The Simplicity On The Other Side Of Complexity

Two expert tango dancers backlit on a stage demonstrate the simplicity on the other side of complexity

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Many clients come to coaching feeling overwhelmed, anxious, even depressed and desperate. They say they have a million things spinning around in their minds, and can’t figure out how to act effectively on any of them.

To start, I help them do three things.

  1. Recognize that don’t really have a million things going on, or even lot. And thinking about them without an organizing framework is more complex than their working memory can reasonably handle, +/- 4 bits of info.
  2. Shift their primary focus from solving problems to creating desired results
  3. Recognize that there are two kinds of simplicity: voluntary and involuntary,

Getting Real About What You Have Really Have To Do

One of the first things I do with clients is have them write down all the problematic things on their mind, all the difficulties, issues, and troubles they have to solve, or worry about, ruminate on, or get relief from.

There are always many fewer bits than they thought.

When I, for example, wake up in the night—my mind spinning with an overwhelming jumble of problems and worries—I get up, and write out a list of those things. There are almost always less than ten items, and more often than not, three or four.

I make a note about an action or two can take the next day on each issue. They psychiatrist friend who taught me this technique calls it “clearing.” Feeling calmer, and more in control, I fall back to sleep.

In the morning, I take those actions, and build momentum for taking more actions in support of my desired results.

Shifting Focus

The next thing I do help my clients shift their primary, results-creating structure from solving problems to creating what truly matters.

As they do, their problems shrink, even dissolve. They feel more relaxed, more in control, less anxious, even energized and hopeful.

“All the greatest and important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble….” said the great psychologist, Carl Jung. “They can never be solved, but only outgrown.”

Real change, Jung saw, resulted from a shift to a new level of consciousness. When patients embraced a more powerful interest, he explained, “the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.”

Creating is stronger life urge than problem solving.

In a creating focus, you’re better able to flow. Your life is still complex, but it is a simpler, more engaging complexity—like the complexity that draws you into a beautiful painting, or keeps you up all night reading a compelling novel.

Creating can embrace and transcend problem-solving. That is, in the creating stance, problem solving becomes just an action step that you take on the way to your desired result. Life becomes much less complex. Actions become easier and more effective.

Two Kinds Of Complexity

To shift your focus, it helps to understand that there are two kinds of complexity: one that is forced upon you, and one you freely choose.

Involuntary complexity is driven by real (and imagined) problems and circumstances. It leads to distracted effort. When you fight against it, seek relief from it, or try to get rid of it, this kind of complexity can easily overwhelm you.

Even if you simplify some things, such as decluttering a room (a problem-solving act for most), you’re likely to create the reactive, temporary form of simplicity that is found on this side of complexity. The clutter comes back.

Voluntary complexity, however, is freely chosen and focussed. A potter throwing a thin-sided pot, a writer crafting a poem, or an entrepreneur growing a socially responsible business all experience complexity. So does a person who chooses to redesign a living room around a new couch.

All have problems along the way, but their problems do not drive their action—their vision of the result they want to create drives the action. Decluttering becomes just one step in the process of creating the living room that one would love to have.

Because it is freely chosen, voluntary complexity can bring a focussed simplicity to creators tasks, and to their lives. By embracing rather than fighting complexity, they are more likely to achieve the rich, deep and fulfilling simplicity on the other side of complexity.

“The creative act,” says Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of Free Play, “gathers an immense amount of complexity into a simple, satisfying notion.”

Olympic figure skaters practice each move up to 10,000 times.
That’s a lot of complexity to through to the simple elegance of an on-ice performance
Image by skeeze from Pixabay

What Is The Simplicity On the Other Side of Complexity?

What if the result you’re trying to create is complex?

What if it involves a great variety of actions that are hard to keep in mind at once?

According to systems expert Ross Ashby’s “Law Of Requisite Variety,” there are two ways to deal with complexity (i.e. variety).

1. Reduce complexity by reducing the variety of the task.

A dramatic example would be an overwhelmed figure skater who quits. Simple, yes. But the simplicity on this side of complexity. Simplistic.

A less dramatic example would be teachers faced with 30 students (a 30-1 variety ratio). One way to reduce that complexity is to break the 30 kids into three groups of ten. (In my youth, it was the Bluebirds, Robins, and Crows.)

Now s/he only has to prepare three sets of lessons. Their life is simpler, but it is the simplicity on this side of complexity. A 3-1 variety ratio is still daunting. It’s still the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

2. Match your variety to the variety of the situation you face.

Give each student a laptop, loaded with sophisticated learning programs that connect to the teachers’ computers, and show them individual student progress or lack thereof. That would free that teacher to coach students one-to one. The simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Likewise, going to the grocery store to purchase 50 or 100 items becomes much simpler and easier if you write a list. Building a house is much easier if the contractor has a stack of blueprints to guide their work. Sailing the crooked coast line of Western Canada is much simpler if your boat contains 100’s of small scale maps.

Matching your complexity to the complexity you face can greatly increase your chances of creating the result you want, and “the simplicity on the other side of complexity” in life, work, relationships…whatever.

M.J. Creates The Simplicity On The Other Side

The video below describes how M.J., a New York lawyer applied the Life Design Framework to create what had seemed to be a simple result, but turned out to be far more complex than expected. 

And how she applied the framework to achieve the simplicity on the other side of that complexity.

Creating The Simplicity On The Other Side of Complexity

M.J. started small and created a series of ever-more challenging results—a complex 10-minute DVD with video, slides, text, voice-over, and animation; a fund raising program to raise $100,000 to help a friend get stem cell treatment for cancer, and creating a responsible exit strategy for gradually leaving her firm.

During the transition, she envisioned, and then worked on creating an adventure-based, personal growth program for women, and a thriving, follow-up coaching business.

That result comprised thousands of sub-results, sub-sub-results, and small, medium and large action steps. M.J. mapped the bulk of them using the Life-Design Framework I’d helped her master. When her program was up and running, and generating income, she quit her day job.

Best thing I ever did. Bruce’s coaching was exceptional. Firm yet patient, letting me lead the process, and guiding me where needed. Most important was helping me learn and apply his life design framework, so I could go on to bigger and better results post-coaching.

M.J. Jones, NYC, NY

Curious about what the Life Design Framework looks like, and how it works?

More on transcending clutter and complexity here.

Bruce Elkin

Life Design Coach. Personal Life Coach. 25 years experience. Clients on 6 continents. Author of 5 books and ebooks. Cares about the Earth and living in harmony with its natural systems.