A question I have been asked is “So where does all this simplification end?” It is easy to give a very flippant response saying that simplification never ends because maintenance of simplicity involves a lot of work, but this is actually a very good question. Much of making things simple involves subtracting things out of our lives – decluttering, challenging the importance of our possessions, reducing electronic information, saying “no” to unimportant things etc etc. So where do you stop?
Minimalism is a term that, for some, has come to mean living a life devoid of possessions. The word may make you think of a sparse white apartment with the odd piece of white furniture, plain walls, and no decoration. This isn’t a destination that most of us would like to get to. Most people want to live in a cosy home not an empty museum right? For some, a simple life may mean sitting under a tree for 40 years contemplating the meaning of life, but again is this for you? I’m not here to judge – maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, we are all different! What I am getting at is that we each have our own idea about what perfection looks like, and that paradigm is created by our personal values.
Values are the things we hold dear. They are the standards that we live by, the things we want to be known for.
Many times, I’ve sat at work in a room with new colleagues when the boss has decided that we are going to sit down and decide what our team values are going to be. Everyone calls some out, somebody writes them on a flipchart, and they are then trimmed down into a small manageable set which we plaster all over our walls, and put into our literature. The thing I have noticed with this process though, is that when you do this exercise with a group of people, you always end up with a very similar list. Honesty, Integrity, Respect, Teamwork – the usual suspects are always there. Conversely, when I work with an individual to help them to identify their personal values, everyone is different. VERY different. Of course you get some common ones that reappear in different people, but when you look at a list of a person’s highest values, you get a real window into who they are. You can identify what motivates them, how they define success, what they will and will not do, how they have fun. Just as you create a rainbow of colour when you shine white light through a prism, you create a spectrum of diversity when you take a person out of a team and look at their values through an individual lens.
So what has all of this got to do with simplification? Well, my assertion here is that your values are the places where you stop chipping away with the simplification chisel. The point of simplification is to discard the things in your life that you do not value, and reveal those things that you do. Reveal, enhance, improve things that you value, and minimise, eliminate or avoid those that you don’t. I refer back to the classic quote by the great artist Michelangelo:
“David was already in the marble, I just chipped away the excess”
By knowing what you value, you can identify the statue within the marble. By simplifying your life, you are chipping away the non-value so that you can reveal and enhance the value. Most of us can start chipping away at the outer layers without too much problem – we all have clutter, junk, unnecessary commitments, complex processes that we know are excess and can be worked on. In fact my 100 Daily Acts of Simplification were mostly in this space. As these outer layers are chipped away though, you need to know what you value in order to know when to stop chipping. Another quote to return to is the Einstein classic:
“Things should be as simple as possible, but not simpler”
You need to stop chipping where one more strike of the chisel would render the statue imperfect. That happens when you chip into one of your values just as if Michelangelo had chopped off David’s nose! Effective simplification means knowing what these values are. Do you know yours?
There are many exercises that you can do to help you to identify your values, and a quick search on Google will reveal lots of them. If you haven’t done this sort of thing before then I would recommend spending some time on these. You can start now though. Once you are done reading this piece, look around you visually and also explore your mind for those things without which you wouldn’t be you. It might be a relationship, a hobby, or your exercise regime. It could even be a possession! Possessions aren’t evil but most are not things that we hold truly sacred. Be honest with yourself too. I am quite happy to admit that as well as my more selfless and philanthropic values, I also value having a nice car and a nice home, and am well aware that my definition of “nice” partly includes what other people think of them! I like to think that I have my ego on a leash, but it is still there and it likes nice things!
The key here is to be honest with yourself and put the time in to know what the perfect you looks like. Success guru Brian Tracy has some simple questions that you can ask yourself to point towards your key values:
What would you do if you were to win a million dollars tomorrow?
What would you do if you were told that you’d have six months to live?
What would you attempt if you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you could not fail?
What are you doing when you feel the most alive?
Having a list of values that you review regularly is a great way to check that your life is on course and that you are being the best you that you can be. It also helps you see the excess, clutter, and complexity to be targeted with your simplifying chisel.
Reveal and leverage your values, remove the rest. For me, that’s what elegance looks like. That’s what simple looks like.