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 as 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.

Simplicity on the Far Side of Complex

Source: Diagram & Model via David Slyfield 3

The goal in the first transition (from simplistic → complicated) is to understand the details, so we have a more complete understanding of the 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.4 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.5

There is a lazy expression:

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

This is bollocks.

If you can: do. That’s hard enough.

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

When too many of those who are trying to teach have never actually done it themselves, the whole system breaks down.

Maybe it would help if we used some of the names that we give to teachers in the private sector: mentor, adviser, director, consultant, manager, coach, etc?

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

Anybody calling themselves an expert is a warning sign!

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. 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↩︎

  4.  ↩︎

  5. If you want to learn a methodical method for doing this, try starting with the Feynman Learning Technique ↩︎

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