Focus: Simple But Hard

Complicated is easy. Simple is hard. But simple is much more valuable.

We generate complication when we don’t know, or can’t face, what we’re really talking about. For example, look at the (gigantic) weight loss industry. Here is about all there is to say about how to lose weight:

1. Eat a balanced diet
2. Burn more calories than you consume.

If you do those two things, you’ll lose weight. And yet there are thousands of books, magazines, TV shows, web sites, products, clubs and classes devoted to new ideas for losing weight. Why? Because losing weight is simple, but hard. Complication is much easier. With complication, we can hide ourselves in all the confusing, often contradictory details, and avoid having to deal with the simple, hard truth.

You’re probably familiar with the most famous four notes in the history of western music, the ones heard at the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: Ba-ba-ba-bumm…

Beethoven's 5th primary motif

What you may not realize is that the entire first movement is based on just those four notes. What comes next? The same four notes, but in a lower range:

Beethoven's 5th answering phrase

And then we’re off, with a series of interweaving variations on this simple four-note pattern:

Beethoven's 5th development

This four-note pattern acts like a seed for the whole movement. Everything that happens grows out of it, and everything is clearly based on the “instructions” contained in it, quite a bit like the instructions contained in the DNA in a seed. And so the most important part of all the work that went into composing Beethoven’s 5th was the discovery of these first four notes. They are the simple but hard idea at the heart of the entire symphony. And they are the reason why no matter how complicated the symphony gets (and it get pretty complicated), it always carries a strong sense of order, and feels like it is communicating in a way that makes sense, even though we can’t articulate what it means except in terms of how it makes us feel.

Lesser composers frequently begin with the complication, and never arrive at the powerful simplicity. There are many composers who have all the technical knowledge that Beethoven had, and more. But it’s the ones who can find–and recognize–great simple ideas who make the music that affects us most. And they fight the temptation of complication until they have found such an idea, knowing that without it, complication only obscures the truth.

The great (or at least good) simple idea is what I call Focus. Achieving a focus is the necessary pre-condition of doing successful work.


But hard.

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