The New Simplicity – Alacrity with Complexity

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 “The Life-Changing Magic of  Tidying Up – The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” – a NY Times best-seller for over a year.  Here the promised payoff for the right simplification is “life-changing magic!”

As anyone who has made a trip to Goodwill knows, the thrill of finally getting rid of that turntable that had been collecting dust in the garage is short lived and hardly prestidigitating.   Years later when you learn that vinyl is shockingly back in vogue, you may experience some simplifiers remorse – wishing you still had that sick AR record player.

That book, however, is about possessions.  It’s been almost three decades since comedian George Carlin nailed this idea about “a place for your stuff.” We don’t need to watch an episode of “Hoarders” to understand that having too much stuff might be a tad psychotic.

What about the complimentary urge to simplifying life itself?

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

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

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 in one magnificent and unselfish life.

Unfortunately, these are merely carbohydrates and white sugar infused treats I crave devoid of any real nutritional value.

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 points might be a tad oversimplified?

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.

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” stretches human capacity with the help technology. 

We also need to not get bogged down with overwhelm every time we get hit with a multi-dimensional issue or problem.

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.