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The Art of Simplicity
by Giancarlo Livraghi
(English translation August 2005)
A simpleton, they used to say, or a simple person, to mean someone stupid, or ignorant, or lacking common sense. Its still a widespread prejudice that stupidity is simple and intelligence is complicated. The opposite is often true. When intelligence appears complicated, or hard to understand, its immature. To reach full bloom it must evolve toward simplicity.
Its easy to complicate, its difficult to simplify. The greatest advancements in philosophy, science and culture can be explained in clear and simple concepts. Also in the everyday practice of work, or personal relations, the most effective solutions are often the simplest.
The exciting experience of a creative synthesis or of an intuition that helps to solve a problem leads us nearly always to discover that the solution (after we have found it) appears obvious, but we couldnt see it because our perceptions and our way of thinking were too complicated.
People have always been made miserable by all sorts of unnecessary complications. We are now in a state of turbulent transition that makes it even worse.
Many things have become easier because of resources that we didnt have or were available only to a few people. But we are producing too many new complications, caused by the clutter and inefficiency of communication, our own and other peoples behavior and a variety of distressing problems, including poorly conceived or badly used technologies.
These stupid complications are very different from the problem of complexity, as studied by the Chaos Theory. On this subject there is a short note Simple Thoughts on Complexity that (deliberately) oversimplifies the issue but (I hope) helps to understand some of its practical implications.
Many years ago, long before we got into todays mess, I had a sign hanging in my office that said KISS. Its common knowledge that it stands for keep it simple, stupid. But that wise principle is rarely practiced. Sometimes I would point to it when someone came up with a messy problem that didnt seem to have a simple solution. But, above all, I used it to remind myself to take a dose of my own medicine.
There is a great need for simplicity. While the prevailing trend continues to add complication, a perception that we should turn the tide has been spreading in recent years. One of several examples is a bright article published by Gerry McGovern on December 11, 2000: In praise of simplicity.
He explains that «we live in a world where change and complexity are forced on us at every turn. The world is hitting back. People are yearning for simplicity.»
Complexity, he says, is a curse. «It is a type of intellectual pollution that smothers clear thought. Complexity is not a sign of intelligence, but rather a sign of a hyperactive mind gouging on more. True genius and great design is about turning something complex into a product that is simple to use and delivers a real benefit.» That isnt only true of products or technologies. It is the same for information, communication, knowledge, organization and management.
The stupidity of power isnt caused mainly by complexity. But it often uses complication to become even more stupid or exploits it deliberately to confuse issues, to blur understanding, to hide simple facts behind a curtain of elaborate appearances.
Not only bureaucracies, but also other oligarchies, power clusters and cliques often use a complicated jargon that most people cant understand, to increase their control and keep the rest of humanity subjugated.
Academics and intellectuals often play the same game. They use obscure language to hide the fact that they dont know what they are talking about while keeping ordinary people in awe and blind obedience, making them believe that they are stupid because they dont understand.
Intelligence is clarity and simplicity not obscurity. When people dont understand, the blame of stupidity is on whoever isnt explaining things properly.
Of course we shouldnt confuse simplicity with superficiality. An apparently simple explanation can be just triviality, or silly commonplace, or a widespread but false notion. Or a deliberate attempt to hide the real depth of a fact or a debate. In other words, complication is often stupid, but simple answers arent always intelligent.
The art of simplicity is as subtle and difficult as the use of intelligence. Both need dedication, commitment, patience, in-depth analysis and insatiable curiosity as well as a constant cultivation of doubt. When we find a clear and simple answer or solution, we should always consider that we may be overlooking another approach that can be even simpler and more effective.
Its an endless task. But, if we learn to enjoy its taste, it can be very pleasant and amusing. Finding truly simple solutions is a happy, often exhilarating experience.
Simplicity isnt only an intellectual achievement, its also an emotion. Finding the simple key to an apparently complex problem has intense aesthetic values. It gives us a clear and unique perception of beauty and harmony.
Loving simplicity can be quite delightful. And it breeds intelligence.