Practical ways to focus on what matters most.
There is an engineering problem, that when asked to solve, top teams of lawyers, doctors, and business leaders perform poorly. However, there’s one demographic that when asked consistently performs well: kindergartners
The problem involves masking tape, spaghetti sticks, and a 30-minute time constraint. Lastly, like all good complex engineering problems, it includes marshmallows.
It’s called the Marshmallow Design Challenge. And it’s brilliant.
Put into motion by Peter Skillman, this challenge has been applied to thousands of teams all over the world. And yet, the kindergarten students remain as the team to beat.
They aren’t the smartest or the most skilled. They aren’t the best-equipped. In fact, most kindergartners have trouble counting past 20 or reading words longer than 5 letters.
But these kids do have something at their disposal that almost every other team of older, wiser, more talented people fail to capitalize on: they have simplicity.
In his Ted Talk introducing this challenge, Skillman laid out two trends that he saw within the kindergarten groups that helped increase their effectiveness and simplicity.
In most groups of kids he observed these trends:
- They don’t waste time seeking power.
- They don’t sit around talking about the problem.
In studying how groups of kids approach a unique and challenging problem like the Marshmallow Design Challenge, Peter Skillman didn’t just stumble on a funny paradigm.
He discovered underlying truths about the reality of how to live simply.
And somewhere along the way, those truths that are so normal in our kindergarten classes often become unrecognizable in our professional and adult lives.
As we grow, we are confronted by a number of myths that if accepted, shift our lives away from simplicity.
If you want to debunk those myths and live a simple life, below are some truths that, if embraced, could help you reach that goal.
Eulogy Virtues, Not Resume Virtues
Myth: Your professional accomplishments are the most important thing about you.
Have you realized that no one ever talks about a professional CV at a funeral? I’ve only been to a small number of funerals in life so far, but I’ve never seen someone’s loved one stand up and with tears running down their face, choke back the sentence, “but he was the top-earning Vice-President of the entire Southeast region.”
I’m not trying to be insensitive, but you see the point?
At funerals, you don’t praise someone’s accomplishments as much as you praise who that person was. You likely won’t hear about mergers, trophies, or promotions. You’ll often hear things like,
- “He was such a kind and loving person.”
- “She was the most generous person I had ever met.”
- “He never met a stranger.”
What matters in the end isn’t the status you earn, but the characteristics that you demonstrate.
If you want a great challenge, take some time and write down what you would want to be said of you at your funeral and then set off to become those things.
Focusing on your eulogy virtues will help you live a simpler life by reminding you what is important and by filtering out the things that won’t matter as much in the end.
Status Transactions Are a Waste of Time
Myth: Living simply means living in isolation.
When I started thinking about what it would mean to live a simple life, my first thought was that I needed to cut back on my interactions, pursue isolation, and seek out peace and quiet.
While finding moments of rest in a chaotic world is necessary, seeking to isolate yourself in the name of simplicity most likely won’t be your best practice.
It’s still possible to thrive in your interactions and live a simple life. You just have to be willing to cut back on your status transactions.
Anytime you meet someone new, if you get introduced to a new client, team, or group of friends, there is a temptation to assert your status and recognize the statuses of those you meet.
While honor and respect are both great practices, status transactions are really more about how or where we measure up to those around us. It’s the yardstick mentality.
Simplicity doesn’t have anything in common with comparison.
You can grow towards simplicity as you become more comfortable with who you are and where you are going.
De-Escalate As Much as Possible
Myth: Living simply means hiding your problems.
Have you noticed that people who live simply have seemingly mastered the art of never having problems? It’s like everything isn’t really that big of a deal to them.
For me, there has been a correlation between growing up and wanting to talk about my problems. When you ask kids how they are doing, they rarely tell you, “I’m busy, stressed, and just could use a break.”
But when people ask me how I’m doing, I find that my default answer can easily become “I’m busy and tired.”
When people live simply, it’s not that don’t have problems, or that things aren’t a big deal. Instead, they have learned to de-escalate rather than escalate.
A de-escalator is someone who brings peace to situations rather than chaos, someone who doesn’t disagree with everything but tries to see things from other perspectives. De-escalators know that life is often bigger than the day to day problems, so they can rise above the fray rather than getting caught up in the struggle.
In Skillman’s experiment, rather than talk, the Kindergarteners just got to work.
The same is true for those who live simply. They’ve chosen to talk less about their problems which gives them more time for figuring out solutions.
Clarity over Complexity
Myth: Simplicity is silly and complexity is cool.
Growing up, I bought into the thought that complexity was cool. That being busy and doing complicated things was a measure of success and accomplishment.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve started to notice and appreciate the inverse of that trend.
Some of the people I look up to the most are people who have learned how to take the potentially complicated and hectic aspects of life and make them simplified.
That’s why my appreciation for first-grade teachers, nurses, and editors has skyrocketed.
To live simply, aim to reduce moments of complexity.
Simplicity is not synonymous with easiness. In fact, simplicity allows you and me to better understand ourselves and our environments.
Simplicity is hard-won. It is earned through understanding, appreciation, and fighting against cultural norms to recapture what once came so naturally.
If you look up the word simplicity in the dictionary, you’ll find these definitions:
- freedom from complexity, intricacy, or division into parts: an organism of great simplicity.
- absence of luxury, pretentiousness, ornament, etc.; plainness: a life of simplicity.
- freedom from deceit or guile; sincerity; artlessness; naturalness: a simplicity of manner.
I’d be happy if, at the end of the day, people could say about me: he was freed from complexity and division, he wasn’t pretentious and he was sincere and free of deceit. He lived a simple life.