The Beauty of Simple

On the first night of Chanukah, I found myself fumbling with an electronic menorah. (By the way, I’m not going to address the Chanukah vs. Hanukah debate; my mother spoke a lot of Yiddish, and everything always started with a lot of phlegm and then a ch sound. For me, it’s Chanukah.) Anyway, this menorah: I spent a few minutes trying to get it to work, running into one complication after another. I needed a plug. I needed an extension. It wasn’t the right kind, so I needed an adapter. On and on it went—and meanwhile, at the other end of my house, an old-fashioned candle menorah just sat there. All it needed was a match.

For as modern as a plug-in menorah might seem, it doesn’t actually improve on the original—and that’s because candles are wonderfully simple. They do what they’re intended to do with nothing superfluous added on, like the need for extensions and plugs. And that got me thinking about the very nature of simplicity.

I did a little bit of searching on Amazon, inputting the word simple. What I found were 20,712 books bearing that name in their title, along with 6,755 songs and—shockingly—49,482 personal care products. Obviously, things are not so simple!

Then I started thinking in terms of music. Simple music timing is 4/4, a time signature that’s very familiar to anyone who listens to rock or the blues. It’s four beats in every measure—simple enough!

But as time signatures change, complexity builds—and you need more talent to play. 9/8 time, for example, is a much more difficult time signature to master, so much so that it’s used rarely, and almost entirely in vaunted classical works by true musical geniuses.

When it comes to playing these different time signatures, there are a few differences: Talent, practice, and exposure. Talent you’re either born with or you’re not; there’s not much you can really do about it otherwise. Practice is something I’ve covered before, in my series on pitch; long story short, I recommend it.

That leaves us with exposure, and that’s really what I think this notion of simple rests on. I see it all the time at startups: Complexity builds because the team has little exposure to different ideas, to other people, to the world in general. Yet the best teams—with real diversity, and exposure to many different ideas—are able to understand the simple essence of their product.

How? Well, think back to my musical example. If you can play something in 9/8, you can definitely play a song in 4/4. You have the expertise needed to get back to the essence, the central rhythm—the connection to your audience.

Let me put it another way. If you have multiple paths to the same results, a diverse set of individuals will get to the simplest path. For me a diverse group is a modified, living example of the law of parsimony, attributed to William Ockham. (As in, Ockham’s razor.) The more opinions presented, the greater chance of getting to the simple solution.

That’s how it was at Apple. Steve Jobs surrounded himself with diverse views, knowing that this would allow the simplest view—the core idea—to prevail. He understood something that was well-articulated, I think, by jazz musician Charles Mingus: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

Let me end with one more musical example. Say you go to a concert, and you hear a really amazing, intricate guitar solo. It may be really entertaining, but you’re not going to leave the show humming that solo. You’re going to leave humming the melody—the central, simple essence of the song. Because that’s what connects with people, whether in music or in sales. Yet you don’t start with simple. You start with diversity—then winnow it down to what’s essential.