Simplicity is all the rage right now. And in so many walks of life, too.

Do you ever wonder why? Why do we want to pare down, cut back, sift out, and reduce to the essentials?

The world is no more complex than it’s ever been. The difference is that, thanks to the information revolution, we see the complexity now.

The popularity of simplicity as a life priority is a pushing back against the abundance of information, of pressure and of stuff that is foisted upon us without our permission.

Simplicity is cheaper, less risky and many times, safer. The financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 can be boiled down as being caused by Too Much.

Too much borrowing. Too much risk. Too much house. Too much commute. Too much mortgage. Too much debt. Too much stuff.

But the metaphor extends.

Medicine: One of the worst diseases that we can’t seem to lick, cancer, is a disease of too much cell growth, rather than an illness where something lacks.

From Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies,”

We tend to think of cancer as a “modern” illness because its metaphors are so modern. It is a disease of overproduction, of fulminant growth – growth unstoppable, growth tipped into the abyss of no control . . . If consumption once killed its victims by pathological evisceration (the tuberculosis bacillus gradually hollows out the lung), then cancer asphyxiates us by filling bodies with too many cells; it is consumption in its alternate meaning — the pathology of excess.

Writing & self-expression: Twitter limits our words to 140 characters, giving us permission to be brief. Information flows through Twitter like molecules through water, shifting, fluid and flowing.

The messages are simple, though they themselves are great in number, thus creating a complex system of simple parts. I treat Twitter like water, diving in, soaking it up and getting out as soon as the simplicity starts to feel complex.

Because our thoughts are easier-than-ever to share, they are abundant, and the backlash is the pressure to make each word count.

Food: Cooking trends favor fewer ingredients, letting natural flavors stand alone, rather than complicated processes and mixes.

What’s the opposite of simple food? From Adam Gopnik’s “Paris to the Moon”

The recipe is for a timbale des homards. You take three lobsters, season them with salt and pepper and a little curry, saute them in a light mirepoix – a mixture of chopped onions and carrots – and then simmer them with cognac, port, double cream, and fish stock for twenty minutes. Then you take out the lobsters and, keeeping them warm, reduce the cooking liquid and add two egg yolks and 150 grams of sweet butter.

Definitely too much.

Technology: For years, technology advanced by getting more complicated. But end-users don’t care for more buttons, more options, more menus and more screens. As complicated as the behind-the-scenes programming and hardware may be, the end result should be simple.

This was part of the genius of Apple’s products. Do you remember that relief you felt when you first learned that the iPod didn’t come with a thick instruction manual?

Garmin even recently came out with an advanced GPS running watch that was simpler than prior versions.

Research: A national intelligence leader said recently that the most important commodity in Washington is not information, it’s time.

Synthesizing information — telling us not just what and who, but why and how — is more valuable than a deluge of data.

Another story: In college, I took a fascinating course that combined teachings on philosophy with artificial intelligence. One overnight assignment was to write a paper about brain synapses and the challenges of replicating brain function using computer processors.

At that time, I was learning to appreciate the genius of brevity. I submitted a four-page report.

I got it back. “D”

Horrified. The professor, visiting from Oxford, explained that my paper was too short. “You’re an American. It’s not your fault you can’t write,” he said sympathetically.

All of the other students in the honors colloquium had submitted 16-and 20-page papers. (Bachelors of the arts types = show offs.)

He let me rewrite. And so, I embellished. If a point could be made in one sentence, I took five. I turned four pages into 12 — four pages of solid information and eight pages of, well, bullshit. It was now an “A” paper.

Today, I think that a situation like that would play out dramatically differently.

Today, everyone wants the executive summary.


I’m still figuring out where I shake out on the simplicity continuum.

In politics, the dedication to simplicity of message – talking points – ends up eliminating nuance. And life has more gray that many of us want to tolerate, but that doesn’t mean there’s no value in exploring it. Truth rests in nuance. The truth is below the headline.

So much of the backlash against faith, and maybe even God, comes from simple interpretations of the Bible, black-and-white rules that leave whole groups of people feeling excluded. Even in the faith community itself, I see a lot of disagreement that can be boiled down to arguments of simplicity versus complexity. (Theme alert: I just took a complex issue: interpretations of faith, and boiled it down to A versus B. Like that?) I tend to think that matters of faith and God are more complex than simple.

At the opposite end, I find it inherently satisfying to boil things down to the essentials. So far as the trend toward simplicity eliminates bullshit and bureaucracy, I’m for it.

And on a personal level, I’ve found that by cutting out what I don’t need, my life is more open to the people and relationships that I do.

Wisdom is often simple. Perhaps simplicity is at its best when it enhances knowledge and wisdom, and at its worst when it dumbs down and obscures.

As English Franciscan philosopher William Ockham put it, sometimes simplest is best.

I apologize for a complex post on simplicity — a complex topic, no? — and I welcome your thoughts!

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