October 2014, by So-Young Kang

Simplicity is often mistaken for being easy, quick and not requiring a lot of work. Actually, it’s much easier to be complicated, than to be simple and concise. Simplicity requires refinement, the ability to call out what is most important, and to be able to communicate that in a way that even a child can understand. Simple does not mean quick and efficient. Simple does not mean simple in thought.

Where people are overwhelmed with information, time is limited and people are already stretched, simplicity is critical.

The most difficult parts of work are not to create a 100-page document listing out every single possible scenario and pages and pages of analysis or data. One of the best trainings I ever received was when I was at McKinsey where I learned the power of the executive summary.  The value is in the ability to synthesize and bring out the most relevant points and to draw insights from the information. No matter how complex the project, I was constantly pushed to come up with the one-slide executive summary, which usually consisted of a few bullet points. Six months of work simplified down to 5-6 bullet points on one slide?!?! Really? YES. YES. YES.

When one does not understand the power of simplicity, it could seem overly simple or something that could have been written in an hour. Of course, the actual writing of the few bullets only took a few minutes. But what does it take to get there – to that level of simplicity and clarity?

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Art pieces by Kuni Yazawa from White Ship, Japan

Let’s look at this piece of art. When I asked my friend, artist Kuni-san about what this collection meant, he paused and said “Nothing. I did not ascribe meaning to it and took the freedom to just create. I wanted the art piece to emerge from my motions.” What he created was quite beautiful using stitching and cloth.

In my curiosity, I asked, “So if it’s so free and easy, can anyone including me, create the same beautiful piece?” He paused and then shook his head, “Probably not yet.” He has been an artist for over 30 years refining his craft. He has spent many years learning many different skills as an artist, from painting to sculpture, to design. He has accumulated well over the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book Outliers to achieve mastery. It was only after he achieved some level of mastery in his craft did he have the freedom to create, innovate, and let go of any preconceived notions of what to create.

He was able to intentionally remove the many layers of structure to go back full-circle to a state of simplicity, nothingness, and pureness. The journey was not a direct one. It was one that involved the exploration of self and identity, mastery of skills, and the development of a craft. It’s this journey that gave him the freedom and space to create beautiful pieces that we call a ‘piece of ‘art’ and perhaps mine would be ‘child’s play.’

The ability to simplify complex ideas and concepts requires deep clarity of thought and a deep understanding of the subject matter. A sure sign that someone is unclear or lacks full understanding is when they describe something using overly complex language, terminology, or phrases. A test I like to use is the “5-year old test.” If you are able to explain any concept (no matter how complex such as astrophysics or neuroscience) to a 5-year old child and they can understand you, then that is a sign that you may have true mastery over that topic. If not, it requires deeper understanding and study or the accumulation of more experience.

So how do you keep it simple?

  1. Conceive it – Take time to clear your mind and thinking. Pray. Meditate. Be mindful.
  2. Share it – Communicate to refine and make sense of your ideas and thoughts. Sketch. Share. Prototype.
  3. Refine it – Cut out what’s not necessary and shape it. Remove. Shape. Synthesize.
  4. Invest in it – Take the time to build mastery in your area of expertise. Study. Practice. Teach.

What do you have true mastery over? How can you keep it simple?