The Craving for Simplicity

150 years ago, in a shack he built-in the woods, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Simplify, simplify, simplify!”

In saying this, the Harvard grad and one-time pencil maker tapped into a seemingly perennial human yearning for simplicity in all things.

This desire for simplicity remains today in full force. Look no further than NY Times bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of  Tidying Up – The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” The appetite for simplifying stuff it top of mind for many.

Haven’t the workplace, relationships, and parenting become similarly cluttered with complexity?  Can’t we tidy those up! Can’t we apply a few foundational principles that make everything proceed swimmingly?

I so want to believe we can. I even wrote an article about it here.

How it Might Work – Simplifying Everything

My calculus here would be to blend the golden rule, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Moore’s Law, and Occam’s Razor into some jacked-up formula I could apply to my life.  I would achieve perfect harmony. I could understand morality, reciprocity, growth, and parsimony through the deft application of these principles. What would result would be one magnificent and unselfish life.

Unfortunately, these are merely intellectual carbohydrates and white sugar infused ideas that I crave devoid of any real rationality.

As the Bard of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken said, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem, neat, plausible and wrong.”

You mean to suggest that the monthly Harvard Business Review article that breaks down every major business problem into three bullet points might be a tad oversimplified?

Yes, I do.

The world we live in, arguably, is more complicated than ever. There are more data points, more connections, and richer matrixes that define the systems in the world. Add to this the information torrent created by technology that shows no sign of slowing down.  It seems logical that meaningful problem-solving today should acknowledge and address these complex, systems-oriented layers.  Anything else should be considered sophistry.

The “Magic Number”

And if we believe in Miller’s Law – the so-called “magic number” of seven plus or minus two being the limits of human memory/cognition – this comfort with complexity is innately difficult if not impossible without the help of machines.

And there is the rub: do we crave simple solutions because they are more in line with our innate capacity?

Whether it is that or just because simplicity has an irresistibly elegant aesthetic – the truth is we need to move beyond the simple if we want to solve today’s problems which are complex.

What we need is an alacrity with complexity. This is the new simplicity. This “new simplicity” would stretch human capacity with the help of technology. 

So, don’t get bogged down and overwhelmed the next time you get hit with a multi-dimensional issue or problem. Time to adapt.

My millennial co-workers do this every day remaining calm while juggling cell phones, chats, social networks, and the constant blast of podcasts and music into their always-in head buds. It’s amazing. Whatever we “mature” folks argue about “Myth of Multitasking” the undeniable reality is “some are good at it.”

The challenge then for all of us is to embrace this new standard knowing the desire for something simpler is a useless vestige. A phantom artifact from our days “in the woods” that needs to be abandoned if we are to move forward and tackle some complex problems.