There is a constant tug of war in our lives going on between finding simplicity and all of the complexity that is thrown at us. From our jobs to the endless amount of information that is thrown at us each day, it can be hard to focus in on what is truly important.

The moment that we think we have everything organized and figured out, a change comes our way and we are forced to have to juggle one more ball with the many others we struggle to keep in the air. This “change” (aka an extra ball to juggle) can come in the form of unexpected and sad life events where you are thrown a load of new responsibility to opportunities to new career or exciting adventure.

The desire to have a simple and targeted direction is a constant goal of mine. I find myself going through times where I take on new and exciting opportunities and others where I look to “cut the fat” and only focus on what is important to me at the time.

The good, the best

The question naturally arises, which is better; to take on more things, give back more, contribute more, accomplish more (reticent of the whole notion that busy people get stuff done), or to focus on only one thing and be the best at it (and make it your brand)? This is the classic dichotomy between focusing and doing one or a small number of things right (ala Apple) or to cast a wide net and do many things, some successful and some a failure (ala Google).

I have concluded that the answer to this question comes in two pieces. One answer is that while simplicity is a good thing, “it depends.” The other answer is that you “have to do it this way,” (referring to going through complexity to get clarity), or in other words it’s always a process.

To address the first piece, it depends on personality. I am the type that probably could not do just one thing. I would get bored out of my mind. Success takes time, patience and a bunch of steps to get there. If I was doing only one thing, then as I would wait for each step to play out I would feel like I am wasting my time being idle. Whereas with numerous things going on, I can occupy my time with another project or commitment until the other one is ready. At the same time though, doing too many things means that important parts to each project can be overlooked and nothing gets your full attention and passion- which means that everything is less successful than it could be.

The other piece involves process. It is interesting to see how those that truly find their calling or passion go down a path that involves testing out many interests and opportunities, only to focus on what rises to the top (the “top” items either being what garners the best results or what you are most passionate about). It is almost as if you have to experience all the crap and distractions to find what truly inspires you.

Narrow down and clarify

In various strategy projects for work, I find myself going through a two-side reverse funnel. I start with a simple understanding in mind then dive into endless research and background (the more complexity the topic has, the dirtier this gets).  At certain points, I think about how there can’t be a right answer since the question is too hard and there are too many details. Yet, when you push through this the answer then becomes obvious and you shift to a more focused and simpler conclusion. What really matter rises to the top and becomes clearer.

I am in the middle of that process right now. Over the last couple of years, I have become focused on a large number of activities, 10 to be exact. Besides my full time job, this includes entrepreneurial ventures, community service activities and other life commitments. Recently I hit that point where I felt there was no answer. I was doing too much and lacked focus. Most of my activities were successful but none singularly reached that top echelon of success that I strive for. I realized that it was time to narrow the funnel down more.  10 were too many.

In focusing and finding this simplicity some of the items were easy to knock off the list, I had less interest in them or the amount of time they took for the results created made getting rid of them obvious. But others were harder to get rid of. I enjoyed doing them and saw a benefit I got out of them (and with many of them I was able to help other people), but they distracted a bit.

Saying no

Not long ago I had a mentoring discussion with a family friend who has been a successful executive in various tech industries, most recently spending the last 10 years as a VP at Apple. He seemed to encapsulate the right mentality to have in saying that other tech companies would kill for some of the products that Apple left on the cutting room floor over the years. He said that Steve Jobs focused everyone on saying “No” to good to say “Yes” to the best.

While you will need to go through a process and you will deal with distractions as you do it, you will reach a place of simplicity where what you really want to do will become apparent. Remember, though, that like any process, this fight between complexity and simplicity will continue to come and go.

I am still in the process of “simplifying.” While I have a few more items to knock off the list, I find my mind better able to identify what the “best” really is. I have had to say “no” to a couple really good opportunities (which has been a bit against my nature), but I know this will help me not only better identify the “best” when it comes along. It will also help me be passionate and ready to put my whole self behind a select number of things once simplicity allows me to focus on them.

Remember, simplicity is a good thing, but it often takes going through a lot of complexity to get there. As a rule, remember to “say no to good to say yes to the best.”