Simplicity

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)

and

“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.

An example of simplicity on this side of complexity. Distrust it.

An example of simplicity on this side of complexity – and why we should distrust it.

“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

14 thoughts on “Simplicity

  1. Hi there – I don’t believe your opening statements and the rest of your argument match. On one hand you’re telling the reader, using confusing quotes, to distrust and stay away from the simple answer. Going on to say that the simple answer may not be correct because it is under analyzed. Then the argument becomes telling the reader to focus and stay out of their own way, going on to use quotes saying simplicity is sophisticated. It leaves me confused. Although, I agree with the second half of your article saying any fool can make things more complex. In my experience, it’s usually the people with nothing to say that talk the most (in meetings and such).

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    • My intent was to comment on the two quotes – which some indeed find confusing, but which I find insightful. The Holmes quote I got out of a book entitled Defining Moments, by Joe Badaracco, which I assign in the business ethics class that I teach. Many of my students find the quote confusing as well, and I enjoy discussing it in class. In the world of ethics, the simple bromide ‘just do the right thing’ is simplicity on this side of complexity. But after wrestling with dilemmas in which the right thing is confusing and uncertain, and about which many good people may disagree, some are able to find a clarity of purpose and values which help them make a decision which they stand by -and which (to me) represents simplicity on the other side of complexity. Simplicity is not either right or wrong. It is sometimes incomplete, and sometimes sublime. That is what makes the topic interesting to me….. Thanks for your comment,

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  2. There’s a commercial that has its protagonists say, “I’m trying to simplify my life.” And I think the viewer is suppose to nod sagely and say, ah, what a worthy goal.

    Yeah. Sounds like self-absorption to me. As if we are the center of the earth and can control the simplicity or complexity of life. Adults have responsibilities to others, to family, professionally…

    If you are leading a responsible life, you can’t will “simplicity.” You have been accumulating debts to others your whole life. That means you owe others.

    One of the gauges of maturity is the ability to say,” I don’t have a simple answer to that problem.” I remember certain military organizations would give a candidate a verbal problem and ask for a solution. If the answer came back with no agonizing and a glib response, the candidate failed. The candidate didn’t get it. There are problems that simply (ho-ho) defy an easy solution, they are problems that require chosing the lesser of two evils.

    My guess is the lesser of two evils issus increase the higher you aspire. If you decide not to aspire to anything, yes, you CAN simply your life. But how did you justify occupying space ohn this earth?

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  3. Wittgenstein, I think, best exemplified what Bob is addressing here. W.’s objective was to think as deeply as possible about a fundamental question, and reduce the “answer” to the simplest possible statement. Similarly, William of Occam called on us to desert the complex in favor of the less-complex. The presence of un-needed or redundant complexity is artifice. Less is more. The answer to various questions may indeed be complex, but that is more a function of our lack of ability to simplify further, not that a simpler answer or approach is preferable. Nice piece, Bob!

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    • Thanks Henry – This is the philosopher’s holy grail – and it applies to so much else that we do. I remember trying to understand Wittgenstein’s phenomenology and struggling to find the simplicity on the other side of complexity. You remind me of Occam’s razor which states the imperative to move toward simplicity – reminding me again of Einstein’s “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler!”

      You might also recall the scene in City Slickers in which Jack Palance holds up the one finger (not the middle finger) to Billy Chrystal and says “One thing, just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.” Always fun to review – at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4CvFWCULuI Thanks for your insights.. Bob

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  4. I can’t wait to sit down at camp and discuss these things with you and the other campers. Simplicity is the holy grail for me. It is capturing complexity briefly. So hard to attain in language, easier in music or math. I am with Leonardo. Darn do I admire that fellow. Did you know he made the Fibonacci code part of the Mona Lisa painting? Simplicity is a contradiction as life is complex. But through a process of abstraction, you can get to its essence. Maybe we will find it in Lander, for a moment or so. Our best bet is to find it in the oh so complex and yet so simple nature..

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    • Bernadette,

      Preparation for an expedition in itself creates complexity, including disengaging from everyday life. As Roger Crossland said, “Adults have responsibilities to others.” But if we prepare well (getting to the other side of complexity), we have a chance of knowing something simpler.

      There is a small, if somewhat odd, book with a decent reputation in the mountaineering world: Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing. In the novel, published posthumously in 1952, French surrealist Rene Daumal, described preparing to climb the highest mountain in the world, which is on an island on the other side of the planet.

      Perhaps the struggle with complexity leads us to moments of clarity and simplicity—Maslow’s peak moments. Climbing a mountain can be exceedingly complex, but being on the summit, necessarily temporary, can be sublimely simple.

      “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” —Rene Daumal

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  5. Bob, this thread is intriguing to me. It reminds me of an assessment I took a few years ago that involved sentence stem completion. I found that the several short and direct answers I gave were downgraded as lower level thinking (seemingly on this side of complexity), when in fact they represented a deep level of internal wrestling and felt personally profound (on the other side of complexity, perhaps). It was infuriating to have my “simple but personally meaningful” answers translated to be “simple minded.” Such a powerful distinction! Perhaps we need a different word to describe this simplicity…is it about “elegance” or “clarity?” It seems to me that there is a certain level of “ego” involved in managing the distinction, and until we can separate ourselves from it, we are at risk of misunderstanding which side of complexity a person is on.

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    • Jenn – you bring up an interesting point. “out of the mouths of babes…” or “the fool on the hill..” are metaphors for people who have insight and wisdom that those of us stuck in complexity often don’t get. How is one to know whether a simple statement, like ‘all you need is love…’ is coming from a naïve, inexperienced, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along perspective, or from Mother Theresa. The words may be the same, but certainly the meaning behind them is different. Nietzsche once said that you can’t understand the philosophy, unless you know the philosopher. Speaks to your point. Words alone, especially when we seek simplicity in expressing ourselves, are very much open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Take a look at the aphorisms in the previous blog – wise and insightful to some, complete nonsense to others. Don’t worry! Be Happy! Bob

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  6. Einstein left us another quote that fits nicely with this piece, and even more so after the last comment about raising children:

    “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

    As I try to explain the universe and all things in it to my six year old, I constantly confront the limits of my own knowledge…it’s great. If I can’t explain something to her without lying or filling in gaps and if it’s a matter humans are capable of understanding, I know I need to study more. But if we can’t know, like her unfair question, “daddy, what is beyond infinity?” Then my B.S. just has to work for now.

    Joe

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  7. Great thoughts here, Bob (both in the post and subsequent comments). I might add that one needs to seek different perspectives and look outside their own world in order to really gain clarity. It reminds me of the work that we do here at Vistage – a business leader starts with what may sound like a simple problem, but only after extensive analysis and input from their peers do they wade through the complexity to arrive on the other side with greater clarity and a simple commitment to action. Sounds similar to the discussions you lead on the NOLS adventures, in that considering different perspectives can help our own search for simplicity.

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  8. Pingback: A Personal Ethos? | Bob Schoultz's Corner

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