Simple is hard

“How long does it take you to prepare one of your speeches?” asked a friend of President Wilson not long ago.

“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

If you’ve heard Uptown Funk, the wonderfully persistent hit song from Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, then you’ve probably noticed that it’s a startlingly simple song. The main riff is straightforward. The bass line is funky, yes, but it’s not like you need mad bass skills to pull it off.

It feels almost like anyone could have made this song.

It’s a powerful illusion. For some reason, we seem wired to think that complexity is the same thing as difficulty. We say things aren’t “rocket science,” because the equations we conjure up in our minds are incomprehensible.

It’s part of the reason it’s easy to start looking down your nose at popular culture. It lacks nuance, we say to ourselves. It’s just not complex enough to be worth our admiration. I’ve certainly caught myself thinking that because a book, or a talk, or an idea, is so simple, it’s not all that impressive.

But in fact the opposite is often more true. The number of folks who say that writing a hit song like Uptown Funk is easy is a lot bigger than the number of folks who actually write number one hit songs. Anyone who’s ever prepared for an Ignite talk (as I have) can tell you that getting a five-minute speech right is a whole lot harder than a half-hour one.

I think kids books are a great example of how hard it is to make something simple. A kids book needs to be simple. We don’t sit around critiquing The Very Hungry Caterpillar for not using enough big words.

As a parent, you’ll read a kids book dozens, maybe hundreds of times. That simple book needs to have something to offer your kid when she’s six months old, ten months old, sixteen months old… and the best books have something to offer you as well. It’s astonishing how much there is in a good kids book.

But simplicity for itself is not sufficient. Making something that is simple is just as easy as making something that’s complex. The hard part is taking something complex and making it simple without losing the meaning.


Quote from Quote investigator
This post also appears on my personal blog.