S is for The Second Simplicity

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Wise people often demonstrate the second simplicity. They get to the heart of the matter and say things that are simple yet profound. Oliver Wendell Holmes summed this up when he said:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Let’s explore how people who get to this stage go through the years of simplicity, complexity and then the profound simplicity.


“Life appeared simple when I was young,” said one person.

“As a teenager I believed in love, peace, beauty and building a better world.

“Powered by idealism, I threw myself into voluntary work, protested against racism and studied the great philosophies.

“Many thinkers reinforced my beliefs. There seemed obvious answers to solving the world’s problems. My ideals kept me going into my early twenties.”

What did you believe in during the years of your first simplicity? What were your dreams? What were your ideals?

If you wish, try completing the following exercise. This invites you to describe what you believed in during the years of your first simplicity.

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Then comes complexity. People go to work, enter university and graduate into the professions. They become experts, speak in strange languages and write in long sentences.

They join big companies and get lost in matrix organisations. They get married, incur debts, suffer setbacks, make compromises and bury their dreams.

They say: “Life is not that simple.”

Not everybody dives into complexity, but it can be tempting. For example, an older staff member gave me a tough message soon after I started working in a therapeutic community.

I wrote a detailed report that was full of analysis about one of the patients. Showing it to the staff member, I expected him to compliment me on the report. His response was:

“Your intention is good, but I can’t understand your message. You seem to have swallowed a psychiatric dictionary.

“It is vital to go deep. But write your recommendations in words that people can understand.

“We are human beings who are trying to help other human beings.”

Different people experience different wake up calls. Those who are faced by life threatening illnesses, for example, quickly reassess their priorities. They rise above the daily habits and focus on what is really important in life.

Have you experienced such years of complexity? If so, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to describe the specific things that happened during the years of complexity.

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Second Simplicity

The second simplicity is a profound simplicity. A person may return to their original philosophy, but now experience brings wisdom.

The pains and pleasures of life bring an extra timbre to their voice. Speaking from the depths of their being, their words resonate more deeply.

They are real, rather than in role. Making sense of their experience, they make complicated things simple.

Embracing a sense of humility yet urgency, they share lessons from the second simplicity. They have wisdom in their bones. They pass on what they have learned in life.

You will, of course, do this in your own way. If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme.

This invites you to describe the specific things you believe in – or think you will believe in – during the years of your second simplicity.

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