Simplicity and Complexity

I’m caught between simplicity and complexity.

I am intrinsically attracted to simple ways of living. Every way in which I simplify my life feels pure, natural, and right. Philosophers talking about simplicity resonate with my beliefs. I keep thinking of a quote from Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher, who threw away his cup when he saw a child drinking with cupped hands, and said “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.” Simplicity, then, even to its cultural extreme.

Yet the work I’m attracted to is ever more complex, the “wicked problems” that take immense time, energy, and resources to solve. These to me are the most interesting and worthwhile things to work on, and as I progress in my work the problems get ever more complex.

But can the wicked problems of today be solved by the same increasingly-complex systems that caused them? Climate change is a wicked problem, being fought with environmental, scientific, cultural and political efforts. However the main causes of climate change are scientific innovation, cultural growth, and political stagnancy–can we expect these same forces to now reverse their effect? Can complexity get us out of the hole it dug us into?

Simplicity is a practice, and you grow by practicing it. I’m still very young in this, and perhaps these questions will resolve themselves with time. I don’t see it now, though.

If nothing else, practicing simplicity on a personal level should make me more able to tackle complex problems in my work. If there is a limit to how much complexity one person can manage, then we would benefit from simplifying the things we can, to better focus on the things we can’t.