Simplify Or Perish


Golden Retriever with dog biscuit on nose


My first encounter with simplicity came in a chess game, when I was a boy.

Sometimes I found myself on the defensive. My opponent had the momentum, I was constantly reacting to his moves. I needed a “game-changer.” When I could see no better option, I resorted to simplification.

In chess, I learned two quick ways to simplify. A player can “castle,” which is the only gambit in chess that allows you to move two pieces at once. Your king switches places with one of your rooks. This allows your king to escape immediate pressure, and possibly creates a whole new dynamic on the chess board.

The other way to simplify in chess is a last resort. You “exchange” pieces of equal value. For instance, you take your opponent’s knight, knowing that one of your own knights will be captured. You sacrifice your knight for your opponent’s, and both knights are removed from the board. The result is a “simplified” game, perhaps working to your advantage.

If the exchange involves the most powerful chess pieces, sacrificing a queen for a queen, the result can be dramatic simplification. Without the queens, the players may be reduced to a frustrating game of attrition, possibly leading to stalemate rather than checkmate.


In real life, as in chess, you often have to give up something in return for simplification.

I can choose a new major in college; fire my boss (i.e., quit my job); end a friendship or relationship. I can give up a hobby or recreation that takes time away from responsibilities; change a harmful habit or behavior, improve my diet, quit smoking.

As in chess, I may have to give up something, sacrifice something.  Changes usually require thought and decision-making, even discernment. Not every change leads to simplicity. Sometimes we need to make a change to challenge ourselves more, not less; to grow; to be more productive. Small changes may have greater consequences than we imagined.

Some changes can be turning points.  A career change, a marriage or divorce, a geographic relocation — all these have the power to change the course of your life.

A desire for ease or simplicity is not sufficient reason to walk away from a responsibility. Many times, life requires us to take up new responsibilities. Necessary change may make life more complicated, not more simple.

But even shouldering heavy responsibilities can sometimes simplify life. The responsibility may be greater, but the way forward may be clearer. By giving up what is unnecessary or distracting, we may be able to focus on what is important.

As the author Marsha Sinetar says, attention is power. Giving full attention to what is important is a kind of simplicity.

Simplicity is not for every person or every situation. When I study, I like to study in silence. But many people prefer to study while listening to music. People are very different in their abilities, talents, and needs. My doctor once pointed out that intelligence is like computing power. Some computers have more processing power than others. Some people can tolerate more complexity than others. Some people thrive on complexity.

I’ve often found myself working with people who have faster brains than mine. I’ve often compensated by working longer hours to keep up. This can lead to fatigue or even burnout. So I often seek simplicity, either through focused concentration, or simple lifestyle. Not many responsibilities, only one or two. Not many interests and recreations, one or two is enough.

I’ve always been attracted to simplicity. As a boy, I though Dunkin’ Donuts had an excellent business concept, and later, McDonald’s. They concentrated on a limited menu. Donuts and coffee; or hamburgers, French fries, and milkshakes. They focused on consistent quality and service.

Simplicity is not for everyone. I don’t agree with self-help gurus who say, “Everyone should do this,” or “Everyone must do that.”  You hear that everyone should meditate; the world would be better if we were all vegetarians; everyone should exercise four times a week; everyone should give up sugar and salt; everyone should use mass transportation, or ride a bicycle to work. All good suggestions, but not for everybody. People are different, and one size does not fit all.

Many people thrive on complexity.  I need to simplify in order to survive.

— John Hayden

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