The Paradox of Hidden Simplicity

If you look around you, if you think about the world surrounding us simplicity is where everything starts and ultimately where the main goal for most is: this is described very well in John Maeda’s “The Laws of Simplicity” that I encourage you all to read.

We have today devices that somehow make our life simpler: think for example at a GPS satellite navigator.  At first sight a small box with a colour screen where you tap your destination in and it guides you precisely where to go.  That is amazing and it could have been science fiction until a few decades ago.  It is now an easily accessible toy, affordable to most in our so called civilized world.  If we look at other technologies we have similar examples everywhere.  Any computer using a standard GUI (Graphic User Interface, like MS-Windows , Mac-OS or KDI on Linux) allows a user to do very complex task by simply moving, dragging objects and so on, such as playing Texas Hold Em Poker Online or making intricate graphs: these GUI allowed masses of users to approach computers when, until 20 years or so ago they were domain of a much fewer experts.

In both the above cases the apparent simplicity gained have required thousands of man year of work and development to achieve what looks like a simple operation.  Think about the network of satellites that have been put in orbit to allow precise tracking of object on the Earth’s surface or the hundreds of Mb of data and programs necessary to run a basic computer today while we were talking in Kb twenty years ago.

Now I know some of you are asking: “what is this all about? This is a martial arts blog!”.  Well yes I know and I was initially inspired about this issue while I was watching, some time ago, a short video showing a master performing a form of Tai Chi Chuan.  It looked all so smooth, simple and effortless until I tried just to replicate a few moves when I felt clumsy and useless.  Similar feeling was inspired when I began learning tried Wing Chun years ago.  The basic concepts of all applications are aiming at simplicity: when I tried to apply the correct alignment of limbs and body it seemed everything but simple.  This suggested me this idea of the hidden simplicity and its paradox.

Things tend to evolve to from a rough, simple and primitive beginning into more and more complex entities: this applies to life forms and much as to machinery created by man and, topic of this blog, martial arts.

Martial arts all have a simple moves, the so called basics.  These are essential to learn how to properly stand, move around, apply the correct force to techniques and how to counter them when subject to an attack.  In most cases evolution, preference of the inventor and requirements of facing other styles have many pushed martial arts toward different levels of complexity. Often evolution can be dictated by the need of training the whole body to work as an efficient weapon and being able to face a broad variety of situations.

Once you achieve true mastery of one style you start realizing that at the real top simplicity is essential but what looks simple when performed by a real expert it is in reality the evolution and improvement of techniques that just at their perfection  look simple.  That’s what I call the Paradox of Hidden Simplicity.

Bruce Lee used to say that the very essence of Jeet Kune Do is not to add to the style but to throw away everything that is not essential and simplify as much as possible your personal set of techniques.  Simple is easy and more immediate.  More immediate will require less or no thinking (and therefore time wasting) to be used.  It will simplywork and apply to a number of situations.  I agree with good part of it but I still believe that to achieve simplicity you need first to train complexity and feel at ease with it and then work toward your own simplicity.

I see two flaws in the absolute application of that principle therefore I state that:

  • Training “controlled” complexity will create more brain connection and help to be at ease with a much broader number of situations that otherwise might be overwhelming.  This practice will also help training the whole body and muscle groups, keeping them all fit and ready for action.
  • Simple might mean “train just a single punch” and make it work perfectly: this is proven to be not ideal because you might get in a situation when it cannot work, for example if you injure your hand or arm.

So my conclusion is to aim at simplicity as much as you can but incorporate complexity in your routine: the aim is simplicity, achieved from simplifying complexity, once you have fully achieved it.

At that point you will also be in a situation where what you do looks simple but novices will find it difficult and complicated, confirming the paradox of hidden simplicity.

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About Massimo Gaetani

Massimo is a professional coach certified by Results Coaching System. He works primarily with business owners and senior managers in organizations to boost their performance, set powerful goals about their business and careers and he supports them on their path to ensure successful outcomes. His clients to date are professionals, entrepreneurs, C role individuals and senior managers spanning a broad range of industries. Massimo supports his coaching qualifications with 15 years of management experience in small to large enterprises working in various senior positions in sales, marketing, IT and business consultancy. Find out more at
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