Simplify Your Work

“Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Steve Jobs

There’s a story about the two novelists, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Faulkner gave his comments about Hemingway in a Creative Writing Class, purportedly saying that Hemingway “had no courage”, that he had “never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.”

When Hemingway heard about Faulkner’s jab from a third party, he responded, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

That’s something to think about. 

After all, in most things we do, we tend to think that complexity is the sexier option. It makes us look knowledgeable and sophisticated. It makes us look busy.

But the reality is that oftentimes, simplicity outrules complexity. 

In most cases, simplicity shows that you’re really knowledgeable and sophisticated. Because you’ve done the hard thinking on what’s essential and what isn’t essential in your work. And with that, you’re able to deliver a punchy yet seamless, headache-free experience not only for your audience, but for yourself as well.

Here’s a metaphor of sorts: Imagine being in a classroom full of kiasu kids who bombard the professor with question after question as she struggles to finish her presentation. Mind you, most of the questions are bullshit — they’re things that the professor is going to explain in the next few slides anyway. 

Be that one kid who quietly observes the bullshit-ness of everything — who listens, and at the end of every class, raises her hand to ask one great question that really makes you think. That kid becomes the professor’s favorite.

Challenge yourself to recognize the essentials and to ruthlessly discard the inessentials. 

Ask yourself, “do I really need this?”, “what would this look like if it were easy?” — it is difficult to think about these things — which is why most people don’t do it — but that’s how you get to make a meaningful impact in your work and life.

In writing, for example, learn to be direct, to not use big words or over-flowery language just because you can. Consider this piece of advice from Stephen King’s book On Writing

“Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it… One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your shot ones…

Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use ’emolument’ when you mean ‘tip’ and you’ll never say ‘John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion’ when you mean ‘John stopped long enough to take a shit’. If you believe ‘take a shit’ would be considered offensive or inappropriate by your audience, feel free to say ‘John stopped long enough to move his bowels’…”

And in life, you can learn to under-schedule. Ruthlessly cut down or eliminate classes, hobbies, or responsibilities that you don’t enjoy, or that are too much for you. Focus on a few ones that you find deep meaning in.

Whenever in doubt, simplify.

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