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Don’t Be Afraid to Be Simple

Advice on life, art, and creativity

Paul Cantor
Mar 9, 2018 · 3 min read
Illustration: Paul Campbell/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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Something I realized recently, or maybe realized years ago, but only began practicing recently, is that the average human mind does not process complexity all that well. I mean, I’m certain people can handle complex thoughts, that they hear more than just one or two notes on the piano, but seven notes, nine notes, minor thirteenths — that’s asking a lot.

You see this in the art people consume, houses they live in, food they eat, cars they drive, clothes they wear. Really, you see it in everything, if you’re looking close enough. There are proven formulas and structures, and maybe within those formulas and structures there are slight deviations, but for the most part people want the same things other people have, the same things they’ve already got.

So you, the creator, you get the framework, and just color it in a bit. How you arrange the colors is all you, but the frame is what people understand.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t sophistication inside the frame — you could spend a lot of time making the thing that goes inside the frame — and that’s the trick, making sophisticated things simple. It’s not a question of building things up, but a question of: How do I flatten this, make it so everyone can get it?

If you can pull this off, I think you can be very successful, maybe even rich, or whatever your definition of success is.

But too often, particularly when we’re young and inexperienced, we’re complex for the sake of complexity. We see the frame and think: Fuck the frame! We want to build outside the frame, or better yet, build a completely new frame. And sometimes that works, but only very rarely. It’s like pop music, you know; 10-minute jazz instrumentals aren’t getting played on Top 40 radio. For seventy years, it’s been the same thing:

Verse | B-section |Chorus

Verse | B-section |Chorus

Bridge | B-Section | Chorus

Maybe you get some variation from time to time, but more or less those are the rules for a pop song. Could they change, could they be different or better? Of course. But the human mind isn’t set up to really process that differentiation. It expects what it gets. It expects the frame, the formula.

My point — and I have one — is that as much effort you spend making things complex and interesting, you should spend making them simple and arguably uninteresting. If you do a good job, I think the work, or whatever it is you’re doing, will, in the end, still be as interesting as you wanted it to be. Only now it’ll be more accessible, and now people won’t turn away because it appears too complex from the get-go.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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