Adding simplicity

Simplicity is costly. You have to give up something to achieve it. You can’t just add it on top. William Bridges illustrates this in his book The Way of Transition where he describes his moving out to the country.

… I had been infatuated with Thoreau’s Walden and its story of living a basic life, close to nature. The heart of that undertaking, he had written, was to simplify your life. … In retrospect, I can see that although I thought that this was what I was doing, I was really just trying to add simplicity to my life. In addition to all the old things I had been doing … Of course, my life grew more and more complicated in the process.

A simplification has to remove or replace something else. You can’t just add on simplicity.

There may be an exception to this. Sometimes you can add a few missing pieces to make something more symmetric. In that case, the additions simplify the whole. (Mendeleev did something like this when he drew his periodic table.) Even then, I suppose you could say you’re removing the asymmetry. In any case, achieving simplicity usually requires more subtraction than addition.

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2 thoughts on “Adding simplicity

  1. Walden is my favourite book in the world. My wife and I read it when we met in high school, and it radically changed the way we approach our lives. We don’t own a car, or a house, or any of the other really nice things most of our friends work so hard to acquire. It’s sometimes hard to live so simply when the world pushes the idea of consumerism so aggressively. Complexity almost seems like a byproduct of our entire culture; if we’re not working to acquire things, or “add”, what’s our purpose? Is subtraction a noble pursuit? My wife and I live far more simply than (most of) our friends, but people still think we’re a little quirky for renting a tiny little apartment and not “building equity”. Stability is never as sexy as growth.

    In terms of software, I thought the applications we were developing at the last company I worked for were bursting at the seams with underused features that constantly required maintenance. Even so, there was always room in the budget to add more of them, but absolutely no room in the budget to subtract any. Think about Java itself; could you ever envision a major release that did nothing but *reduce* the number of features? It would be considered heresy by most folks, even though it might be the best thing to ever happen to the language. Subtraction isn’t all that socially acceptable, for the most part it’s something we do when we run out of other options.

  2. I thought life would be simpler once we retired to our sailboat. Ha!! Your short article inspired me to put a more rambling article about our non-simple life on my own blog.

    Just what is simplicity, anyway

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