I used to travel a lot on business trips and see this sign in Copenhagen Airport saying: “Problems can be complicated, solutions cannot.” I thought it was wise. It managed in one small sentence to exemplify what simplicity is. It resonated with my experience. For me beautiful design, intriguing art, or inspiring literature always had simplicity as their common denominator. A kind of complexity which my mind enjoyed being exposed to. Simplicity seemed to have the ability to transcend time and place. Simplicity had a natural pull, almost like a planetary gravity.
Not too long ago, I decided to see, if it was possible to unfold simplicity? Not the tools, nor the skillset for making it, but the mindset. To see if I could make a model, which would be able to describe the process occurring, when complexity is compressed into simplicity.
Beneath is a short summary of my findings after researching both philosophy, literature, architecture, art, and modern cognitive psychology. It is intended to be a sort of map; you follow it to understand the hurdles you will most likely face on the journey towards simplicity. Safe travels.
It consists of three stages: 1) you start with an (over-)simplification, 2) then your exploration leads to new information to interpret, building complexity, 3) and finally you start to see patterns emerge and you move towards simplicity.
According to the Greek philosopher, Socrates, being wise starts with knowing, what you do not know. However, in my experience, when we address a new area, we often start off assuming, that we know a lot without realising, that our understanding is a simplification – it is preconceived and unsubstantiated. We are over-confident and overestimate our competency level. We are in a place, where we have an oversimplified picture of what we are facing. It looks like reality but does not nearly do it justice, because we rely on assumptions, rather than facts.
This is not a problem itself, if only we are mindful of not trying to make important life choices in the perfect storm of over-confidence and a lack of competency level. The best way to power through this stage of, is by asking a lot of questions and avoiding conclusions. To think that we can make conclusions about anything at this level, is like trying to serve a homemade pie without first going to the convenience store, buying the ingredients, going back home, mix them in the right ratio, and baking it.
When we do keep on asking questions our exploration takes off and we start to discover new insights. We start to learn. This also means that we start to realise that the understanding we initially had, was founded on unsubstantiated assumptions. We start to see a complexity, that shows us, that our initial understanding was simplified. We are now “going down the rabbit hole”, as Alice in Wonderland did. Left and right we are confronted with things, we do not understand, because we have entered a new world. We experience confusion, loss of confidence, and frustration because of our unfamiliarity with everything. This is where it is tempting to give up.
However, in order to learn we must power through this stage. Complexity is not reduced by leaving out details. Complexity is reduced, when we find a pattern in data and ensure having enough data to create patterns. Again, to stay the course, is to keep asking questions and stay curious and explorative.
If you do, you will be able to reach “simplicity”. This is where we can make a complex topic seem simple for a novice. Einstein said that “if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself”. When we can explain any topic to a 6-year-old, we have reached the stage of “simplicity”. I often experience that simplicity is confused with simplification. The basic difference between simplification and simplicity is that simplicity comprises and compresses the complexity of a given topic; simplification does not. Simplicity is the birthplace of awe-inspiring architecture, timeless art, and Nobel prize winning literature; simplification is not. Simplicity persists to be relevant despite centuries of scrutiny and questioning; simplification does not.
So, this is my recommendation if you consistently want to strive for simplicity.
Whenever you want to master or create simplicity, remember that we reach it through a journey, which we should be careful not to underestimate. It is a journey that can be both frustrating and tiring. But if we do not take the time and spend the resources, we most likely end up with simplification rather than simplicity. They might look a lot alike, but they are far from identical.