There are no shortcuts

tea-room

Earlier this week my son and I traveled down to see my daughter. The three of us traveled to Newport, Rhode Island to see the mansions there, a collection of “summer cottages” of the rich and famous from The Guilded Age.

And guilded they were, incredibly extravagant, more like little palaces rich in marble, Louis the 14th furniture, gold gilt and crystal chandeliers everywhere, each house a  jewel box, each one trying to outdo the other. Time after time our jaws hung open as we rounded into the next room, sure that nothing could outdo the room we were in, until we moved to the next room.

My favorite room. The one in the picture above. It’s called the Japanese Tea House, a small replica of a temple built on the edge of the grounds of one of the mansions. One room. So simple. So peaceful after the magnificent assault of my senses in the mansions themselves.

That kind of simplicity calms our soul, calms our spirit.

There has been a movement towards simplicity in our society that largely back to Apple’s creation of the I-Pod. Music had once been something that, if you wanted good music, was built from a rack of gear with dozens of knobs and meters. And Apple reduced it to a little thing you stuck in your pocket, taking your music collection with you. Anyone could use it. It was reduced to only the essential controls.

From that, point, simplicity, which has been something only a few old hippies who had spent too much time on the commune talked about, became mainstream. Design became more minimalist. We began to simplify business practices and procedures, reaping loyal customers and higher profits. And we began to crave it in our personal lives, even our spiritual.

We began to discover, as a culture, the values of simplicity.

We also discovered simplicity is not easy. It is not merely removing things from our lives. That is easy. But removing things doesn’t always create simplicity.

No, simplicity involves an understanding of what is vital, what is important, and what is not. It involves a close and honest look at ourselves, or our customers, or the people who work with us, or in our own lives, and realizing there is a trade off for everything.

And that means a constant look at our priorities.

And THAT is hard work.

I learned this the hard way. Nearly a decade ago, when I separated from my now ex-wife, I moved to a small apartment. I took a few things with me, but left behind the vast majority of what I had spent nearly 25 years accumulating with her. And I found I liked life simple. I had forgotten. I had a simple life before. And I had a simple life again. Life since them has been focused on keeping that simplicity, and not letting life, and stuff, overrun the peace of a conscious choice of simplicity.

Once I learned it in my personal life, I found that applying it to my professional life had serious payoffs.

I began to hire differently. I took more to making sure I understood what was essential in the people I brought into my work teams. No longer was I dazzled by a golden resume. I came to understand that the best people were defined more by character than skills and experience. You can teach skills. You can’t teach character.

I began to design differently. I discovered that often my clients were happier with facilities that did a little less, but did the important things amazingly well. And so I had happier clients.

I began to apply the same principle to my faith life and my creative life, finding the essences that gave them both life, and not allowing them to be cluttered with stuff that didn’t matter.

But it’s not easy. In fact, it may be harder than complexity. Complexity happens easily and on its own. The house fills. The closet fills. Designs get crazy complicated because we can. Business processes become messy and fragmented all too easily. Faith becomes church and committee meetings, not connection. Our art and passions get lost in the cacophony of everything else.

But simplicity. Oh my! It’s hard work and diligence. It takes sifting through priorities, making choices, saying no. It involved an honesty about what is important, and courage to live it. There are no shortcuts, and there is no end to the work of maintaining it.

It’s hard, but it’s worth it. Here are some things I’ve discovered about the value of simplicity.

  • It reduces stress. Whether it’s is in our lives or in our work, simplicity reduce stress, making what, how we experience work and the things we do  we do a joy.
  • It makes us more efficient. I used to believe that if I had systems and stuff around me that I was ready for anything. And theoretically I was. But it also means that I didn’t do the 95% of things I did nearly as well because I was always thinking about all the less important. Science has proved that simplicity is more efficient whether it’s in life, running a business or running a TV studio.
  • It leaves room for the new. Often we claim we can’t take on the new, can’t pursue that passion, can’t add a new division to our company, can’t take on a new project because life is too full. But what is it full of? Simplicity creates space in our lives and work to expand.

There’s lots of other values to simplicity. But maybe the biggest one I have learned is that people and companies that value and do the work of creating simpler lives and workflows, always seem to be happier. You can’t measure that, but I find it to be universally true.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. It takes work. It takes mindfulness. No more auto pilot. No more “that’s how I’ve always done it.”  There’s a process. Follow it, and you reap the rewards. Don’t follow it, and you don’t.

I’ve tried shortcuts, and so have some of my more impatient, insistent clients. Shortcuts don’t work. The process works.   With all its hard work and self-honesty and courage to let go.

So today, whether I am working on a poem, designing a control room, managing a project, or coaching an individual or company to claim their own simplicity, I don’t allow shortcuts.

Life’s pretty simple. Trust the process. Do the work. Good stuff happens. No matter what you are doing or what you want.

And the next time I go to the Newport Mansions? I’m visiting the tea room again.

Be well, Travel wisely,

Tom

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