In place of 42

After he left a comment here I discovered and enjoyed Nick Smith‘s blog. Nick is engaged in…

an exploration of an idea that does not leave me alone – that in spite of appearances, we are powerful beyond belief – and that realising this need be neither complex nor difficult.

I really admire the boldness of that aim, and the risk Nick takes of being mocked. But then Nick believes

…sometimes, in order to make real progress in this life, we need to step out beyond the horizon of our present understanding and stake our claim in the unknown, not knowing exactly what this entails or how we’ll get there.


I enjoyed his post How to do what you love, which is his response to Paul Graham’s essay. Here’s some of what Nick has to say

Alas, although the piece is well thought out and researched, the advice is complex and discouraging. The final paragraph starts-

“Whichever route you take, expect a struggle. Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it’s rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties.”

Whenever something seems complex I always think it’s a sure sign we don’t fully understand the problem yet. Truth is always simple. When we can get to see the bigger picture, the larger context, clarity and simplicity follow, but to do this means first being able to raise our level of consciousness.

There’s something about this that really rings bells for me, although I tend to use slightly different language. I don’t intend to start a game of “definition deckchairs” by doing this, I’m just attempting to get clear what I think, and I’m revisiting my stomping ground of distinguishing between the complex and the complicated.

Life is a complex business because, well, it’s somewhat affected by the uncontrollable actions of 6 billion other human beings, to say nothing of the effects of the tides, solar flares et al. If we accept its complexity, we accept that we can never fully understand it. So we can give up the painstaking search for the answer (or settle for 42, as per Douglas Adams). The search for the right answer, out there, treats life as if it is complicated. And of course, if we treat it as complicated, it will be. Paul Nick has a nice take on the ptifalls of looking for an answer out there:

Maybe I’d be better off helping them to take a lot of what they’ve learnt in school with a big pinch of salt – let them see that the laws, the rules and ‘the way things are’ are pretty much other peoples’ fearful thinking taken form – but they can choose to not go down that road.

Leaving aside my nitpicking on language, I’d like to share in Paul Nick’s optimism that achieving satisfaction may actually be much easier than we think. Indeed, it may have a lot to do with not thinking too much. Thinking a lot is a sensible procedure for dealing with things that are complicated, but probably not for those that are complex.

In my own work, I’m pleasantly surprised how sometimes what seem like intractable problems for people unravel in response to a simple intervention. Sometimes, it’s me that makes the intervention, sometimes it’s someone else. Often what charaterises the shift is a move away from making complicated meanings out of things. (See the gestalt joke, below)


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