Uncomplicating Life

2500 years ago, Confucius said “life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated.”

Faced with too much information, too many choices and competing theories about how life works (or is supposed to work), we are predisposed to select the most intricate one on the presumption that life is complicated. It is not. It may not be simple or easy but it’s definitely not that complicated. We only choose to make it so.

It’s not because we are unmindful of Sturgeon’s Law, which posits that 90% of everything is crud. It’s primarily because we have a built-in bias for sophisticated answers over straightforward solutions.

There are many things we do not know. I don’t know much about microbiota or the ten trillion bacteria that apparently live in my digestive tract (along with viruses and fungi), but I do know that a bit of probiotics in my diet every day is not a bad thing. The evidence is in how I feel.

When we see things we believe difficult to understand, that appear beyond our ability to solve, we invariably back off. The brain’s preferred method of survival is to conserve its precious energy for problems it can easily resolve. While incredibly efficient, the brain is for the most part (by design) lazy. When we assume something is too confusing or just hard to fathom, we surrender our responsibility to pause and figure out the answers.

To uncomplicate, we need to learn the art of distillation – to find the simple among the clutter and reduce the seemingly impenetrable to the fundamentals. Ernst Schumacher, a German economist, said “Any intelligent fool can make things more complex or more violent. It takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage, to move in the opposite direction.”

Albert Einstein, one of my heroes, was a master of finding simplicity amongst the complex. He said “I’m not that smart … I just stay with problems longer.” He elaborated on his modus operandi: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the right question to ask. For once I knew the proper question, I could solve any problem in less than five minutes.”

Einstein’s way of thinking was to sift the essential from the non-essential. He knew that, without clarity there could be no understanding. Without that, there could be no focus – the ability to pay attention to what really counts and to see things in new and different ways. And, without that, there could be no appropriate action. I solve client problems this same way and I can do it in minutes, because I’ve been doing it this way over the course of five decades for hundreds of clients.

Whether simplifying convoluted issues into the intelligible, or translating esoteric technical jargon into plain language, uncomplicating is not a function of talent but rather one of effort. One can devise simple formulas for success by focusing on exactly what it is that must be accomplished. Doing so requires a passion for enquiry, evidence-based thinking, a strong inner guidance system that knows right from wrong, and some good advisors who’ve already done “the heavy lifting” on matters of complexity.

Mentors, coaches and trusted friends are invaluable to the process of uncomplicating life. They streamline the process, point out the short cuts and provide the experience that only comes from failed attempts. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” Nor can we know everything we need to know when we need to know it. As in alchemy, good advisors are like the philosopher’s stone: they turn complicated notions into simple solutions.

Never ignore the simple by thinking “it just won’t work” in favour of the more intricate. Uncomplicating life is not about knowledge. It has more to do with enquiry. Be child-like: ask a lot of innocent, perhaps even dumb, questions. For a child, everything is a question in a world filled with mystery. “Dumb can be smart” is also a powerful negotiating tactic, one the erstwhile TV detective Columbo used brilliantly to put away criminals who thought they were smarter than him.

Always question jargon, especially when it’s used as a semantic barrier to understanding or to intimidate those who might refute it. Great thinkers throughout the ages stressed the crucial importance of simple language to explain complicated ideas. People like Plato, Seneca and Buddha were known for their ability to convey great wisdom in a few words.

If uncomplicating life is doable, we should be experimenting with all manner of ways to do it. I offer a few tips on how to find simplicity: value learning over money, understand that humility does not equal inferiority, know that failure is inevitable and that self-awareness is the road to achievement. Lastly, find people who will stretch you, forever be dissatisfied with the status quo and learn how to think differently than others.