What do Leonardo Da Vinci, Churchill, Einstein, Walt Whitman, Chopin, Bruce Lee and Chris Brogan agree upon? They all extol the virtues of simplicity.
Simplicity, to borrow Rumi’s metaphor, is gold hidden in dust. We read and hear enough about its benefits in just about every facet of our lives, yet we walk past it, every day, in pursuit of the more complex, complicated, tangled and sometimes puzzling. There is no glitter in simple, not enough buttons to play with. We fear that simple equates with easy, light, too basic—unsophisticated.
We have all experienced the joyful moments of simplicity: having the good fortune to end up behind a traveler who moves efficiently through airport security, enjoying a vanilla ice cream cone on a hot day, or finding an off-the-rack jacket that fits perfectly. Simplicity reduces stress, cuts costs, saves time, increases productivity, and enriches our lives. When we set out to cultivate simplicity, as part of our ethos, we become like a crystal-clear voice that rises above the din of the crowd. People notice. In fact, the more complex our world becomes, the more ingenious simplicity is.
Here are a few practical pointers to bring simplicity into your life:
1. View your work through a wide-angle lens. If you are sharply focused on the details, carve out time to gain a broader perspective—study the context and background of what you do. If it’s not readily apparent to you, become an organizational anthropologist. Dig out the insights from those who are gifted in seeing the big picture. John Maeda, computer scientist at MIT Media Lab—who is also referred to as the founding voice for simplicity in the digital age—uses a beautiful metaphor to refer to this shift in focus: it’s about becoming a light bulb instead of a laser beam. Understanding CONTEXT is one of the 10 Laws of Simplicity, outlined in Maeda’s book, by the same title. Narrowness complicates our lives because it becomes a blind alley.
2. Be totally candid with yourself. There is great emphasis today on ignoring our weaknesses, focusing on our passions, and playing to our strengths. Meanwhile, it is our weaknesses, bad habits, and biases that are among the energy thieves for both us and for those who work closely with us.“At the end of every road,” said Samuel N. Behrman, “you meet yourself.” When we take stock of the role that some of our bad habits play in conflicted situations, we have taken a simple, but powerful first step towards a more enlightened self. See what you can do to airbrush bad habits so that you can smooth out your life’s journey.
3. Observe an Internet Sabbath once in a while. William Powers in Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age provides a number of practical suggestions for leading a more properly connected life. Take a moment to watch his interview with Katie Couric. We gain dividends when we can set up rituals of unplugging, once in a while, to find the “quiet and spacious place where the mind can wander free.” The temporary breaks from the “digital crowd”—from that sense of always being on—help you focus better and get more out of your connectedness when you are back on. Selective disconnecting buys us space to think and strategize for the future.
4. Declutter your website. Work with a designer who understands the concept of flow. Flow is the optimal experience. This means eliminating unnecessary bells and whistles, making the information easy to find, the site easy to navigate and load; it means text that does not require an effort to read and backgrounds that are not distracting. The ultimate flow experience is Amazon’s “1-Click Ordering Button.” Consider how much of the website’s design is there to showcase the designer’s ego as opposed to making the visitors’ experience easier and simpler.
5. Determine your place on the simplicity/complexity continuum. Scott Berkun aptly describes the two types of people in organizations: the complexifiers and the simplifiers. The complexifiers, as its name implies, magnify and complicate every assignment. One could say that these are the people whose default mode is examine-it-to-death; they take the longer, circuitous route, and slow everyone else in the process. They send e-mails that are treatises and, often, might consume more of the oxygen in the room. The simplifiers, on the other hand, thrive on reduction and concision. As Berkun succinctly puts it: “They never let their ego get in the way of the short path.” Which one are you? Awareness precedes self-management.
6. Simplify your vision or mission statement. With the exception of senior management and human resources personnel, how many employees in an organization can recite their organization’s mission or vision statement without hesitation? Research shows that the average mission statement is one to two paragraphs and over 75 words in length! Worse still, most are difficult to understand. Here are two examples of mission statements that are powerful in their simplicity: Google: “to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and Facebook: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Simplify your mission statement and you increase your odds that it will be readily understood and remembered. If you want some inspiration on creating a three- or four-word statement to explain why your organization exists, read Guy Kawasaki’s article: Mantras versus Missions.
Willa Carter once described a simple man as “a tree that has not many roots, but one tap-root that goes down deep.” Paradoxically, when we set out to adopt simplicity as our preferred approach to most things in our business and personal life, we develop more depth because we learn to discern what is worthy of pursuit and what is not; we develop the sagacity to know what is valuable and what is superfluous.
In the 14th century, Occam’s razor taught us that the simpler of two competing theories is the preferable one. The modern day slogan is, “Keep It Short and Simple.” Both made simplicity a clarion call. Let’s heed it because simplicity is an enduring trend.