This essay is a follow-up to my last post “What’s it REALLY all about?” in which I briefly looked at the quest for a simple, life-defining principle. As I worked through that essay, my two favorite quotes on simplicity came to mind:
“Seek simplicity, and distrust it.” (Alfred North Whitehead)
“I don’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes)
Why do I like these two quotes?
They simultaneously extol, and warn us against, simple answers. While making the quest for simplicity an imperative, they warn us against accepting the superficially simple answer that hides the complex nature of a problem. Whitehead tells us to constantly question, while still respecting and seeking simplicity. Holmes tells us that the only simplicity worthy of our respect is arrived at after confronting and wrestling with complexity and even confusion.
If the simple answer is to have any validity, it necessarily leaves much unsaid. That which is unsaid, however, must still be acknowledged and understood.
To succeed in sports, music, and the arts, practitioners have to learn to get their head out of the way, to “not think, just do.” As simple as that sounds, it isn’t easy; for most of us, it requires years of struggle, years of thinking, analyzing, and trying to understand. It requires years of practice and skill development, with the hope of eventually getting glimpses of that “simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Zen monks struggle with koans for years, in the hopes of attaining the enlightened insight of the Zen Master. In other religious traditions, the road to sainthood or mystical insight similarly requires struggle and hardship to reach clarity of vision. Athletes and artists struggle for years to teach themselves how to get into “the flow;” it is the goal of 10,000 hours of practice. And when we occasionally find ourselves in the flow, everything seems so simple….
In my own efforts to find that simple yet effective approach to golf, or playing the fiddle, or writing, or speaking, or whatever, I frequently find myself mired in complexity, or what some call ‘the paralysis of analysis.’ When somehow and occasionally I surprise myself and exceed my more routine levels of performance, I have somehow attained a relaxed focus and simplicity of purpose; I have overcome my tendency to try too hard, to over-think, to over-analyze.
It seems that any time we get frustrated in an endeavor, when things just don’t seem to be working, we should remind ourselves of the guidance of Thoreau and so many others: Focus! Focus! Simplify! Simplify! When things aren’t working, it is often because we’ve been seduced by simplicity on this side of complexity, or we are mired in the swamp of complexity and haven’t found our way out to the other side.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” E.F. Schumacher
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci