Making Sense Of Things When Nothing Makes Sense — The Simplicity Principle

The modern world can make you feel like the captain of a ship lost in a haze of thick fog and misery. But where is the lighthouse?

So many tips, so many recommendations, so many teachers, so many articles, so many books, so many videos, so many meatheads giving advice, so many fitness religions—too many, in fact. The exponential proliferation of the information in the 21st century has been both a good and bad event for our species: on the one hand, never have we been so informed, never has ‘finding something out’ been easier; on the other hand, never has making sense of information been so difficult, never have we felt so overwhelmed, never, ironically, have we felt less informed.

Distinguishing between noise and signal is easy when our biology does it for us: e.g., we can sleep rather peacefully in spite of the sounds of traffic, birds, TV, and people talking, but the loud barking of a dog sounds an alarm in our brain that says “get your ass up, some ting1 is going down”. But when our biology hasn’t had time to evolve, when we’re untrained, when not only everything we encounter is labelled as ‘signal’ but also forced down our necks, we’re as equipped as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. When I speak of noise, of course, I do not only mean sound waves travelling through airspace before penetrating nearby ever-receptive ear drums, but all types of sensual input—visual, auditory, haptic, olfactory, etc. We’ll be concerned only with the first two in this article.

It’s hard to find a better case of the noise-signal effect than information related to health and fitness. An increasing number of people, it is true, are taking a serious interest in their health, are exercising, are eating better, and are, undoubtedly, better-off for it. However we are also firmly in the middle of an obesity crisis. We also, still, are tackling some of the most crippling and dangerous health conditions, such as Diabetes, Heart Disease, Cancer, and Depression. The incredible thing is, all of these and most other health conditions can be powerfully treated—and in some cases, completley elevated—with changes in lifestyle: namely, eating better, exercising, mediation, proper sleep, and so forth. Making sense of the wealth of information available and knowing what to do, therefore, becomes a matter of priority—whether the information we consume is for ourselves, or someone we want to help.

This starts with choosing a trustworthy source of information. An ability to think critically will save you hours, years even, of frustration, and frustrating frustration. Knowing yourself—your current fitness level, athletic ability, work ethic, what type of exercise is fun to you, etc—and having clear goals is also important: this comes from a combination of honest introspective reflection and practical experience. There is something else, though, another principle, that cuts through all the noise, that rubs away the moss from the next stepping stone. Unfortunately, it is also subject to an extraordinary amount of ingorance. It is the principle of simplicity.

No matter when you are in life, the struggle never ends as long as you have goals; in fact, it’s an interesting question whether the struggle can end, goals or no goals. “Once you reach one mountain peak the next one is awaiting.” As trite as this saying is, it is true for almost all of us—because it stems from an innate human yearning for more, to never be satisfied. The problem today, however, is that between you and the next mountain peak are hundreds of not-pretty clouds, unvirtuous storms and immoral tornadoes, which have, laying inside them, many a fake wizard, empty suit, and keyboard politician. Simplicity, in these situations, is like a compass gifted from the Gods: it shows you the easiest and safest next step.

Continuing with the irrelevant analogies, application of the simplicity principle is like flying on Aladdin’s blanket: it will take you safely to the next checkpoint, heck, it may even take you all the way. More bluntly, simplicity makes clear the next step by cutting through the noise and considering only whats important. The simple step may not be the most fruitful, but it gets you back on the path and gives you momentum, which makes the complicated steps you meet later on that much easier. In this sense, the simple may absolutely be the most fruitful.

We all reach points in life where we don’t know what to do next; it is in such situations that we are at our most vulnerable and therefore must be cautious. When we reach these uncertain points we instinctively sought out information—be it a book, a teacher, the newest trend… Indeed, sometimes this works, sometimes it is necessary; but more often than not it results in even more confusion. This confusion can render one incapable for long stretches of time, a lifetime even2. We naturally think the sophisticated answer is the better one. Surely it must harder—no? Surely it can’t be so simple? This is faulty reasoning, that must be overcome. How? By applying the principle of simplicity; by identifying the most simple next step forward you can take—and taking it. The step may even be a sideways step, so that you can get a better view—it is still progress. The upshot is: whatever the situation, whatever your circumstances, the simple option is almost always available. Sometimes it is the only sensible option.

The simple things are, unfortunately, too often the most overlooked things. But perhaps it is not unfortunate; perhaps the fact they are the most overlooked tells us exactly what we need to do when we get stuck. Perhaps the philosophers are right when they say the simple things are the most important…

“Beware of little expenses,” said Ben Franklin, “a small leak will sink a great ship.”3 Perhaps the principle of simplicity is not only one we should use occasionally, but as a foundation upon which reasoning is built.

Simplicity is not a panacea. In some cases, higher-level understanding4 and complicated analysis may be required, may be the only sensible option. But remember: though the perfect5 plan may be more fruitful, without perfect adherence, it is, for all its worth, useless. Much better to have an imperfect but-easier-to-adhere-to-plan—especially when coming from a state of inertia. Momentum makes a difference only understandable when experienced. Ignorance of the basics is the enemy of momentum. The principle of simplicity brings you to the basics. Now all you must do is take action.

  1. Ting: Cool kids slang for ‘thing’.
  2. Many a life is wasted in the search for ‘passion’.
  3. An example of overlooking the basics, which is minimised/eradicated when one applies the simplicity principle.
  4. Consider computers: looking at their hardware (motherboard, processor, cooling fan, keyboard) tells you very little about the incredible things they can do.
  5. ‘Perfection’ is of course a myth, but let’s imagine it real for the sake of this sentence.