Simplicity | Complexity

Are we becoming too simple?

The first pair of opposites to come to mind are Simplicity | Indulgence. But that doesn’t seem fair because Hedonists don’t think they’re just lavishly living, they’re living life to it’s fullest. Adrenaline fuels the complexity side. What fuels the simplicity side? Both appropriate the mantra YOLO, they just define it in different terms. One says you only live once, so don’t kill yourself doing something stupid. The other side says take the risk! Feel the life coursing through your veins because this is your only chance!


The Joy of Minimalism

Everyone is familiar with the western sector’s inundation with materialism. No doubt you are  likewise acquainted with the more recent onset of the trendy “live only with your basic essentials” lifestyle.

Does minimalism give you freedom and control over your life? Is simplicity a synonym for joy?

“This obviously isn’t a new philosophy. Be it millennia-old religions or Thoreau, these ideas have been around for a while. What’s different now is the particularly antigenic culture in which we live. Sometime around the 1950s, advertising began making a shift from offering solutions to real problems, to providing solutions to false problems (which, in effect, created problems that didn’t actually exist).”

– Joshua Fields Millburn, Minimalist, from an Atlantic Mag article

“Although we can get to know ourselves better by sitting down and analyzing our characteristics or by listening to others’ perspectives on us, I believe that tidying is the best way. After all, our possessions very accurately relate the history of the decisions we have made in life. Tidying is a way of taking stock that shows us what we really like. … The magic effect of tidying: letting go is even more important than adding.”

– Marie Kondo, famed author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

“So what is this minimalism thing? It’s quite simple: to be a minimalist you must live with less than 100 things, you can’t own a car or a home or a television, you can’t have a career, you must live in exotic hard-to-pronounce places all over the world, you must start a blog, you can’t have children, and you must be a young white male from a privileged background.

OK, we’re joking—obviously. But people who dismiss minimalism as some sort of fad usually mention any of the above “restrictions” as to why they could “never be a minimalist.” Minimalism isn’t about any of those things, but it can help you accomplish them. If you desire to live with fewer material possessions, or not own a car or a television, or travel all over the world, then minimalism can lend a hand. But that’s not the point.

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.”

Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus


The Risk of Complexity

Opportunity to innovate does not arrive from blank slates. Does this peace or freedom of space give solutions to hard problems? Creativity blossoms under turbulent conditions.

“When Leonardo da Vinci said, ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,’ he didn’t mean take a short cut down the path of least resistance, balance your work and personal life or set more attainable goals. What he meant was engage the chaos, look for patterns, make sense of the intricacies and elaborations and adjust and refine ad infinitum. Do the work!”

Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D.

“Creativity is a flirtation with complexity, the risks of change bearing against imagined triumphs.”


Creative temperaments engage with these traits the most: “… independence of judgment, self-confidence, attraction to complexity, aesthetic orientation, and risk taking.”

– Robert J. Sternberg, Harvard Neuroscience Professor, author of the Handbook of Creativity

So, what does this apply to exactly? Is this speaking to minimalists?

Curiosity and tolerance for ambiguity produces creativity. Ultimately, living minimalistically defies this.

“Can we become creative by putting our minds to it? People who have a difficult time differentiating one musical note from another may have a hard time singing on key. However, there are ways of overcoming or compensating for this. The plasticity of the brain is quite amazing. Necessity is indeed an effective mother of invention—motivation and exercising a clever and concentrated approach are needed to succeed at something that’s difficult. It’s not enough to try to draw a tree every day; figuring out what makes the tree hard to draw and tackling that persistently—perhaps by finding a new way to draw it or see it differently—is more the core of the problem. We generally develop skills as we need them. And being creative is sometimes what a person needs to be.”

– Kinfolk interview with Mei Tan, Yale Cognitive Researcher

The Roots

There’s nothing new under the sun, right? So, what are the historical, societal and religious roots cultivating the branches of minimalism and hedonism to spread?

Buddhism & Zen Philosophy

Minimalist philosophy participates in rituals akin to Buddhism – emotional detachment from everything in the world, elimination of ignorance and craving. Japanese (and most eastern, collectivistic countries) traditional culture influences minimalistic architectural design “by meticulously organizing basic elements such as lines and planes,” valuing less being more.

Materialism & Individualistic Mindset

Society creates needs for things that aren’t necessary. Take Valentine’s Day Cards, for instance. Commercialization single-handedly made us all believe they’re staples of love. Materialism chokes out mindfulness with urges to substantiate our egos with the most updated gadgets, claiming happy independence in return. The American dream of individualism & freedom of speech turned sour after the dual world wars last century as economists brainstormed how to re-build.* Individuals motto: “How can I challenge myself to grow the most for myself? But ultimately, response to adversity is not to change myself, but my situation.”

*In the Story of Stuff , Annie Leonard confronts this consumerism departure from what’s essential to superfluous materialism by a quote from retail analyst, Victor Lebow, “Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption … we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

There are very few people who want to avoid pleasure and pursue pain. I don’t know any. Proponents of the Hedonistic camp roast their marshmallows to the idea that we are ruled by two sovereign masters, pleasure & pain. These natures dictate how and why we will respond to life – fight or flight. When you camp here, you experience life to it’s fullest; here are the adrenaline junkies. Their motto: “Don’t be stale and oversimplify, live with your mug contents brimming over the edge, seize the moment.”

The Science

Clearing clutter makes you feel good. Even writing that sentence made me feel good. On the other hand, so do intricate creations.

Decision Fatigue

In this era of information overload, where everyone is at least bi-lingual (native tongue and the internet’s language) and we have more than twenty different options for peanut butter (I seriously am in love with Trader Joe’s for this reason – perfect amount of choices), we arrive at what scientist’s call decision fatigue fairly quickly. For this reason, minimalists understand the need to par down the excessiveness. Turn to the complexity page, though, and researchers tell us that, “although choices are often described as painful, agonizing, difficult, and by other terms that connote adversity, people who lack choices tend to see their situations as even more aversive.” – Think jail time. Freedom from making choices might actually be more restrictive than you think.

Shopping for Serotonin and Purging for Endorphins

Clearing out old bed sheets and outdated Real Simple magazines for a Goodwill donation and pass-on to a friend releases endorphins. Shopping for new sunglasses and spring sandals release serotonin. Elimination and accruement both make you feel good, psychologically anyways. So, one must not be inherently always better, right?


Here in lavish America kingdom, we very well might need to hear the message of minimalism. Think, though, if we were to travel to the Malawi Plains in South East Africa, speak to the Tumbuka tribe, and attempt to convince them of the minimalistic mindset. First, we might come off as the Egyptians forcing the Israelites to build bricks without straw. But also, think of their reaction to this lifestyle – they truly know need and they would be immensely grateful for education access, galleries of paintings and libraries chocked full of literature. Stuff, in essence. They would be grateful for stuff. This is my point – is minimalism really the answer or is there something minimalism lays a foundation for for some people to respond with greater intentionality? What may be a temptation for us could quite possibly be someone else’s solution.

Is there a middle ground between these two camps? And if there is, should we all try and gravitate towards this sweet spot?

*Side note: And if I can be quite honest, I love the concept of minimalism, and think it’s integral to laying a foundation of clarity, but I just don’t think we should #doallthethingsminimalistically, you know? There’s beauty in complexity and value in risking disorganization.*

Slowing down and simplifying life renders useless if we are left with emptiness. Streamlining home decor, for instance, premises itself in paring down unnecessary clutter to relish in that french antique tufted sofa or the African ZZ plant that will never die on you; it’s not about the absence of disorganized medley, ending of itself.

Simplicity stimulates an impetus for mindfulness, bringing clarity, but if not careful, uncomplicated naturalism without marriage to meaningfulness becomes shallow. Opposite extremes, hoarding and obsessing over clarity, serve no more than to drive us crazy.

Understand simplicity as an opportunity for depth and satisfaction and you will never miss the point of pruning life. Likewise, chaos benefits and often comes in the form of simply acknowledging our lack of sovereignty and control over life. From pruning the natural world (i.e., that pesky Basil plant that always dies on you) to developing cultural change (e.g., fighting for rights of the unborn), the advent of our reactions can either be a more “bloom where you are planted” approach or a “you cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore” approach.

Both simplicity and complexity are needed, but neither satisfies ending of themselves.

So, what are your thoughts? Does one lifestyle approach appeal to you more?

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