The Crowning Reward

Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” – Frederic Chopin

Whether life imitates art or art imitates life I cannot be sure, but one thing I do know is that simplicity is the pinnacle of all artistic expression. In my professional life as well as in my writing time one of my central aspirations is to find the simplest, cleanest, most elegant way to get the job done.

Life is simple. We tend to make it complicated through a variety of bad habits, two of which stand out to me this morning. The first is the tendency to focus on the voids in our worlds, that is, to emphasize through either longing for or complaining about that which is missing in our lives. Life is so much simpler, and easier when you emphasize and appreciate that which you have at present.

The second is the tendency to use negatives in speech and writing. Life is cleaner, more straightforward when you speak and write in the affirmative. For example, say what you believe in, rather than what you don’t believe in or what you like, rather than what you don’t like. Emphasize the presences, not the absences. This change alone can have a tremendous impact on your outlook and your experience of life.

Listen to yourself today. If you find yourself focusing on what is lacking or on what is wrong, do a little spring cleaning, turn the tables and see what happens! My guess is that life will reveal just how simple it is when you’re not busy cluttering it up with unnecessary physical, emotional and spiritual clutter.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci

The Ability to Simplify

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” ~ Hans Hoffman

It is good practice to make a regular review of the systems you use to govern the factors and administer the details of your world, whether at work or at home. What may have been fitting weeks, months or years ago may no longer meet the need, but you might not realize it if you continue to run your life on autopilot.

The inefficiencies of life come in two primary forms: acute and chronic. The acute form is perhaps the most obvious, when, say the right tool is unavailable and a poor substitute is used such as a screwdriver handle is used to hammer a nail. The less obvious, but more prevalent form of inefficiencies are those that build up over time. You see this quite often in business settings, where a system is developed to compensate for weaknesses in the available pool of personnel and then months or years later the same system exists even though most or all of the actors have changed.

It helps to have a goal in mind – some form of greater simplicity – when reviewing the systems in use. One such goal that we reference regularly in my companies is that of making it easier for our clients to do business with us. You’d be amazed at how much of the underlying infrastructure in a company can have nothing to do with the goal of making it easier for the client to do business with you.

“Can I do this more simply?” is a question well worth asking, not just once, but regularly.

A Discipline of Simplicity

Business is never so healthy as when, like a chicken, it must do a certain amount of scratching around for what it gets.” ~ Henry Ford

While it is not always the most comfortable place to be, working in a small business during the lean years can teach you a lot about how to function efficiently and effectively. The lean periods don’t just relate to downturns in the economic cycle, in fact, they can also come in the early stages of a new business, at the onset of a large project or while careening through a period of rapid growth.

It’s best to plan ahead and have a cushion, but occasionally you are caught up in a perfect storm of factors for which you are less prepared than you would like to be. The decisions you make and the swiftness with which you enact them have a significant impact on the future of your company. In many cases, the choices you are forced to make are do or die. As I said, such times are not comfortable, but they are chock full of learning opportunities.

One of the best questions to ask during these constrictive phases is: “does this relate to our core business?” Knowing your core business is vitally important, especially during the lean years as it is easy to spend time, energy and money on peripheral concerns that don’t advance the company’s core business operations. This is true for projects, systems, departments and in the most dire of circumstances, personnel. Just as your body shuts down all but the most basic functions in an attempt to save the body during hypothermia and other critical situations, a wise manager must work swiftly to adjust to the emergency.

As with gardening, pruning should be done periodically to keep the corporation tight, tidy and under control. Projects, departments and systems can grow like bamboo and in my experience it is best to prune lightly and regularly, than heavily less often. How you prune depends on the configuration of circumstance you face, but it always relates in some way to making things simpler.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

Uncorrupted Reason

I came across a remarkable collection of works produced by Thomas Cole, the English-born American artist who is credited with founding the Hudson River School. Cole possessed an uncommon ability to capture broad strokes of history in his landscapes. Cole aimed to produce a “higher style of landscape” imbued with romanticism and naturalism unparalleled in his time.

One particular series of paintings, “The Course of Empire,” stood out to me in light of our recent considerations. This series of five paintings tells the tale of the rise and fall of a great civilization and are titled: The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, Consummation, Destruction and Desolation and are shown in order below:

These paintings remind me of a quote from Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long.

Doesn’t this sound all too familiar?

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am inclined to disagree with the notion that eternal progress is untenable. I hold out hope for humanity as a whole and for the individual life in this regard, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary.

Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer once said “Progress is man’s ability to complicate simplicity.” Must it always be so? Was it always so? The Greeks and Roman told of an antediluvian Golden Age, a time perhaps best described by Ovid in his Latin narrative poem, Metamorphoses:

The Golden Age was first; when Man, yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted Reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear.
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast.

What would it take to return to a world governed by uncorrupted reason?

Green Eggs and Ham: The Wages of Simplicity

Why are the simplest things frequently the most influential? I was reading Dr. Seuss to my sons the other day and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the simplicity of his bestselling book, Green Eggs and Ham, a simple book that is, incidentally, one of the best-selling children’s books of all time!

Seuss wrote the book after his publisher, Bennett Cerf, bet him $50 that he could not write a book using only fifty different words. Seuss won the bet, using only the following words:

a
am
and
anywhere
are
be
boat
box
car
could
dark
do
eat
eggs
fox
goat
good
green
ham
here
house
I
if
in
let
like
may
me
mouse
not
on
or
rain
Sam
say
see
so
thank
that
the
them
there
they
train
tree
try
will
with
would
you

Not only did he write the story using fifty words, all but one of the fifty words are monosyllabic. Isn’t that wonderful?

I find that much of my job as CEO of several small business involves helping others to find ways to get the job done, the point across, the product to market, and so on, more simply. When asked why I advocate keeping things simple, I am quick to reply that complicated is expensive, overly-complex is confusing and confusion stops everything.

Every one of us is involved in bringing order out of chaos. Whether you work in marketing, sales, accounting or human resources, your effectiveness depends upon your ability to turn something messy into something presentable. Those who lack that ability are wise to find ways to develop it. So doing can increase your value to your employer, to your family and to the world, exponentially.

I am generally suspicious of people who use big words to dazzle others. They are more often than not trying to hide the fact that they don’t actually know what they’re talking about. Likewise, I am slower to warm up to those who have not taken the time to distill their thoughts and ideas than I am to someone who has obviously thought the matter through to the best of their ability.

That said, you must take care not to over-simplify. Rarely are things black-and-white; the key is to make things as simple as they are, not simpler. There is a sweet spot in every situation. Get to know it and you will lead an influential life.

Longfellow once said: “In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” I am inclined to agree!

Keep it Simple

You’ve all no doubt heard the acronym K.I.S.S., which stands for “keep it simple stupid.”  It is a concept often touted but seldom heeded  in marketing, in public speaking, in systems development, in boardrooms, in classrooms, in the world of medicine and health care and just about every other department of human life.

Alan Siegel, a branding expert, makes an interesting case for keeping things simple in this short but sweet TED presentation:

Think about your world for a minute.  Are there areas of your life that are weighed down by complexity?  Your relationships, for example?  Your schedule?  Your outlook on life?  If it isn’t simple, it typically isn’t clear.  

Simplicity is attractive.  It is appealing.  It compels participation.  Did you catch Mr. Siegel’s slide quoting Thomas Jefferson?  It said “When the subject is strong, simplicity is the only way to treat it.”  Whether you are for or against the original intent of the recently “deemed and passed” health care overhaul, you must agree that nothing of its 4,000 plus pages is anything close to simple.

Keep your world simple and call for simplicity in the world around you.  Far too many simple things are overly complicated by faulty human intervention.  Complexity is valuable, but it certainly has its place. 

Have a great, and hopefully not overly complicated, day!