Aphorism Reflections #27

Had something of a long/short day between church and then having a D&D game with some new players in the afternoon. I spent longer than I should checking out E3 stuff, so I’m just kind of a mess.

Aphorism 45

General principle: the solutions (on balance) need to be simpler than the problems.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

I have become convinced that simplicity is a virtue.

One of the reasons for this is that there is a relationship between the lack of simplicity and the presence of hubris. As such, it could be said that simplicity is not necessarily a virtue, but rather is a sign of virtue.

From a strictly practical perspective, simplicity is better than people give it credit for. We have a tendency towards action, but there are times our instincts hurt us more than they help us. For all the strengths one can attribute to gut feelings, one need also remember that things have changed a lot in the past thousand years, and the world we live in is primarily cultivated rather than natural.

Over-complication is actually the instinctual thing for humanity. Knowledge is generally better than ignorance, but when knowledge is not available sometimes your guess works just as well. If we are smart and remember that we are uncertain, our antidote to that is to make things more complicated than they need to be, because we actually deal with finding solutions to a number of guesses, rather than one accurate prediction.

If taken to its final extent, this leads to the moral flaw of hubris and to believing that every possible problem has been solved. Another problem here is that what one considers to be only partially certain may be taken as another to be a statement of absolute faith as it is communicated from person to person. Given enough time to stew, a misjudgment can grow into a more toxic thing than it originally was. Misconception grows while the correct parts of any observation may not be passed down.

From a practical viewpoint, it also stands to reason that solutions must be simple. Being able to actually execute a plan is as important as considering a plan. The more complicated something is, the more likely it is that the plan will fail to be executed properly, and that unforeseen factors will arise inhibit its success.

Difficulties in communication become exponential quickly, as do the possibilities that misplaced assumptions will interfere with plans. The failure in any part of a large mechanism can bring it to a halt. The best solution to this, given the tendency of the universe, is simply not to plan on anything dependent on factors that have too many unknowns.

My Life

I am a game designer, and I have found that anyone with the term designer in their job title, with the exception of the visual arts (and then not always), tends to over-complicate things while missing the big picture. This is true of anyone who works in planning as well. When you work with ideas, it’s tempting to be complicated because that’s how you justify being better than anyone else. If you can’t show that you’ve been working, how do you prove that your work is meaningful?

I am by profession an educator, and if you want an example of over-complication you need look no further than the education system. Some days I’m not even sure that anyone in the education system has a clear idea of the problem they’re trying to solve, myself included.

Of course, this would require a venture into philosophy.

However, if we start with the basic premise of education as being that people are ignorant about the world and need to be given the tools to become less ignorant, it is hard to see how the modern education system simplifies that problem in any way.

If we wanted to be more critical, we could ask if education even answers the problem. Note that I say answer instead of solve, and that’s deliberate. The chance that any attempt is successful is probably pretty low, but there’s always room for improving so that at least instead of an abject failure we have a partial one.

I find that I am susceptible to over-complicating my daily life. There is only one thing that protects me from this trend taking over entirely, which is that I am averse to anything which seems wearisome and burdening. As a result, only the simple can survive for long.


Make a goal. Achieve a goal.

If you cannot say it in few words, do not express it solely in many words.

Do nothing out of hubris.

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