The Far Side of Complex

How do we get beyond complexity?

There is a famous quote, often attributed to Einstein, about simplicity:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

This is a very old idea. We might say: timeless.

But, interestingly, those are not the exact words that Einstein used.1

This is what he actually said: 2

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

Of course he did: he was a theoretical physicist! This is exactly how we should expect him to speak. It’s the same basic idea, just using more complicated words.

It was only later that somebody else found a more elegant and succinct way to make the same point, on his behalf.

Which is a perfect example of the idea itself in practice, I suppose.

We often talk about simplifying things. But, paradoxically, when we look at those people who have been successful and study their methods we find they have done the opposite: they have gotten beyond complexity.

There are those who like to glorify the complicated. They talk about how long it takes for others to understand what they work on. But actually this just exposes them as somebody who hasn’t gotten over the hump that lets them see and describe the simplicity on the far side.

It’s not binary: simple vs complicated.

It’s a progression: simplistic → complicated → simplified.

The goal in the first transition (from simplistic → complicated) is to understand the details, so we have a more complete understanding of the specific thing we’re working on. As we get into those weeds we’re going to learn the nuances, edge cases, exceptions, and trade-offs. It’s going to get complicated. But we need to keep pressing.

The key to the second transition (from complicated → simplified) is to think harder about the essence, to strip away the noise and to focus on the bits we learn (normally by painful experience) actually make a difference to performance and results.3 And then, to be able to explain that in a way that others can understand too - because it’s a very rare thing that a single brilliant individual can do by themselves.4

Simplicity on the Far Side of Complex

Source: via David Slyfield 5

There is a lazy expression:

Those who can: do.
Those who can’t: teach.

This is nonsence.

If you can: do. That’s hard enough.

But, to be a great teacher you need to be able to both do and explain it to others in a way that develops them into somebody who can do too.

The transition from simplistic to complicated to simplified is difficult, and so rare. We have to be prepated to look foolish and stupid in the meantime, and most people are not willing to do that.

Having access to a great teacher to provide a guide makes this much easier. But the problem is that too many of those who put themselves up as teachers have never actually done it themselves. They are also stuck with an understanding that is either too simple or too complicated, so they can’t easily explain what is essential. This is especially true in the private sector where teachers are given much more impressive sounding names: mentor, adviser, director, consultant, manager, coach, etc.

When that happens the whole system breaks down.

I’ve found that real experts in any field usually don’t consider themselves experts. They more often behave like students - constantly seeking improvement, asking questions, trying to understand more.

The best teachers welcome dumb questions, especially if they force an exmplaination for why something is true or false. They know that important part of learning is also being prepared to teach, and vice versa.

Anybody calling themselves an expert is a warning sign, and often comes with a price tag attached!

This is my advice to anybody who needs help to get beyond complexity:

Avoid those who try and pretend that it’s easy, and that there are shortcuts. Avoid those who want to drown you in complexity. Look for those who know why it’s hard and can explain the essential elements, and who realise that it’s better for them (and actually for everybody) if they can help you get to that same point too.

Related: The Cynefin Framework

  1. This is a recurring pattern↩︎

  2. Source: ‘On the Method of Theoretical Physics’, lecture delivered at Oxford, 10 June 1933. ↩︎

  3. Shane Parish breaks this down into three steps:

    1. Too simplistic.
    2. Too complicated.
    3. Simple (reduction of complexity to what’s essential).
  4. If you want to learn a methodical method for doing this, try starting with the Feynman Learning Technique ↩︎

  5. I learned about this idea and the expression “simplicity on the far side of complexity” from David Slyfield. You likely won’t recognise his name, and that’s the way he likes it, but if you’re a sports fan I guarantee you know nearly all of the people he’s worked with and worked on over the years - not even a full list but let’s start with Rob Waddell, Sarah Ulmer, Hamish Carter, Barbara Kendall, Cameron Brown, Sarah Walker, Blair Tuke & Peter Burling etc etc. He is not only a great teacher but also the canonical #QuietOne↩︎

Related Essays