological footprint have to be minimal doesn’t bear thinking about. Sprinklings of minority groups globally have begun to challenge the status quo where in may quarters the only real goal and concern is where the next billion can be made. At some point in time, will the minority become the majority, a generation simply left with no choice? Complicated, isn’t it.

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