It is often said that creativity manifests from chaos. I’d imagine that most creative individuals wouldn’t disagree. That chaos, whether it involves a flurry of contradictory emotions, the unrestrained proliferation of ideas, or that bizarre clashing of insight—a knowledge that far exceeds one’s years—with the playfulness of a small child, requires balance. I’ve written previously on some strategies for dealing with creativity’s messier moments, but I have yet to discuss the importance of simplicity. That is because I view simplicity as occupying a category all its own. I see actions that are centered on releasing excess as comprising more of a spiritual endeavor and a personal art, than as exercises in mere utility.
Acts of simplicity calm the tempest of a fertile mind.
Of course, simplicity isn’t nearly as sumptuous as unbridled creation. Paring down doesn’t immerse us the same way. Or intoxicate us in the same way. It isn’t nearly as vibrant or exciting. But it is necessary, in work and in life. Sometimes, whether we like to admit it or not, the things we make should be just as transient as the chaotic states from which they were born. (Admitting that alone is freeing.) Simplicity, I believe, gives rise to an understanding of the mechanics of self-mastery. Or, at least, I like to think of it as one of the first steps toward such an understanding. It is also difficult to be grateful, to be focused, to maintain a balanced perspective, and even to be gentle if we haven’t practiced the art of living simply.
Acts of simplicity are cathartic.
Whenever my closet shelves appear too full (shoe rack notwithstanding, except on the rarest of occasions), or my desk stacked too high with the remnants of creative and business-related projects, present and past, I feel compelled to shed the excess. I am hit with a feeling of dis-ease whenever I sense I have accumulated too much of anything, where “too much” is a point that falls well outside the boundaries of my comfort zone. Accordingly, I find that acts of simplicity have helped me, over time, to hone the internal barometer that gauges “what’s good for me and what’s not.” In excess, there is often discontent. It is when we are conditioned to excess that we tend to stop noticing its deleterious effects. Simplifying is, in some ways, akin to hitting a “reset” button.
There is an inevitable feeling of release when we shed that which encumbers us. Embrace the release because the cycle of accumulation begins anew almost immediately. That’s part of life. That’s also what makes simplifying such a valuable practice and the development of self-control a lifelong process.
Simplicity keeps us grounded.
In creative work, as in life, simplicity allows us to prioritize and to re-orient our perspectives whenever we get distracted by the pace of everyday living. Power resides in the ability to seize control over our own work, to decide when to say, “yes,” and when to say, “no,” to command what stays and what goes. When we can look at our creative projects with honest eyes and determine which components can and should be tossed out, we are reminded not to become too attached to what we make, no matter how laborious the process of making may have been. We also become better judges of the merit of our own work. Ideally, this practice is instilled in us early on, although it doesn’t always happen that way.
In life, the same is true. It is difficult to know the value of what we have when we have too much, or when we don’t understand what it means to let something go. Often, we need to release that which is worn out or unnecessary in order to appreciate what remains.
Simplicity engenders possibility.
As a matter of mental and spiritual practice, I find it indispensable to divest myself of the largest number of superfluous and outdated possessions during times of major life transition. Changing residences is, of course, an obvious one. At the end of a relationship or a career, I think it can be quite helpful to say goodbye to the things that represent who we used to be. That way, we can focus on who we are in the present and who we’re in the process of becoming–on the possibilities that lay before us–rather than allowing our energies to be bogged down by the past.
From the perspective of creativity, simplicity allows us to see the path to innovation more clearly. And let us not forget that style, sophistication, and much beauty simply wouldn’t exist without diligent and controlled acts of subtraction, shaping, shortening, and pruning. Sometimes, you need to strip away the thorns in order to possess a rose.