A Simple Life Isn’t About Reducing the Amount of ‘Stuff’

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The Difference Between Simplicity and Complexity…

For some reason this week, my mind has gone to simplicity and complexity — the feeling of having nothing that I need to do and yet doing the things I want to, no matter how seemingly complex.

In life and work we think that complexity is about our circumstances — how much stuff we have, how many people or projects we manage.

We believe that, if we control things or people, if we reduce our stuff and keep everything in its place, we’ll be more comfortable with that complexity: that creating simplicity on the outside can create a feeling of simplicity and calm on the inside.

In work, there’s talk of being able to ‘manage change’, of being agile — words that imply some kind of control of or response to what’s out there, that being on top of circumstances is a first step to being able to manage ourselves and others.

In the personal development space, we’re seeing a trend towards minimalism — the premise being that the world is more complex now than ever, and the less ‘stuff’ we have around us, the less we have to think about, the clearer our minds will be, and therefore the happier and more peaceful our lives.

And yes, there does seem to be a correlation between having peace of mind, and being able to ‘manage’ everything life throws at us.

But which way does the causality run? 

Does Simplicity Make Us Feel Better? 

I love the idea of keeping things simple, it definitely seems as if it’s the way to create peace of mind.

And yet…

…I look at what’s actually going on in my life and somehow my reality contrasts sharply with this ‘ideal’.

At home, I thought I was downsizing, making my physical surroundings small and modest, to give me more choices and ‘freedom’ outside. Turns out I’m moving towards something bigger, older, and more demanding of my attention than where I currently live.

In business, where I thought I had a clean, straightforward way of working, it turns out I’m creating projects that involve managing others, with layers of relationships with individuals and organisations I never imagined I would have.

And yet, rather than any feeling of complexity in either domain, life feels easy, it feels slow (mostly!) and it feels unpressured. I don’t take on responsibility for things that are not mine, and I don’t experience change or unforeseen events as problematic or overwhelming.

Well, mostly…

…we’re all human sometimes ;-)

Why is this?

Why is it that going against the grain of what we’re told will help us create simplicity, is the way to find a feeling of an effortless life, well lived?

Maybe There’s Something Else Going On… 

We’re moving and from time to time my husband panics about how much there is to pack,

We have so much stuff!

he cries.

It looks to him as if it’s the ‘stuff’ that is causing him to feel the way he does, and that we need to do something immediately to either reduce, or manage the ‘stuff’ so that he can feel better.

Mostly I ignore him. I know that it isn’t the ‘stuff’ that is causing his momentary anxiety and that responding to the feeling is likely to reinforce his misunderstanding.

It isn’t about the ‘stuff’.

There I said it! No matter how much it looks as if it’s about the stuff, but what’s happening is that, from time to time, he thinks about the amount of stuff we have and he panics. It’s the thinking that creates the state of mind of panic, not the actual amount of stuff.

In fact, we don’t actually have all that much stuff!

And I know it will get packed when it gets packed, and sorted when it gets sorted.

It’s Like Falling Off a Bike 

We were out with the dog earlier this week and we saw a small boy fall off his bike. The boy’s immediate reaction was to turn around and look for his parents.

His mum had seen the fall, and she smiled.

And then ignored him.

She wasn’t being a bad parent, she could see that he was OK, she was simply teaching him not to make a fuss when he wasn’t really injured.

The boy picked himself up and rode off. You could almost read his mind as the thought of

Oh well, I must be OK then,

flashed through his brain and any pain or desire to cry disintegrated in an instant.

You see, his reaction — to cry or not to cry — didn’t come from the fall, it came from the thought that he might be in pain.

It’s an obvious example that any parent (or pet owner!) knows to do.

We want to show our children their innate resilience, so we make a judgement about the severity of the fall and our reaction is an example to the child.

We might not think of it like this, but we’re teaching them which thoughts to pay attention to, and which to ignore and allow to pass on by. By ignoring the idea of pain, the child can get back on the bike and ride on without making, or feeling the need to make a fuss.

In this example we’d see it as an over-reaction to take the bike away and never allow the child to experience risk. We know that the degree of pain is in the child’s head, that some risk is inevitable, and that being scared of falling is more likely to lead to an injury.

And we also know that it’s better to encourage the child to develop an open and free mind to enjoy life, and be ready to respond to dangers as they arise (of course, while exercising reasonable caution.)

Taking the Bike Away 

In life, though, we seem to have lost sight of the wisdom of developing this freedom of mind. We operate with the professional and personal equivalent of taking away our bike to minimise any current and future pain.

We think that controlling our circumstances is the way to manage our emotions.

We get so wrapped up with the notion that we must remove complexity if we want to experience peace of mind that we forget that complexity is a consequence of what we’re thinking — not of what’s out there.

In the same way the boy can experience pain, or not, from a minor fall from his bike. Or that my husband can one day panic about the amount of ‘stuff’ we have and the next be totally at peace with how our move is progressing, so each of us is operating from our state of mind, not the state of our circumstances.

Right now, I find myself creating complexity in a work project, and yet I’m experiencing it as joyful, easy and effortless.

And the same is true for you: the feeling of self-assurance and certainty that you think will result from managing what’s in front of you, is available to you no matter how complex your personal or professional circumstances.

And it’s the feeling that gives you the authority and the confidence to manage those circumstances to the best of your ability — just as the boy on the bike will have more enjoyment from his cycling adventures the freer his mind becomes. 

The Mind is a Powerful Weapon 

This freedom of mind is the key for you to unlock an easier way to live and higher performance at work.

From that state of mind, it might occur to you to create a simple life, with minimalism on the outside.

Or it might not.

Like me, you might pursue projects that require ways of interacting with people that might, at one stage of your career, have been considered ‘high risk’ or ‘high stakes’. And that, now, simply appear as the obvious next step in creating what you want.

Or you might create more simplicity — sell your stuff, create a succession plan at work, slow down.

Whatever emerges in your life, know this: complexity isn’t about the outside world. ‘Change management’ isn’t something you ‘do’, it’s an effect of knowing who you are.

How you show up to your circumstances dictates how they turn out.

Like that child falling off a bike, you can cry, and believe it’s because of the bike, or you can shrug, get back on, and continue to enjoy the ride that life’s taking you on.

From that perspective complexity is irrelevant; love of life is the only thing that matters.

With love,

Cathy

P.S., as an addendum to this post, we moved a couple of months after I first wrote it and, surprise, surprise, all our stuff moved with us! Some of it even got sorted and sold or donated or thrown away… Who knew ;-)