Note from the author: As a thank you to the nine people who responded positively to last month’s column, “More is Gross,” I’m expanding on that concept here. Which, I admit, seems like a contradiction.
When Albert Schweitzer was asked what’s wrong with the world, he replied, “They don’t think enough.”
We’ve all had those “what were they thinking?” moments. And many times, the truth is they weren’t thinking. They were distracted. They weren’t being present. They were taking a shortcut that was convenient for them but not for you.
I had my own WWTT moment recently. I was working on an innovative project with a coupla Big Shots. With just a few days to go before the final presentation, one of the BS’s called a meeting. He needed to share something, and I was dying to listen. He’s a giant in his industry with tons of experience. I knew that whatever he had to say would be Pure Gold.
Fifteen minutes into his 120-slide PowerPoint presentation, I was struggling to make the connection between what he was talking about and what we were trying to accomplish. I began to shift in my seat. I wondered, “Am I too dumb to figure this out?” With thirty minutes gone by and a hundred slides to go, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I blurted, “Where is this going?”
“This is how I think,” he responded. “You can do with it what you want.”
This. Fried. My. Ass.
From what I could tell, it didn’t look like he was “thinking.” It looked like he was puking. And he needed an audience to hold his hair.
Maybe all of us reach a certain point in our careers when we’ve amassed so much experience that—unless we fight mightily against it—it becomes easier to barf out all we know than to think things through and distill our message into its most useful bits.
As Mark Twain famously said, “I would’ve written a shorter letter, if I’d had the time.” Given the choice between puking and discerning, many of us puke, and it’s making a big mess.
We’re unsure of the point we’re trying to make, so we just keep talking. The CEO wants to goose performance so he demands more calls, more prospecting e-mails and more pressure on the sales team! Your teammate doesn’t seem to understand your instructions, so you write an even more detailed e-mail, explaining every nuance of your thinking ... and clarifying nothing. It seems to be the American condition that when there’s an opportunity to do more, say more or explain more, we take it. We are a nation of More.
Luckily, there’s a countermovement to all of this. It’s embodied in seemingly “simple” products like the iPod: one screen, one wheel and a nice “feel” in your hand. With those delicious, sexy components, you get a whole world of programming.
People who are fed up with reading and writing ever-longer e-mails are adopting five.sentenc.es (Google it), a challenge to express yourself in five lines or less.
Or take TED, which has become a worldwide sensation now that TED talks are available online. (Again, Google it. You will be enriched.) TED’s concept is—you guessed it—simple. Nobel Prize winners, giant-brained scientists and those with truly big ideas are given twenty minutes to offer their distilled message. That’s it: 1,200 seconds to condense a lifetime of insight. The effect is brilliant. And viral.
Turns out, in a world obsessed with more, we ache for simplicity. Computer programmers call it “elegance” and it’s their holy grail. When a web page, a software program or an iPhone app does everything it’s supposed to do, and not one thing more.
When he returned from Walden Pond, Ralph Waldo Emerson was asked what he’d learned. His response: “Simplify. Simplify.” Henry David Thoreau later quipped, “One ‘Simplify’ would’ve been enough.”
Rebecca Ryan is a Madison business owner who tries mightily to write e-mails with only five lines.