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Complexity First; Simplicity Last

Jeff DeGraff
Jeff DeGraff
Jeff DeGraff

Simplicity is the new thing. Quality is so over and innovation is fading into everythingness. We’ve all but given up on trust so I guess that just leaves us with getting more by doing less. Wasn’t that your New Year’s resolution? Find your center and eliminate everything and everyone that is not essential. All you need is an arcane method or a killer app or an energy drink to find inner peace and a four-hour workweek. Who knew it was that easy? We want to escape from the maddening din of modernity so badly that we are willing to deceive ourselves into believing the most implausible of programs and mindless machinations.Now was I supposed to unfriend folks before or after I delegated all my crappy work to them? I guess it doesn’t matter as long as I follow the prescriptive steps of design thinking and make the easy payments. With just the right map and an insane amount of good fortune anyone can discover the source of eternal happiness and perpetual youth – simplicity. Or was that the way to Shangri-La? Bernie Madoff couldn’t con us nearly as well as we can con ourselves.

The developed world is complex. Reverse-engineer that nondescript can of tomato soup in your pantry and you will find a global ensemble of laborers and tradesmen synchronized by a dizzying array of production and logistics systems required to make it mmm-good. Conversely, consider how the silent and ubiquitous signal moves with effortless ease so that supercomputer in your pocket you call a phone can instantaneously connect you to your sweetheart in some backwater burg or megapolis on the opposite side of the planet. From the material to the ephemeral, we enjoy our remarkable standard of living courtesy of our ability to manage complexity and even prosper from it. The idea of being simple has gone from a derogatory description to a desired and exalted state of achievement.

Why all the fuss over simplicity? Because innovation requires us to wander in complexity and be lost in its sinuous twists and stopped by its unexpected dead ends before we may find our way through the whole morass to the simplicity on the other side. Inventors, entrepreneurs and artists know that innovation is a messy ordeal. A wide array of experiments, prototypes and other forms of proof of concept are needed to find that simple but elegant solution. Effortless superiority is an antiquated myth fashioned in the boarding schools of Nineteenth Century aristocrats.

Polymath Elon Musk, inventor and founder of SpaceX and Tesla, had to recreate propulsion engineering, precision manufacturing and a business model to develop new forms of infrastructure to make his two enterprises even remotely viable. Three spectacular rocket launch failures, a multitude of defective automobiles and a near bankruptcy later he is arguably one of the eminent product developers of our age. While simplicity may be emerging as our inveterate innovator moves forward surely there are ever greater forms of complexity to engage and employ. If it was simple, everyone would do it.

When Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” he didn’t mean take a short cut down the path of least resistance, balance your work and personal life or set more attainable goals. What he meant was engage the chaos, look for patterns, make sense of the intricacies and elaborations and adjust and refine ad infinitum. Do the work! After all da Vinci was man who left thousands of studies in human anatomy, zoology and machinery in journals written in code and reverse notation so that they could only be read when interposed by a mirror. He approached simplicity as if creating a bonsai garden – plant everything imaginable and then spend years taking away anything that is not essential. Simplicity is what is left after complexity; not what precedes it.

Every generation believes it is living in the most complex age and pines wistfully for the bucolic days of yesteryear. Read Cicero or Confucius and you will find their interpretation of the distractions and complications of their epoch little different than our own. But changing the fundamental state of the human condition, which the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes aptly described as “short, nasty and brutish,” brings a hard bargain. We trade our natural simplicity for the rewards of modernity. It is easy to forget that progress brings innovative tools to understand complexity, manage it and drive it even further to ever more elaborate forms of complexity and associated opportunities. Unlocking the secrets of nature to heal the sick, traversing space with all due speed and eliminating pestilence and famine by reworking the genome are modern miracles courtesy of complexity. Modernity sucks but it sure beats the alternative. The innovative life isn’t effortless or clear but if you learn to live with the entanglements and ambiguity that it presents you might find the simplicity you are looking for just on the other side of complexity.