Beware Those Offering Simple Solutions to Complex Problems

Jeff Fox
Jeff Fox
Dec 4, 2020 · 8 min read

Complex problems can be caused all too simply but there are no shortcuts to unravelling them.

We are a paradoxical species in many ways but perhaps one of the more perplexing is the ever present war within ourselves between the desire for quick, easy, and simple solutions to our problems and our compulsion for excessively complicating the problems facing us. The first is driven by the natural impulse towards comfort and pleasure. The second is most often born of our quest for a sense of personal importance. Complicating a problem can be done quite simply and easily, solving it cannot.

There is nothing evil or weak or lazy about preferring comfort and ease to discomfort and difficulty. We harvest the low hanging fruit first, we take the route with the least twists and steep cliffs, we prefer spending time with people we find easy to get along with, we happily greet information which affirms our existing thoughts and feelings. Seeking and preferring comfort and pleasure is a natural impulse and is the prime motivation behind virtually all technological development. Preferring things be simple, however, does not mean it is always an option.

There are always going to be times in our lives when the solutions to our problems are neither simple nor easy. Some solutions will certainly be less complicated than others but ‘less complicated’ is still ‘complicated’. This holds true at the personal level and exponentially more so at the societal level, because societal problems are not a singular problem but rather a collected multitude of personal ones.

When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple with all these simple solutions, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. And your solutions are way too oversimplified, and they don’t work.

Steve Jobs

Wanting discomfort or pain to stop is a natural impulse, the more intense the pain the greater our desire for it to stop. This is why torture proves so impactful. Cause enough pain and you will get a response. The problem is that response has nothing to do with any objective truth. It is aimed entirely at placating the torturer so they will stop inflicting pain and thus tailored to be the answer the torturer wants to hear regardless of whether or not it contains any actual truth whatsoever.

Our compulsion for complicating the problems facing us turns us into our own torturers. We become the ones intensifying our own pain and when it reaches too great an extreme we snap to the other half of the paradox and crave the simplest and easiest solution, something which fits neatly and comfortably with our already existing thoughts and feelings to free us from any further strain or discomfort.

There is always an easy solution to every problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.

H.L. Mencken

It is important to note that complicating a problem does not necessarily mean making it more complex. Sometimes that is exactly what it means, we frequently add countless extra and needless steps to a process either to add more elements we find enjoyable or to avoid ones we dislike.

When riding our bikes from point A to point B we will go several blocks out of our way, take winding paths through a park, and even cross a toll bridge if it means we can avoid that one huge steep hill in the middle of the shorter more direct route. We add extra ‘organizational’ or presentation elements to a project so we can spend more time playing with charts and diagrams instead of doing the less exciting research the project demands.

But we also often ‘complicate’ our problems by rendering them more and more difficult to solve to the point of seeming unsolvable. We discount and disqualify any solutions which feel like they entail any further discomfort or difficulty. We cast ourselves as the victim facing overwhelming forces both to excuse our failures and to place all blame for them on the great and mysterious ‘them’.

We’re never going to get a promotion because the bosses we’ve worked for refuse to acknowledge our singular brilliance, probably because they feel threatened by us, and instead spend all their time insisting on unreasonable things like consistent work ethic and productivity. We conjured our ideal image of a significant other, dream house, dream job, wedding day, or any other number of images when we were young and it is up to the world around us to fit perfectly into them.

Instead of acknowledging that the true answers to our problems or to achieving our desires involve difficult and uncomfortable work on our parts we deflect the blame out onto the world around us along with a prescription, and expectation, of a singular solution tailor made for our comfort. This is also the fuel which powers societal addiction to conspiracy theories, that and fear of the unknown.

Beware of people preaching simple solutions to complex problems. If the answer was easy someone more intelligent would have thought of it a long time ago — complex problems invariably require complex and difficult solutions.

Steve Herbert

If we allow ourselves to get backed into a corner desperate for seemingly simple and painless solutions we open ourselves up to being manipulated and exploited by anyone appearing to offer them. One of the most tried and true tactics of trying to establish tyrannical or totalitarian power is to exacerbate an existing problem, or to manufacture a problem then exacerbate it, to the point of making it seem virtually impossible to overcome then claim to be the only one capable of a quick, simple, and painless solution.

Modern day politics epitomizes this approach. Look at how terrible and frightening this problem is and look how voting for my opponent will make it so much worse. Vote for me and you won’t have to feel any more fear or pain because I alone know the silver bullet solution which will take full effect the moment I am elected.

It is a vulnerability we all possess when struggling with crisis and intense conflict. Not only does it leave us open to manipulation but the stoking of fear and social division this sort of manipulation employs in turn generates a whole new set of problems which are even more difficult to resolve because the necessary components are now angrily opposed to one another.

Beware of simple solutions. They often lead to complex problems.

Bobby Hoffman

Faced with a massive tangled knot of rope swinging a heavy sharp axe at it might seem like a swift and decisive solution. Depending on your definition of the problem it might even successfully achieve it to a degree. If all you are seeking is for the knot to no longer exist the axe will do the job. But if you are seeking to untangle the knot so as to regain use of an untangled length of rope the knot may be gone but the end result is gone as well since what you end up with after the axe falls is several severed chunks of rope.

The primary reason we seek to untangle a knot is so we can use the untangled rope for some other purpose. Chopping with the axe may vanquish the knot offering us a brief rush of vengeance for our frustrations but whatever task we needed the rope for has become far more difficult now that all we are left with is divided fragments.

Television screens saturated with commercials promote the utopian and childish idea that all problems have fast, simple, and technological solutions. You much banish from your mind the naïve but common place notion that commercials are about products. They are about products in the same sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of wales.

Neil Postman

Our desire for simple, easy, and comfortable solutions may be a natural impulse but it has been exorbitantly inflated and capitalized upon both by those seeking to profit commercially and those seeking greater positions of personal power. It is not the beer, car, house, clothing, or product which potentially holds us in thrall but rather it is the notion that the single simple action of buying them will make our complex problems instantly fade away.

Having said all that our desire for simplicity can function as a tool we can use ourselves for our own betterment and benefit. Even the most complicated solutions can at their conceptual core be very simple, and in truth they almost always are. It is the process and components needed to achieve that core goal which are complex but our desire for simplicity can prove useful at this level as well since complex systems are merely collections of smaller more simple components.

If I want the promotion I have to make myself a more valuable employee, simple enough at the conceptual level. Improving that value might involve significantly shifting my recreational habits, getting additional training or experience, or even just eating more healthily and getting the proper amount of sleep each night. Clarifying and simplifying the central goal helps focus my efforts and enables me to feel hope for a possible outcome. Separating out each component lets me tackle them one at a time, allowing my desire for simplicity to aide me at that level as well.

Solutions to tough problems should be made as simple as possible — and no simpler.

Albert Einstein

The one key factor I have to keep in mind is that the overall solution will take time and effort and some discomfort. That is the simple and unavoidable truth. There is however nothing saying I have to tackle every aspect, angle, and component all at the same time. My desperation might be trying to convince me of that but it never has as good a case as it always seems to think it has. The overall complex answer can be found by taking it one simple piece at a time.

Take an antique clock apart and each individual piece is relatively simple and small. Try to put it back together with six or seven of the pieces left out and the desired function will fail. Successful solutions require the components they require. Sometimes those components and requirements can be simplified or made more efficient but only if we first sort them all out and fully understand how they function together.

Some of the greatest stresses in our lives are caused when the stakes of our situation make the consequences of failure, or even simply a delay in the process, so severe we do not have the luxury of a calm and patient approach. At any given point in our lives we are always doing the best we can with what we have available to us but a deep breath, a count to ten, and a brief mental step back to remind ourselves of our core goals and to ensure our sense of desperation is not being stoked by others for their personal gain can have an enormous impact on how we perceive what we have to work with.

Dropping the axe on the knot may offer release in the moment but it will always leave us with a collection of severed chunks. No amount of apology or indicting of the axe manufacturing industry or trying to gaslight those around us into believing the full rope never actually existed will change that.

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Jeff Fox

Written by

Jeff Fox

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Jeff Fox

Written by

Jeff Fox

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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