Simplicity versus Complexity

Simplicity seems to be the in word for now, what with tons of self-help books emphasising on making things simple in a ever-frenetic pace of life in urbanised regions and countries. There seems to be a presumption that we can slow life down simply by simplifying everyday matters in our lives – almost to the point that the possibility of simplifying everything is feasible, regardless of one’s circumstances. There are few considerations being made about the fact that if the things that we are asked or required to do increased exponentially, no amount of process streamlining is going to ease one’s life.

On the contrary, “complexity” seems to be the word that many are averse to. Why? Because it implies sophistication, confusion or even downright messiness. Few would view “complexity” as thought-provoking, evoking depth of thought or even a step towards epiphany – which is precisely what complexity really is. I believe that critical thinkers and thought leaders may be among the ones who made simple things complex while others made complex things simple. It may be a fact that it may be much simpler to simplify complex matters but that doesn’t make thinking deeply about simple things any less useful or insightful.  It’s indeed interesting to see publishers pushing out titles that promote simplification of life but repackaged titles which imply making simple things complex. Then again, making work processes more complex than it already under tight deadlines is also foolhardy.

Let’s think of a simple exercise which may sound dumb but is very useful for living your life. Ready, here it goes:

Think of water as a metaphor for living your life. How many examples can you think of? Please do not continue reading until you have came up with a list. If you are not confident of doing so, do the best you can before reading on.

Ready? Here are some possible insights:

  • Adaptable: Water takes the shape of any containers or environmental cavity that can contain them. It can change its state from solid to liquid to gas. Are we that adaptable to our changing life circumstances?
  • Clean: Water is able to be purified through machines. They can be distilled so that individuals are able to drink water without any worry of falling sick. They are able to allow residue to settle. Are we able to learn and unlearn things in life?
  • Go with the flow: Water flows naturally from a higher area to a lower area. It is the natural law of gravity. They do not resist the flow and move upstream with force. Are we able to go with the flow of life and accept things that cannot be changed?
  • Nurturing: Water keeps us alive. Plants need water to survive. Are you someone who is nurturing to everyone whom you meet and encourages them to be the best that they can be so that they can contribute positively to make the world  a better place?
  • Recyclable: Used water can be used in other purposes besides drinking. Water is indeed multi-functional. Are we – in our working and personal life – able to take on multiple roles that life requests of us?
  • Worked well with others: When water vapours condense on windows, we are able to draw or write stuff on the windows (well, at least until the sun comes up). Are we able to work as well with others in the same way that water and glass combine to present to us a  (temporary) drawing board?

If you like this simple-made-complex example and will like to try on more examples, you can give “car” a try – as a metaphor for living your life. Have fun!

I am using this example to illustrate the point that making things complex has its uses as well. It is not possible to list out all circumstances in one article but below are two contexts to illustrate the fact that simplicity and complexity are most useful when used together:

  • Housework: Simplicity is often recommended but some complexity (brainstorming process) will be recommended. For example, we can simplify the process of sweeping and mopping the floor, wiping the tables and windows as well as cleaning the restrooms. But thinking skills (complexity) are needed to decide if the floor tiles need to be switched or if the flower painting in a room may be better replaced with a motivational quote or a framed landscape photo. As can be observed, simplicity merely lets one get on with life but complexity allows creativity to flow and in turn enhances one’s quality of life.


  • Work: Simplicity works well in streamlining work processes, thus freeing more time for employees to focus on their primary job responsibilities. However, extensive thinking skills are required to look deeper into any additional work responsibilities that may be continually surfacing in the face of constant work streamlining. There is only so much that work processes can be streamlined but there is virtually no limit to additional work matters/issues that may or will surface. In a nutshell, streamlining work processes is only a short-term solution and the long-term solution lies in the realm of complex thinking – the analysis of the cause behind all the work responsibilities. To use an example, consider a camera customer service centre. The number of customer complaint per day is 2 per month for the past year. But since two months ago, the number has increased to 15 per month. Streamlining the communication channels between the unsatisfied customer and the customer service staff (such as shortening the administrative processes, cutting down on response time, increasing response rate etc) can manage the situation but not solve the problem. In another word, customers’ complaints get resolved but the number of complaining customers does not get reduced. If complex thinking comes in here, one can see that there is an urgent need to conduct a detailed investigation into what caused the customers’ complaints. And the truth is that the cause of the customer complaint is the same – that is there is a long delay in confirming their warranty when they asked for their cameras to be repaired. If complex thinking has not been used here, the customer service staff will end up handling ever-increasing complaints without ever knowing the cause.. Of course, this is a simple example and real-life scenarios are much more complex than this. But this is a good point of reference.

So, simplicity and complexity are but two sides of the same coin.

Think simple.

AND think complex at the same time.


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