I don’t remember quite where I first encountered the phrase “simple but not easy,” but after a recent encounter it’s been stuck in my head. I believe deeply that all the important insights in life are simple. Really really really stupidly simple.
The reason the phrase is stuck in my head, though, is that there’s an often related, unstated, and wrong corollary that people think follows from the idea that everything is simple: that everything is easy. Things are not easy. At least not for many people in many situations much of the time.
How does one develop a reputation as a kind, generous, and admirable person? Well, by being a kind, generous, and admirable person. (Duh! It is that simple.) But how do I act kindly, generously, and admirably? You perform actions that feel kind, generous, and admirable. (Duh! It is that simple.) What about when I don’t really feel like it and I really just want to say the mean thought that’s on my mind because I’m tired and a bit fed up? Even then, especially then. I didn’t say it was easy.
We know what it means to be nice. We know what it means to have courage. We know what it means to forgive. We know what it is to help. We know what it is be present. We know what it is to love. When we don’t do those things, in most cases, it’s not because we don’t know how we would do them. Rather, we fail to demonstrate qualities we admire because they either aren’t easy for us to see, or they aren’t the easy or expected thing for us to do.
To really be the kind of person who is thought of as kind is an exceptionally hard task. It’s hard not because it’s not obvious how to be kind. It’s hard because it’s not easy to be kind to a lot of people a lot of the time. People have a habit of doing things we don’t like. And the easy reaction when someone does something we don’t like is to be mean. To meet what we perceive as their unkindness with our own. It is a hard thing to be kind when every impulse you have is to lash back. But it really is simple.
The core insight of “simple but not easy” is this: while we frequently want to blame our deficiencies on a lack of knowledge — thinking that we “don’t know how” to do the right thing — it’s typically actually caused by a lack of will. We tend to — for comfort, for simplicity, for the conservation of energy — do what is easy. But if we want to be proud of our actions, we should try to do what is simple and obviously going to make us feel admirable and proud. Not just when it is easy, but when it is hard. Especially when it is hard.
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