Simplicity beneath complexity

Simplicity beneath complexity

The more I learn, the simpler solutions I see.

Many people from different areas of expertise tend to make things overly complex. There are situations in which complexity is inevitable and absolutely required, but many times it’s really not the case. Complexity can be a real burden for professional athletes building their careers, people trying to pursue their lifestyle goals or business owners growing their companies. However, many of them are not even aware of it, yet they are somehow attracted to it. Although complexity may often bring some negative effects into the process, there are specific situations where it can actually be seen as a positive thing. I will try to dive deeper into the reasoning behind people’s attraction to complexity by presenting examples from professional sport, health and business industry, as well as from different perspectives of users and providers.

First of all, from the provider`s point of view, complexity is used because it not only sounds good marketing-wise, but it also sells better. It’s much harder to monetize the basics. For example, a fitness program written in complex professional vocabulary sounds much more appealing than if advertised simply as physical training, and we are more likely to give it a try. A complex approach to a business problem can get people more excited and willing to pay a higher price. If, for instance, you want to sell a nutrition program by saying “eat five servings of fruit and vegetables each day and drink more water”, well good luck. Even though this happens to be the best single thing that we can do for our health (scientifically proven fact), it just sounds too basic to become widely accepted or popular. From the user’s perspective, in addition to the fact that complexity seems more exciting, there are also other reasons behind people’s attraction to complexity and why they buy into it.

Hiding behind complexity

Brad Stulberg, one of the leading authors in the field of human performance wrote about the concept of “hiding behind complexity.” One of the reasons why we get seduced by complexity is that we can hide behind it. We use it as a shelter that helps us ignore reality. Reality says that most things in life can be achieved by simply showing up and doing the work. Not by thinking about it or talking about it, simply by doing it. Complexity gives us excuses and ways out, it gives us many things to talk about and place the blame on. If a complex program or a strategy doesn’t work, we intuitively start looking for a reason why this was not the right thing for us, while in fact, we actually failed in our basic effort. Or simply put, the less options we have to hide behind, the more focussed we are on the essential changes that need to be made within ourselves. Complexity also gives us endless options for switching things up all the time, and therefore it’s harder to stick to something. If one program doesn’t work, we quickly find a new one and start all over again. After a while, we will most likely end up where we first started, without making any progress. “Simplicity is different”, Stulberg wrote. “You can’t hide behind simplicity. You have to show up, day in/day out, and actually do the work”.

Rafael Nadal was asked about how he trains mentally to stay focused on top of his game for such a long period of time. While many expected to hear about the team of experts that work with Rafa or cutting-edge psychology methods that he uses, the 19-time grand slam champion revealed this simple philosophy:

“You work mentally when you go on the court every day. You don’t complain when you play bad, when you have problems, when you have pains. You put the right attitude, the right face and you are not negative about all the issues that happened. You go on the court every day with practicing to keep practicing, that’s the mental work, no? That’s something that I did during my entire career, not being frustrated when the things were not going well, not being too negative. That’s why I was always able to have the chance to come back”.

Nutrition is still an emerging science, and therefore we can find many different perspectives on how we should eat. Complex diet theories are very popular because people easily get excited about measuring grams of fat, carbs or protein as well as learning about microbiome, digestion and superfood supplements, and that is generally a positive thing. However, the bottom line of a healthy lifestyle rests on the basic principles: eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, drink more water, don’t eat refined sugar, exercise 30 min every day. These simple rules have the power to change the lives of many, and almost everyone knows about them, yet the majority of people still don’t live by them. Complex health theories provide options to switch things up all the time looking for that perfect diet, while at the same time we fail at the very basic stuff.

Physical conditioning: If you want to get faster – sprint; If you want to get more endurance and lose weight – run or cycle; If you want to get stronger – lift heavy weights; If you want to be flexible – stretch; 

Rest, repeat and gradually increase intensity.

For professional athletes, there is some science needed for periodization, training loads, injury prevention, etc., but after that, it’s all about doing the work day in/day out. It is as simple and hard as that.

However, there is also a certain motivational factor in complexity. Motivation is always a positive thing and, from this perspective, complexity can be seen as a positive thing, too. As mentioned above, the more complex you make something sound, the easier it is to get excited about, and more motivated you make others to try it out. Perhaps the most common reason why we fail at something is because we just give up too soon. After we face failure, the next big obstacle is finding motivation for starting over. This is the point where an attractive program or strategy can be helpful, because it stimulates the feeling of excitement and new hope. Even though complexity is harder to stick to over a longer period of time, it can serve as a trigger for a new start, and for some getting started is a true challenge. From the coaching perspective, we could use complexity as a good starting tool, and later slowly shift to a simpler, effective and sustainable approach. It seems like a good combination.

When I started to write this text, I was actually inspired by the recent events where we see scientists and experts currently dealing with many complex and mind-boggling things, while still working hard to serve us with information which is understandable to a wider public. By quoting Rafa and pointing out to other examples, my sole intention was to show absolute support to experts in psychology, nutrition, physical conditioning or any other fields of expertise in their dedicated work. Beneath complexity, true experts see simple solutions. They study complex theories and work towards finding ways to frame them into elegant and simple models. This is why experts are so valuable, they produce vital knowledge. They see simplicity beneath complexity.


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