Last week I argued that the universe was simple. But this is not the whole truth. The laws of the universe are simple and symmetrical, but if we try to predict the weather, the economy, or any form of human behavior, we realize that life is complicated and can be impossible to fathom. There is a kind of free will, not just in humans, but also in nature.
Professor John Barrow says that when we look around us at unpredictable events "we do not observe the laws of nature; rather we see the outcomes of those laws. The distinction is crucial. Outcomes are much more complicated than the laws which govern them because [outcomes] do not have to respect the symmetries displayed by the laws. By this subtle interplay, it is possible to have a world which displays an unlimited number of complicated asymmetrical structures, yet is governed by a few, very simple, symmetrical laws. This is one of the secrets of the universe."
Complexity is apparent to most scientists and everyone in business
This is why scientists who are not physicists or mathematicians think the world is much more complex than the former. In a sense they have "physics envy." For a biologist, psychologist, economist or historian - and especially for a business person - the world is not neat and tidy; it's more like a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting and arbitrary events. The frustration of most scientists and business people - not to mention everyone in our personal lives - is because we are observing outcomes of nature's laws, not the laws themselves.
One of the defining characteristics of life and business alike is the limitless and every increasing permutations of complexity that life exhibits. Electrons may be clockwork clones but we are not. Anyone who has gone back and looked at a five year plan after the period to which it related will know what I mean. Planning works no better in business than it does in society.
So, are life, the universe, and everything simple or complex? They are both, though not quite in the same way. The underlying structure of the universe is simple, frugal and entirely comprehensible. But the world of outcomes, both natural and man-made, is open-ended, irregular, complex, and utterly unpredictable. Simplicity is the bedrock of the universe; complexity is its evolution.
THE DIALECTIC OF SIMPLICITY AND COMPLEXITY
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Complexity is wonderful - and overwhelming
Complexity is wonderful and indispensable, because it can lead to greater sophistication - life forms, civilization, products, services, and businesses cannot normally advance without greater complexity.
But complexity unchained and unchecked is wasteful and, increasingly, incomprehensible. You only have to read academic papers, or work in a large, diversified company, to know what I mean. Unless complexity is reined back and constrained by symmetry and simplicity, it becomes dysfunctional.
Nature may create a thousand species from a common ancestor, but then culls them back to one or a few species that survive. The same thing happens to business ventures, and, to a much higher degree of destruction, to projects and products that are spawned by such ventures. It has been said that we cannot bear too much reality. It may be equally or more true that we cannot bear too much complexity. Certainly, we cannot notice or attend to it. Complexity is, well, just too complex to be useful most of the time.
Join the Crusade for Simplicity
Simplicity and simplification compress useful information - the more sophisticated the better - so it can be understood easily and quickly, and possibly asynchronously, whether that "use" is through words, sound, form, touch, taste, image and association, products, or services. Simplification reduces the time and energy necessary to absorb and use the information. The colors on traffic lights, the use of universal signs (for traffic, buildings, toilets, and conveying other messages, such as a thumbs-up sign or a smile), the shorthand used by experts in any domain, advertising copy, the rules of any sport, the menus on a computer, and social conventions, are all effective means of simplification which save us a great deal of time, energy, and angst. Yet undoubtedly the most valuable simplifications are those that cram as much meaning and sophistication into the smallest possible dimensions (time, space, attention). Proverbs, poetry, art, and products such as the iPod contrive to combine sophistication with simplicity, elegantly enhancing truth and utility.
By making truth more accessible and easier to use, simplifying multiplies the amount of "useful truth" perceived and acted on by individuals, organizations and society. To be constructive and long-lasting, simplified information must have high truth content. Accuracy may be shed for comprehensibility and the ability to retain the information, but the essence of truth should ideally be enhanced by zooming in on the core idea.
Conclusion and Take-Away
• The universe is simple. Simplicity is at the heart of reality. The universe runs according to a few very simple, regular rules.
• The universe is complex. The outcomes of simple laws generate infinite permutations of complexity and sophistication. There is free will in nature and humanity that makes the universe extremely interesting, unpredictable, and dangerous.
• Complexity leads to sophistication, but it can also overwhelm. Complexity consumes resources and attention. It can threaten understanding and meaning.
So as we go about our daily lives and our work, I think there are three actions we can take that will make life richer and more fulfilling for ourselves and people around us:
1. Observe the simple rules that always seem to work. These range from simple moral precepts such as the Golden Rule that we should treat people as we'd like to be treated; to observations such as the one that if we smile at someone, they are likely to smile back; to the 80/20 principle that most results come from a few powerful forces or causes. Use the simple rules to make life better.
2. In making any vital decision, disregard the clutter of information and go straight to what matters. Nearly always, very little matters, but it may matter a great deal. Don't make the decision until you understand the little that matters a lot.
3. In communicating anything, before you say anything, think through the core idea that you are trying to communicate. Don't start talking. Start thinking. Then encapsulate the core idea in a story. Make a habit of reducing complex reality to the simple reality underlying it.
We live in an age of complexity, but the universe runs according to simple rules. The more we can get in tune with these, and exemplify them in our lives, the more we will achieve and the happier we will be.
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