Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.Aphorism attributed to Albert Einstein
In the face of an ever accelerated and complex world, I have found seeking simplicity to be a shelter. Rather than getting caught up in, and reacting to our fast moving and complex world, embracing simplicity has enabled me to take a step back, providing space to deepen my understanding, make better decisions, and given my heart space. Using simplicity as a “lens” has improved my thinking, designs, and improved the quality of my daily life.
Simplicity in Thought
Occam’s Razor, coined around 1317 says when faced with multiple options, it’s best to select the simplest. History has demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach. If you want to learn more, there is an extensive article about Simplicity in the Philosophy of Science. Beyond selecting the simplest option, my father taught me to examine any idea which was “too complex”. He used to say that if you couldn’t explain a problem with drawing on a few napkins then you didn’t actually understanding the topic.
I have seen that the more complex an idea is, the more ways there are for something to go wrong. Additionally, the more complexity you are trying to manage, the more likely you are to miss one facet going “off track” making it more likely than you end up somewhere completely unexpected and might not even notice. I often wonder if this is why the “sophisticated” don’t recognize that they seem to advocate ideas that are far from what is theoretically “core” to their beliefs.
Simplicity in Design
When faced with an extraordinarily difficult problem, I have often found “taking a step back” to see if there is a way to simplify the issue often revealed a solution. When building secure software, the solution was often simplifying the execution path and removing code rather than working on complex logic. I found the paper Hints for Computer System Design by Butler Lampson is filled with good reminders which helps a designer apply simplicity to their designs.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple he built a company which used simplicity as a key touchstone and the company thrived. When discussing possible product features, the surest way to have you feature cut was leading off with the phrase “Wouldn’t be cool if ____”. Rather you needed to say ” ____ is absolutely essential to the customer experience”. Apple more than any company understood the power of simplicity. 6 Factor Consumers Use to Evaluate Simplicity highlights ways a product can simplify the consumers’ life.
When properly designed, simplicity provides a transparency which makes the product or system more understandable and less fragile. This is one way that Apple sometimes failed, opting for things which appeared simple by hiding complexity under a veneer rather than seeking deep simplicity.
Simplicity in Life
In life, I have found keeping life simple, doing less, being attentive to “basic things” like quality time with others produces the best outcomes. The world calls us to invest our time, energy and resources in countless directions. All these bids of our attention can make it difficult to focus, and increases the likelihood that we will invest in things which ultimately have a low return on investment. The disciplines of simplicity, and its close cousins minimalism and essentialism can help make wise “investment” choices.
Jesus explained God’s “simple” path for us in Matt 22:37-39 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If you read the Bible it is easy to see care for others, especially people with the least power, is at the core of our Lord’s heart. It shows up more than 1000 times. Often this command is paired with the need for humility.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,Shaker Hymn
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we will not be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.