The Far Side of Complexity

Originally Published: 2/21/17

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” ~ Frederic Chopin

What is true mastery?  And how does one achieve it?  It is safe to say these questions have been asked and pursued for as long as competitive sports or competitive careers have been around.  Countless books have been written on this topic, each giving their own take on what this "formula" might be.  Now it's my turn.

Our good friend Merriam-Webster defines mastery as: "possession or display of great skill or technique", and as "skill or knowledge that makes one master of a subject".  Oxford defines it as: "comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular subject or activity".  So, you get the idea.  Superior comprehension, skill, or knowledge of a given subject, task, or activity - easier said than done. 

Now-a-days "get rich quick" schemes are all the rave.  They have been rebranded in many different forms, including the infamous "fill-in-the-blank"-hackers (life-hackers, bio-hackers, growth-hackers, etc. etc.).  If anyone is a big fan of these trends, it would be me.  I always love a good shortcut to success and if it works, what's the harm? 

On their face, these mindsets can be a good thing.  But, success does NOT equal mastery

Why am I writing a blog post on mastery? 

Recently I heard someone talk about "the far side of complexity".  This caused me to pause and think.  What is it that you find on the far side of complexity? 

Usually an idea, task, or skill is either one of two options - simple or complex (or somewhere between those two opposing poles).  So if simplicity is what creates the foundation for complexity, can be it also be found on the far side of that same complexity? 

Let's see what several renowned thinkers have found...

“Out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge.” - Winston Churchill

“Knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification.” - Martin H. Fischer

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” – Steve Jobs

It makes sense, simplicity can be found on both sides of complexity!  But the problem is in getting there (because who doesn't want to "move mountains"?).

So here's the formula:

Simplicity-->  Complexity-->  Simplicity

There is so much to this concept, which makes it hard to distill it all down into a digestible form (queue my lack of mastery regarding "mastery").  And that is an important sign of mastery - can you understand a concept fully enough to hold an intelligent conversation with other experts in that field as well as explain it in an understandable way to a six-year-old? 

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” ~ Albert Einstein

If anyone knew about mastery, it would be old Al'. 

Time to make it personal...

In my quest to establish myself as a successful and sustainable professional golfer, I have taken a deep dive into human performance, since that's ultimately my job.  In struggling with several injuries this past year, side-lining me for over eight months of the season, I had ample time to work on personal learning and skill-acquisition.  While I haven't fully arrived (I would argue we never fully do), I have started to see the light of simplicity at the end of the complexity tunnel.

Defining terms is always important, so I will try to use illustrations from the game of golf to define each phase of this process.  (Golf is merely one of the endless sports, careers, or pursuits that follow this same path - take Einstein for an example)

Step 1 - Simplicity

This is the phase where you are learning the fundamentals of the game itself.  From laying the foundation for motor-memory within the body, to experiencing all the different facets of each skill and component, to learning about the different tools (clubs) and situations when to use them - this is when a complete novice starts to feel more like a regular member of the golf community.  The focus in this phase is largely repetition-based (the more reps the better), to train the body in what it needs to do, and gain the level of skill needed to be a consistent competitor in your friendly weekend games.

Step 2 - Complexity

As your experience grows, you will start to recognize which areas of your toolkit (skill-set) are stronger or weaker than others.  You will begin to ingrain, both mentally and physically, the over-arching principles for success that is widely preached and accepted by the golf community at large (par is a good score, play to your strengths, be patient, drive for show putt for dough, etc.).  Building good habits is a must, and as you gain confidence you start to apply pressure through competition and by various drills during practice.  This pressure refines your understanding of where you skill really lies, enabling you to further refine your practice habits.  Being taught by a coach is also very important in this phase, as you continue adding layers and layers of knowledge to your base foundation. 

This step is by far the largest in terms of scope, and the longest in duration of the three.  In any sport (especially in golf), there can be an endless depth to its facets and complexities.  The more you learn, the more you realize you don't know.  In my own progression, this has rang true with each "step" up the ladder (from junior golf to high school, high school to collegiate, and collegiate to professional). 

Step 3 - Simplicity

This phase is greatly desired but rarely acquired.  As Steve Jobs stated above, it takes a lot of knowledge and skill to cut through the crap and distill the gold of simplicity in the midst of an informational tsunami.  Characteristics of this stage include - the establishment of mental models (a framework) to operate off of, a deep familiarity with personal mannerisms and your internal wiring, the ability and discipline to not be confused or overcome by complexities, confidence without ignorance (super hard to accomplish), keen discernment of the core principles underlying varied concepts, as well as an awareness/focus on remedying root causes and not just the symptoms. 

These by no means are extensive and comprehensive lists, but they should be helpful in understanding what each phase may contain. 

Okay now to make it personal, and this time I really mean it.

With taking this deep dive into deep practice: a term to describe the slow, hyper-focused, and methodical form of practice that produces the most benefit but feels the least profitable (a good book to read on this subject is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle), I have started to see what this third phase of simplicity really feels like. 

Because of this, I have begun developing and establishing my own systems (mental models) for each facet of my game.  My coaches have talked about this idea for the past several years, but it is just now hitting home in actualization.  Within my golf game (and golf swing) there are things I do really well, and things that aren't as "textbook".  It is essential to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses (usually happens in step 2), and especially your own default tendencies when you feel pressure the most (happens in step 3). 

The goal of developing your "system" within each component of the game (short game, putting, ball-striking, driving, etc.) is to have foundational ques that you can rely on when your swing feels off or you don't have any rhythm. 

For me, one common theme throughout all of my game is the tendency to become quick when I feel the pressure mounting.  This is caused from the body becoming more tight as well as a lack of trust in my own capabilities within that moment.  While one option would be to work towards placing my focus on being loose and maintaining a suppleness, the more effective approach I've found is to place my focus on patience within the swing or stroke.  If I am able to be patient, allowing my body to execute the shot it knows how, then I will be able to successfully counteract the nervous tendency of quick swings. 

This is just one example of a myriad of nuanced tendencies and their repercussions within my own game of golf.  Which leads you to believe that it is an infinitely complex game, and you would be right! 

So that is where the far side of complexity lies: in amassing an extensive database from the compounding layers of complexity, but retaining clarity amidst the plethora of information, all while understanding the deepest levels of how you operate (with pressure and without pressure) so that you can curate a winning formula no matter what challenge you may face. 

Whew.  That was a long journey to finally define what's on that far side, but we've really only scratched the surface... and I think that's the point.  I'm not sure you can define what this type of simplicity really means.  Just like you can't understand the emotions of failure or loss without first experiencing it for yourself.  The same rings true for the unassuming yet endlessly sought after treasure of simplicity... on the far side of complexity.