Be Great at Anything By Being Great at Simplifying

March 3, 2017
skyscrapers over a bed of water

Today, Jordan Burroughs can sit elbow to elbow at the table of greats.

4x World Champion/Olympic Gold Medalist, 22 International Championships — a far cry  and an impressive resume for a man who barely received an athletic scholarship — but in a sport where techniques hold names such as “Cement Mixer” and “The Guillotine,” Jordan Burroughs has made his signature move the double-leg takedown  — the most basic move in wrestling.

The double-leg takedown is the first move every wrestler learns. It’s the first move beginners learn because it is the most effective way to take somebody down onto the mat. Of course the caveat is because everybody knows the move, everybody also knows how to stop it.

In Jordan’s case, it comes with the extra caveat that everybody knows it’s coming. Every opponent he faces knows he likes to pull down on your neck before going for the takedown, they know he utilizes a lot of fakes and misdirection to get you out of position, and they also know there are no safe spaces on the mat, Jordan can attack from anywhere.

Still, for the past six years, Jordan Burroughs has dominated and exploded through the 74 kg weight division off the back of the double-leg takedown.


To put it bluntly, by being really damn good at it.

The Complexity of Simple

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” — Leonardo da Vinci

Whenever Gordon Ramsay visits a new restaurant, one of first dishes he’ll order is the crab cake. The crab cake is a simple recipe that is simple to cook — on paper — some crab, some breading and egg, some dressing and garnishing, pressed into a cake and pan fried for a couple minutes.

However, despite its simplicity, crab cake is difficult to do well and tells you much about how the kitchen is run: from their attention to detail, the ingredients they use, the creativity of the chef, and so on.

It’s a test of fundamentals. It demands perfection.

As I progress in my craft, the more I have come to understand that fancy and complex is not always a signal of skill, especially in basketball, a sport dominated by highlights and flashy crossovers.

Even in writing, it can be easy to dazzle those not-in-the know with a myriad of  five-dollar words and bloated sentences. A closer look at those sentences, however, and you’ll find those sentences are often filled with helium.

Simplicity is the Insignia of the Master

This was never more clear to me than when I was in college taking my first advanced mathematics course. A homework problem was giving me trouble, so I attended a TA (teacher’s assistant) -headed section.

After a 40 minute explanation, I left — a little shell-shocked — with my answer. I had covered a fresh piece of notebook paper front and back.

The next day, after the homework had been collected, the professor answered questions pertaining to the homework.

As if they were reading my mind, somebody up front asks: “How do you do number 3?”

The professor pauses, reads the question out loud, and explains how to do it — all in under 10 minutes.

The answer occupied a grand total of 10 lines on my piece of notebook paper.

Behind every simple solution are years of studying and deep learning of the subjects and nuances that makeup the problem at hand. It is a subtle elegance, because mastery is defined by the complexity of problems you are able to solve simply.

From any discipline you can name — UX design to programming to mathematics and so on — simplicity is the insignia of the master.

Why Simplicity Works Best

I fear not the man who has practiced 10000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10000 times.” — Bruce Lee

This isn’t to say complexity has no place on the road to mastery. But where “simple” are the main boulevards and avenues, complexity are the alleyways and suburban streets that allow you to navigate into the deep corners of a large, sprawling city.

They are specific solutions designed for very specific problems.

Take explosive heavyweight boxers such as Mike Tyson or Muhammad Ali for example. Through thousands of hours of practice, they have been able to simplify their punching technique to the bare minimum. From their right jab to their left undercut, they have cut out any wasteful movement such that they are able to deliver debilitating blows with punches so tight they are invisible to the untrained eye.

All that is visible is the sweat flying off the forehead of their opponents as they fall onto the ground. There is no wind-up, there is no “tell,” all there is is a fist to the face. And the count begins.

Consider it if there were a wind-up before the knockout punch. Opponents would be nothing but thankful for the extended time to react. The punch would be harder to hit and so as the punch grows in complexity, knockout situations would become less frequent.

In my craft, basketball, you often see players make their way to the basket with a flurry of crossover moves.

That only happens a couple times a game (if they’re lucky).

How most players get by their defenders is through selling misdirection with shifts in their speed, glances across the floor, body position, and so on. The higher the skill level, the smaller the window becomes to make a move and the more players rely on these nuances as opposed to putting defenders on their heels with their dribbling.

That’s why you rarely see crossover combinations in a NBA game; everybody can do them, it’s just not there. The complex combinations you do see (that end up as a made basket) are the simplest iteration of a solution and still rarely happen.

Simple maneuvers are keys that open many doors, solutions that solve a multitude of problems.

How to Become a Master of Simplicity

Practicing simplicity comes down to one thing and practicing this one thing will help you get better at your craft instantly. It is the biggest differentiator between the professional and the amateur: perceptive ability

In Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, Geoff outlines several discriminations of the professional and the amateur and how professionals perceive more.

Essentially, professionals:

  • look further ahead
  • understand the significance of indicators that amateurs don’t even notice
  • can extrapolate more from less
  • make finer discriminations than average performers

All of these things allow professionals to grace us with their simplistic ease, wowing us with their transcendent abilities.

These distinctions comes with focus and experience, but a subtle mental shift can make all the difference.

Become a scientist of your craft. Unravel the mysteries that surround your discipline and observe the patterns that come up, over and over gain. See how those same patterns arise in other disciplines.

Ask yourself why do they happen and investigate. Dissect it and come up with your own conclusions. Then test your assumptions and see if they are correct. As you tweak your assumptions, your understanding of your craft grows.

This understanding is how you remove the “tell” from your punch, the waste from your maneuvers.

It comes from experience, yes, but it all boils down to pattern recognition and your willingness to relentlessly experiment.

Become a scientist of your craft, explore the realm of possibility, and reject all false hypotheses.

Become a maestro of simple.

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