On Simplicity

I like old stuff.

I drove over the Relentlessly Cheerful Diner this morning in my 2000 Isuzu Trooper. If you are not a car guy, the Isuzu Trooper is one of the regional SUV’s. It’s big, boxy, built like a tank and has few of the modern amenities. It is way over engineered. Looks like and rides like a tank. And I love it.

My other car is an old PT Cruiser convertible. It’s kind of the opposite of the Trooper, with 1940’s styling, swoopy fenders and it’s bright blue.

Despite their age and the extra repairs that go with having older cars, I love both of them. Why? They are simple. Simple to drive. Simple to work on. No screens or rear cameras to distract my attention or buzzers going off as someone hits my blind spot. When I drive, I can focus on the pure joy of driving.

I love simple. Walk into my house and you will see it. Old furniture that leans towards the authentic colonial – simple, straight lines, plenty of space, good light and a few pieces of art. GO into my kitchen and you won’t see a ton of appliances on the counter. Want to open a can? I’ll go into the drawer and give you my hand cranked can opener.

Regular readers know I have something of a fetish for small diners and local restaurants. I go to some of the local ones when I am at home to work. I seek them out when I travel. Part of that fetish has to do with the simplicity of them. I could go to a McDonalds or some big chain restaurant and work just as well. All I really need is coffee and the internet. But the small places are invariably less noisy, less bustling, less focused on getting you in and out in the proscribed amount of time. You can focus on things better without the noise. You can have real conversations with perfect strangers.

Recently, I have been asking myself why the simple appeals to me. I am definitely in the minority. Many of us like the idea of simplicity, but somehow, life seems to conspire to make life complicated.

Years ago, I made the decision to simplify. Not just my life (less stuff), but my work, and how I do things. It easy enough to begin. It’s proven harder to keep it up.

That is because simplicity is hard. It’s not just a matter of paring stuff away. It’s about paring the RIGHT stuff away, and then putting processes in place to help that simplicity in place.

A fair amount of my work is built around simplifying. I help my design and business clients simplify workflow. I help some of my coaching clients learn how to simplify their work and lives. A few of my pastoral parishioners end up talking to me about simplifying life in a complex world. They are all surprised at how hard it is to simplify well.

The reason it is difficult has to do with the amount of introspection and honesty it takes. Simplifying is the art of self-examination, of coming to understand what is important and what is not important. And that is often harder than most people thing. It requires us to be honest with ourselves about what is important, and what is peripheral. It often means letting go of things we value, but which are, if we are honest, not very important.

And that is hard. It is hard for us as individuals, and it is hard for us as companies and organizations.

We live in a world of more. Cars have a zillion things on them. TV used to have three channels, now they have hundreds, not to mention on-line viewing. We used to get our news from the papers and the seven o’clock news, not there are a thousand ways to get news. Everything is about more and more and more. Buy more. Get more. Do more. Life is fragmented. Our minds become cluttered.

The end result is that we come to think more is what we want. That we have to have everything. Every feature. Every option. Every opportunity.

And yet…..

Some of my work in helping companies grow involves going out and simply talking to customers. It’s an old-fashioned way to do things in this world of big data and gleaning information by tracking people’s activity on the web.

The thing about big data is that it can tell us some things, but it rarely tells us what’s really important to people. It gives us indications and data on behavior, but often it misses what’s going on in a person’s heart, and it’s a person’s heart you want to win when you are trying to build a loyal clientele. There is still nothing like a conversation to turn data into wisdom. So I talk to people.

Inevitably, I find that the reasons people deal with, or don’t deal with a company or organization boils down to two or three things. And they are almost never the two or three things the organization think they are.

Knowing that, we can focus, not on a thousand things, but on the things that make a difference.

I find the same thing with my coaching clients. Contrary to popular believe, people who invest in personal life coaching are not failures trying to make it. They are almost always people with good, successful lives that want something more in their lives. And often, that something more involves simplifying life down to what is important.

It’s a harder process than you might imagine, getting to the place where we understand our life and our heart well enough to know what’s important. Much harder. But once THAT work is done, the work of actually getting to where they want is relatively easy.

It’s hard work. We fight a complicated, we have to have and do everything culture. We fight our own hoarding nature. We fight through the clutter. It takes time.

And it is so worth it.

For my corporate and organizational clients, simplifying inevitably means less stress, more productivity, and better bottom lines. For my design clients, simplifying translates into less stress (see a theme here?), more creativity, and better work.

And my coaching clients? Similar to my own experience, they find simplifying life brings them less stress, and more joy.

No one enjoys driving more than I do.  There is nothing to distract me in my simple old cars. I have less stuff in my life, which has translated into less to maintain, less expense, and less time just dealing with stuff. When I have a conversation with someone, I can be totally focused on them and the reward of that is immeasurable. When I eat, I savor. I have fewer clients, but I can take far better care of them than I did when I had hundreds of clients, which breeds extraordinary loyalty.

And when life goes berserk, as it always does? Then I am not already stretched to the limit when the crisis hits. I am better able to deal with the craziness. Did I mention less stress?

Simple is not for everyone. I’ve learned that. There are some who thrive in complexity, in crisis, on cramming as much activity into as small a time as possible. There are others who don’t want to take the time and deal with the hard work of true simplifying.

Why am I writing this? Because, if you are thinking about simplifying life, or yearning for a simpler life, I want to encourage you. No one’s life, and I mean no one’s, is more complicated than mine was a dozen years ago. Hard charging career. Active in church. A growing family. Big house and yard. A struggling marriage. Aging parents. Continuing education.

I got to simplicity the hard way. A divorce. Suddenly moving into a tiny apartment. Giving up my church leadership work. Deep, deep depression.

But as I worked through all that, I found the benefits of my simpler life. And as I emerged, I did not try to recreate my old life with all its busyness and stuff. I spent time, a lot of time, rebuilding something simpler, more in tune with what was important to me. And it’s paid off. Simplicity has become a tenet of my life, and it’s become a big part of my work.

And anyone can do it. If a broken guy like me can get there, so can you. Believe it. Begin. I’ll be in the background, cheering you on.

Be well. Travel Wisely,

Tom

PS – The picture above is The Relentless Cheerful Diner, which is just my name for it. The actual name is The Trolley Stop in downtown Poultney, Vermont.

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