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GP15Oct: If It's Not Simple, It's Not Creative

Tea for Two.  Even as they graft more and more complication onto their lives, restless Americans pine for a simpler, bucolic life of spare pleasures “far from the cry of the city where flowers pretty caress the stream.”  From an early age while still in the Henry Street settlements, the fast, immensely facile Irving Caesar, born on July 4, 1895 and enduring to the ripe old age of 101, penned a river of lines that included these words from “Tea for Two” as well as many other hit songs, several of which became classics that often celebrated the sweet life, flowers, and idyllic interlude.  Besides “Tea for Two,” he is renowned for “Swanee,” Al Jolson’s big song, “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?”, and “Sometimes I’m Happy.” 

When asked what comes first, the words or the music, he is reputed to have said, “What comes first is the contract!”  Obviously he got the basics right. 

Naturally he could not have been more urbane, more complex, or much more street smart (as opposed to country wise).  In this he is probably like a large swathe of Americans.  Market researchers would tell us that we may talk country and the simple life, but we buy the chaotic and the complex.  If anything, we run away from simplicity. 

That said, we will argue here that simplicity is more than unattainable phantasy.  We think it’s good for our health and peace of mind, and that its appeal on these shores is getting ever stronger.  In this horribly complex age, however, it’s not enough to live simple:  we are obliged to create simplicity in the same way that we are compelled to restore our environment.  Fortunately we can probably use simple technology to breed more simplicity, and we will find that it is good for all our pocketbooks.  It’s a moral and economic good that is not so easily imitated by the low cost economies of the Pacific Rim, since simplicity is so much harder to engineer than complexity.  As the web designer Par Almqvist said in his essay “Fragments of Time,” “a modern paradox is that it’s simpler to create complex interfaces because it’s so complex to simplify them.”   

The Simplicity Franchise. If you poke around the Internet, you will fast discover that Henry David Thoreau owns the simplicity franchise.  This 19th century philosopher and individualist, who practiced his preachings about the simple life at Walden Pond and in the Boston environs, literally chanted “simplicity” throughout his works.  In Walden, he said, “Our life is frittered away by detail….  Simplify, simplify, simplify!  ...  Simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.” 

His call for a life of spare essentials next to nature has resonated ever since, never more than now, even as life has become steadily more convoluted.  Lately, incidentally, even our scientists have discovered the health-giving properties of a meditative life (see item 122 in Stitch in Time) as Westerners learn to block out the hubbub of society.  At a very practical level, we notice that Real Simple magazine has gained readership and 44.5% more advertising pages in the first 10 months of 2003, even as its more grandiose homemaking competitor Martha Stewart Living has fallen more than 30%.  (See the New York Times, October 10, 2003, pp. C1 and C4).  Chaos and complexity have truly come out of their caves at the beginning of the 21st century, so Thoreau’s strains are striking more of a chord now than they did when he was living. 

Augustine’s Laws.  Norm Augustine, who once commanded the weapons effort at the Pentagon and went on to lead the Martin Marietta Corporation, authored Augustine’s Laws, which told us that the cost of jet planes grows exponentially as you add more electronics and the breakdowns multiply at about the same rate.  That’s about true of everything else in our society, too.  As we add complex technology everywhere, things don’t work and costs skyrocket.  We have commented on this previously in “Systems on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” Letters from the Global Province, October 2, 2002.   

We encounter this everyday in our cellphone.  The Nokia that AT&T provided us five or so years ago operated without a hitch for years.  Now the basic model at AT&T Wireless, which has replaced it, has all sorts of new functions we don’t want, has broken down beyond repair 3 times, and offers 30% poorer reception.  It is only laziness that prevents us from migrating to another supplier. 

With breakdown all about us, is it any wonder that much of our populace wants to disconnect and pursue a calming, detached, Thoreau-like simplicity?  Indeed, any time you can pull out of some national network, there is some assurance life will go a little smoother. For example, our good friend in Ottawa finds existence to be a little bit happier  because he has installed huge generators at home and the office, and life goes on uninterrupted even during  frequent meltdowns of the electric power grid. 

Half a Loaf.  But there’s no going back to a state of domestic tranquility given the patchwork interconnected mosaic of the modern day.  Complication is baked into our existence.  For instance, it’s just too much easier to use credit cards than cash, even though the providers offer very costly networks that fleece consumers and all too often set the stage for identity theft.  We’re caught.  Einstein had it about right when he said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  Oversimplification, in our digital society, will probably just make our lives more harassing. 

From KISS to MISS.  A favorite expression of consultants, entrepreneurs, and assorted dime store gurus is “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”  But the truth is that almost everything is now over-complicated, and the real mantra for this century should be “MISS—Make It Simple, Stupid.”  The trick is to uncover the annoying little things that are making a mess out of life and set them to rights through simple, clear thinking and a touch of common sense. 

Mechanical Engineering.  Very often this suggests that we use simple old 20th century technology to make simple things happen.  Forget about the wonders of electronics and DNA pharmaceuticals, and see whether a little decent mechanical design will grant you a little happiness. 

We have discussed previously Canadian Leonard Lee, who founded an inordinately successful company because he could no longer stand his job in the Canadian bureaucracy which is just as frustrating as the complex web of government in our own country (see “How To Beat Walmart,” July 23, 2003).  Well, he’s started company number two, Canica Design (www.canica.com) that’s in the business of designing more usable medical instruments.  As it turns out, the everyday scalpel surgeons use dates back to 1915, and it’s often a pain in the neck for the surgical artist.  Lee has put a new one in the marketplace with an ergonomic handle and ejectable blades that improves the surgeon’s lot.  Likewise, he’s introduced a wound-healing system, again based on mechanical design, that can close up wounds that just never seemed to mend. 

Paul Fenelon of Nashville, Tennessee has come up with a gear inside a track to make sure the windows on your car will close tightly even after a few years of wear.  When the car makers introduced power windows, they forgot to redesign the scissors-like, complex mechanism that was used when one had to crank the windows down with a handle.  Fenelon’s mechanism is “lighter by half, quieter, cheaper, easier to build and more durable.”  (See Forbes, September 29, 2003, pp. 89-90).  Once again, simple horsesense and basic mechanical engineering are shown to put ease and simplicity in our lives. 

We have mentioned before one of the heroes of our time, one Arnold Wendroff of Brooklyn (see item 18 in Gods and Heroes).  He has invented a cart we call the Wendroff.  It’s simple and cheap:  it takes the loads off the heads of the poor women of Malawi and puts them in a effortless conveyance that will work in the outback without requiring expensive motors and the like.  We need many more such simple products if America is going to be a real help to Third World countries—simple goods that will do much more for the poor than our checkered foreign-aid programs so parodied in the works of Paul Theroux and Jim Rogers. 

There are plenty of old-fashioned objects and systems that have been around 25, 50, or 100 years that require just enough MISS, just a little regearing, to make them beautifully useful.  Making old things simple is a good business strategy, because you can do it right without staring over your shoulder.  There’s a score of competitors making poorly built and poorly designed computers, mobile phones, PDAs, and what-not which are too complex, too costly, too user unfriendly, and too breakable.  But you may be the only one on the playing field when you set out to redo a scalpel, a Third World cart, or the window mechanism inside a car door.  Opportunity lies in finding places where the flock of average business people never bother to tread.  One of our entrepreneur friends is now peddling a tool that speedily creates well-shaped electrical outlets without a lot of mess:  he finds this a better game than his previous successful forays in computer software and telecommunications. 

Creativity.  We have heard lately that the United States needs creative communities to survive.  John Eger, out at  San Diego State, who’s passionate about Smart Communities (see Smart Communities, item 75, on Global Sites), has told us that he’s really talking about creative communities.  Just being smart is not enough.  Other countries can imitate and beat us at everyday manufacturing or everyday high tech.  The thought is that they cannot imitate the truly creative as easily. 

But what does creativity in the 21st century mean?  Charles Mingus, the musician, got it right.  “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”  Is it possible that we may cure several of the ills of our society and make a living besides if we can measure up to Mingus’s definition of artful thinking?  

P.S.   We would have liked Mr. Caesar’s “Tea for Two” much better if he had said, “where flowers caress the sky.” 

P.P.S.  This letter will also be posted under Agile Companies, many of which have figured out simple things on which to build a business.  Unlike lawyers, accountants, consultants, and other professionals who make a living by making things complex, the best companies make a buck by figuring out how to make something incredibly simple.

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