We live in interesting times.
Complex is simple, and simple is dauntingly complex. We applaud intricacy, and scoff at simplicity. The latter has no place in our modern, technologically sound world.
Yet, achievers – the giants among men – worship simplicity with undying fanaticism. Dive deeper into the life of any achiever, and you’ll discover they produce work at astonishing levels by following simple techniques. Why, is it difficult — no, impossible — for us to challenge their simplistic way of living?
The answer (rather a large part of it) lies in a mental model called the availability heuristic. It states that people recall latest facts and examine them in isolation. They fall in love with their own thinking, and focus only on information which aligns with it.
The result? Biases. Instead of understanding how things function, they contort and rearrange facts in their minds to fit their biases. Consequently, outcomes are the exact opposite of expectations. This leads to uncertainty, which is the root cause of complexity.
Thanks to the internet, we consume too much information, often of the same kind. We ignore different perspectives despite those being freely available. As a result, we gather a limited set of tools, as useful to the mind as a single squat to a beach body. This further increases misjudgment and handicaps our ability to solve problems.
“Men see a little, presume a good deal, and so jump to the conclusion.” – Thomas McRae
How can you address this challenge? How can you put complexity on a train to nowhere?
Every person you admire, who has embraced simplicity like a long-lost friend, started off as a blank slate. Sherlock Holmes said:
A man’s brain is originally like an empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose….. the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic.…. A man should keep his little brain-attic with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it when he wants it.
The wider assortment of tools which Holmes referred to, are called mental models. Mental models provide unique insights into how the world functions at a primal level and improve your ability to make better decisions, at work and in everyday life.
The sharpest minds were (and are) astute students of mental models.
How You Can Build Mental Models
Don’t get fooled. You cannot rote-learn mental models and expect positive results. Life doesn’t function like school did. The only method to use mental models effectively, and get comfortable with simplicity, is experience.
Experience comes from experimenting, from keeping an open mind, and exposing yourself to diverse situations. It comes from approaching circumstances with a blank mindset instead of preconceived notions.
Don’t just see. Observe. Why did it happen? Instead of giving into biases, learn from outcomes and develop new tools for yourself. You’ll start identifying patterns you couldn’t see before.
… let the inquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems. Let him meet a fellow mortal, learn at a glance to distinguish the history of the man and the trade or profession to which he belongs. Puerile as such an exercise may seem, it sharpens the faculties of observation and teaches one where to look and what to look for. — Sherlock Holmes
Thomas McRae, American professor of Medicine, shared that he struggled to stop students who worked on physical diagnosis from making observations. Most of their inferences were usually from insufficient observations. The quote below highlights the significance of unattached observation.
Observation is a matter of patience, training and thoroughness…… to observe correctly and decide wrongly is sure to happen to the best of us, but to observe carelessly only happens when we permit it.
(To get a deeper understanding about the art of observation, read Peter Bevelin’s A Few Lessons From Sherlock Holmes.)
Experience and patience provide the necessary training for observation. Even the sharpest minds make mistakes. How you respond to mistakes dictates how quickly you adopt a simplistic mindset. You form effective mental models when you learn from mistakes.
But Do You Learn?
Most people, however, flee after making a mistake. They don’t just refuse to learn, they refuse try again. Or, they repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
Ever heard someone say:
“Why does this always happen to me?”
“Why can’t I ever do things right?”
“Why don’t I ever get what I deserve?”
“Why do I always fall for the wrong person?”
Human beings possess blind spots which renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung called ‘shadows’. A ‘shadow’ is a repressed side of a human being’s personality; one that is often negative and you don’t want to acknowledge.
Getting angry at people often, is a common example of a shadow. So is taking ad hoc decisions which yield negative results repeatedly. Or knee-jerk reactions. The ‘shadow’ is your unconscious behavior which is evident to others. It makes them go, “here he goes again.”
Shadows limit your ability to learn from mistakes.
What It Takes to Overcome Your Shadows
Being objective about yourself is difficult and painful. It’s easier to wrestle a tiger than a mea culpa.
Hence, self-awareness and feedback from others are important. If you don’t turn to books or feedback, you stay restricted to knowledge within you.
“To choose a road, to stop habitually and ask whether you have not gone astray, that is the true method.” – Louis Pasteur
But you can’t go around seeking feedback from anyone. Most people won’t have anything constructive to offer. Some, despite meaning well, will try to dissuade you from something new. It’s not because of you, but them. It reflects their fear of failure, which they might transfer to you like a contagious flu.
Who you engage with plays a significant role in how you’ll visualize yourself and events around you. According to James Altucher, your ability to survive, to be calm, to be happy, to be successful, stems entirely from the quality of the people you surround yourself with.
Connect with people who offer constructive feedback. Search for people who encourage you, who promote your work and who, through their questions, help you discover your own answers.
Build Your Scene
Creative people and entrepreneurs never work alone. They keep trading ideas and building on ideas from each other and around the world. James Altucher calls this a ‘scene’.
Build a Scene. Here’s how Altucher suggests you do it:
- Find people whose work inspires you. Businesses, writings, art, whatever.
- Come up with ideas for them. How can you help them?
- Start doing your own work. Share your work with people you like. Interact with people who interact with you sincerely.
- Try to meet the people who inspire you. Some of them are busy. Some would like to meet.
- Go to conferences and meet the people who inspire you.
- Work every day. Create every day. Share every day. The people you share with slowly solidify into your Scene.
- And then repeat… never stop helping.
We welcome complexity in our lives today today. We treat simplicity like an uninvited guest who stays beyond his time. We consider every thinkable element while making a decision. It makes us feel like we’re writing Einstein’s equations in thin air. But ask yourself – how much of what you plan really gets done? And why?
If you can’t strip something down to its bare essentials, it isn’t simple enough. Embrace simplicity, not just as a technique, but a philosophy. Most of your counterparts at work won’t share your enthusiasm for simplicity. And that’s okay.
Life is not about how many people agree with what you do. It’s about how much you enjoy what you do. A simple life is far better and more gratifying than one filled with complexity. The latter might appear impressive, but it’s really like a boat sailing aimlessly without a boatman.
Simplify your professional and personal life. Accept them for what they are. Don’t look at life for what you think it should be. Accept it for what it is, and work on improving it. You are capable of doing much more with your life. Don’t waste it on elements which keep you trapped.
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