“Most geniuses—especially those who lead others—prosper not by deconstructing intricate complexities but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.”
— Andy Benoit
— Andy Benoit
Why is it so hard to sift the essential from the inessential? Few things have more of an impact on your life and career than your ability to zero in on what matters most. And yet most of us spend time cluttering our minds with things that don’t matter, rather than focusing on the simplicity that does.
It can feel difficult to keep up. There is an ever increasing amount of information coming at us. Occasionally we get motivated and try to reach inbox zero but the onslaught doesn’t stop and we are soon back to where we started from. Efforts like this are well meaning but misplaced, focusing on more and more effort instead of addressing the most important tool in our toolbox: our mind.
A lot of people think that Albert Einstein’s greatest ability was his mathematical mind. It wasn’t. Granted it’s probably better than yours or mine, but in comparison to his impact on the world most people in the know consider his mathematical gifts average at best.
Einstein’s greatest skill was the ability to sift the essential from the inessential — to grasp simplicity when everyone else was lost in clutter.
John Wheeler points out in his short biographical memoir on Einstein that it wasn’t that he understood more about complicated things that made him impressive:
Many a man in the street thinks of Einstein as a man who could only make headway in his work by dint of pages of complicated mathematics; the truth is the direct opposite. As Hilbert put it, “Every boy in the streets of our mathematical Gottingen understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Yet, despite that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians.” Time and again, in the photoelectric effect, in relativity, in gravitation, the amateur grasped the simple point that had eluded the expert.
While it’s tempting to think that Einstein was born with this skill, that would be a lie. In fact, it was developed consciously as an adult. “I soon learned,” Einstein said, “to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.”
— Charlie Munger
Where did Einstein acquire this ability to sift the essential from the non-essential? For this we turn to his first job.
In the view of many, the position of clerk of the Swiss patent office was no proper job at all, but it was the best job available to anyone with (Einstein’s) unpromising university record. He served in the Bern office for seven years, from June 23, 1902 to July 6, 1909. Every morning he faced his quote of patent applications. Those were the days when a patent application had to be accompanied by a working model. Over and above the applications and the models was the boss, a kind man, a strict man, a wise man. He gave strict instructions: explain very briefly, if possible in a single sentence, why the device will work or why it won’t; why the application should be granted or why it should be denied.
Day after day Einstein had to distill the central lesson out of objects of the greatest variety that man has power to invent. Who knows a more marvelous way to acquire a sense of what physics is and how it works? It is no wonder that Einstein always delighted in the machinery of the physical world—from the action of a compass needle to the meandering of a river, and from the perversities of a gyroscope to the drive of Flettner’s rotor ship.
Who else but a patent clerk could have discovered the theory of relativity? “Who else,” Wheeler writes, “could have distilled this simple central point from all the clutter of electromagnetism than someone whose job it was over and over to extract simplicity out of complexity.”
The biggest mistake that most of us make is that we try to consume more information. We do this because we feel like we’re missing something. While we can all learn and improve our understanding of something, the constant search for what we don’t have and what we’re missing is also the natural response of someone who doesn’t truly understand what matters and what doesn’t. To understand what I mean consider investors.
The worst investors I know are focused on every news article, blog, or commentary on the company they own. Glued to their screen they look for some esoteric detail that others have missed. And because they are looking, they will eventually find something. Our brain convinces them that all of that effort paid off and they overvalue the new information. In fact, the vast majority of that time (9,999/10,000) that new bit of information won’t matter at all but they’ve lost the forest for the tree. Overvalued insight means unwarranted confidence. You can see where this is going.
On the other hand, the best investors I know focus only on company press releases and company filings. They know the few variables that truly matter and focus on monitoring those.
Simple. Effective. And efficient.
Clearly not every email in our inbox is important, not every moving part in a project will matter equally to the outcome, and not every opinion in a meeting is equally valid. We only have so much time. Giving things equal attention is not only inefficient but also ineffective.
Time is a great example of an overlooked simplicity. Sure, we learn a little bit about time in school. First we learn how to tell time and later we learn about time in the context of dates and speed. As we age, birthdays mark the passing of time. And of course, we have to be somewhere at a certain time, for a date, a flight, a graduation. That’s about the extent most of us will think about time until it’s too late.
Only when we’re older will we think about how we lived, what we worked on and who we worked with, and what mattered. Time is the simplicity before us that we ignore preferring to think about something more complex.
The skills to better filter and process are within our grasp: (1) focus on understanding basic, timeless, general principles of the world and use them to help filter people, ideas and projects; (2) take time to think about what we’re trying to achieve and the 2-3 variables that will most help us get there; (3) remove the inessential clutter from our lives; (4) think backwards about what we want to avoid.
“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need—a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink, for thirst is a dangerous thing.” — Jerome Klapka Jerome
After realizing that she no longer wanted her life to be so complicated, Elaine St. James set out on a path to improve the quality of her life while decreasing the complexity. Simplify Your Life shares 100 of her tips to slow down and enjoy the things that really matter.
The first thing she did was “get rid of all the stuff we didn’t use anymore.” Sounds tough right, how will you know what you need and what you don’t? As for what to do with things you want to get rid of but can’t bear to throw out …
Put them in a box with a label indicating a date two or three years from now—but don’t list the contents on the label. Store the box in the attic or the basement, or wherever is convenient. Once a year, examine the labels. When you come across a box whose date has passed, throw it out without opening it. Since you don’t know what’s inside, you’ll never miss it.
Another way to simplify your life is to (#55) Stop The Busy Work:
Busy work is the nonproductive time we spend sharpening pencils, cleaning out our desks, making unnecessary phone calls, getting another cup of coffee, organizing our schedule, drawing up reports, doing research, making more unnecessary phone calls—things we convince ourselves have to be done before we can get down to our real work. Some busy work is unavoidable and necessary. What I’m talking about here is the avoidable kind. There are two reasons for busy work. One, we don’t want to do what we’re really supposed to be doing. Two, we don’t have anything that has to be done, but we want to look busy. In this age of workaholism, busy work has been elevated to an art form. It is the phenomenon that in many cases makes it seem imperative that we spend ten to twelve hours a day in the office.
And consider (#23) Reduce Your Go-Go Entertainment and find meaning in the quiet moments.
If you began your simplification program out of the need or the desire to cut back on your spending, your entertainment expenses were probably among the first to be reduced. If you’re seeking simplicity as part of getting off the fast track, then reducing your need for outside entertainment will no doubt be high on your list. In either case, cutting back on your nightlife, and looking within yourself and to your family for entertainment, is a positive step toward simplification.
The financial rewards of avoiding such activities as movies, plays, theater, opera, concerts, cabaret, and nightclubs are obvious. The personal rewards may not be so apparent at first. After all, we’ve been compelled in recent years to go, to do, to be on the move, to experience all that money can buy. Oftentimes, in the process, the things we really like to do have been overlooked.
I was recently in a meeting with a dozen high-powered professional people. We started talking about our goals for our leisure time, and how seldom we allow ourselves to truly enjoy our own quiet moments. We each decided to make a list of the things we really liked to do.
The lists included things like:
Watching a sunset. Watching a sunrise. Taking a walk on the beach or through a park or along a mountain trail. Having a chat with a friend. Browsing in a bookstore. Reading a good book. Puttering in the garden. Taking a nap. Spending quiet time with our spouse. Spending quiet time with our children. Listening to a favorite piece of music. Watching a favorite movie. Spending time with our pets. Sitting quietly in a favorite chair and doing nothing.
We were surprised and delighted to see most of the things we listed required little or no money, no expensive equipment, and were available for anyone who wants to take advantage of them. For the most part, our favorite pleasures were the simple pleasures.
Today we get lost. Lost in the noise. Lost in the relentless torrent of things to do. The information age has accelerated the pace.
We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off – our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.
“It was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury,” Iyer writes, “nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize. Stillness is not just an indulgence for those with enough resources – it’s a necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources.”
Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.
Simplify Your Life is a compilation of the steps taken by one household to simplify their life.
John Maeda elaborates on these five tips for learning below.
Maeda has some interesting things to say on learning:
Learning occurs best when there is a desire to attain specific knowledge. Sometimes that need is edification, which is itself a noble goal. Although in the majority of cases, having some kind of palpable reward, whether a letter grade or a candy bar, is necessary to motivate most people. Whether there is an intrinsic motivation like pride or an extrinsic motivation like a free cruise to the Caribbean waiting at the very end, the journey one must take to reap the reward is better when made tolerable.
Maeda believes that the best motivator to learn is giving students a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
The first step in conveying the BASICS is to assume the position of the first-time learner. As the expert, playing this role is not impossible, but it is best ceded to a focus group or any other gathering of external participants. Observing what fails to make sense to the non-expert, and then following that trail successively to the very end of the knowledge chain is the critical path to success. Gathering these truths is worthwhile but can be time consuming or else done poorly.
This echoes the first habit of effective thinking, understand deeply.
Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in.
The easiest way to learn the basics is to teach them to yourself. Maeda tells this story to illustrate the point:
A few years ago, I visited the master of Swiss typographic design, Wolfgang Weingart, in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart’s ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, “Doesn’t he get bored?” Saying the same thing over and over had no value in my mind, and I honestly began to think less of the Master. Yet it was upon maybe the third visit that I realized how although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it. Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the concentrated essence of what he wished to convey. His unique example rekindled my excitement for teaching.
A quick way to figure out what basics you’re missing is the Feynman Technique.
REPEAT-ing yourself can be embarrassing, especially if you are self-conscious-which most everyone is. But there’s no need to feel ashamed, because repetition works and everyone does it, including the US President and other leaders.
A gentle, inspired start is the best way to draw students, or even a new customer, into the immersive process of learning.
INSPIRATION is the ultimate catalyst for learning: internal motivation trumps external reward. Strong belief in someone, or else some greater power like God, helps to fuel belief in yourself and gives you direction.
forget to repeat yourself. Never Forget to repeat yourself. Never …
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