Scott H Young

Why Should Life Be Simple?


Readers have often pointed out to me that my site has no consistent message. When you read other blogs, their philosophies are sharpened down to a point: simplicity, live consciously or nonconformity. In comparison, mine seems rather haphazard.

Part of this is focus—writers have opinions about many subjects, but they are only interesting when writing on a few of them. But I suspect a bigger part is that people are naturally drawn to simplified life philosophies. We want to be able to reduce life to a few generalized principles from which all truth can follow.

But why should life be simple? The complexity of even the simplest things is staggering, so why should life boil down to following only a few basic tenets?

Chaos Theory

Physicists often have a dislike for the social sciences. Richard Feynman notoriously claimed many of them were cargo cult sciences, trying to give the appearance of being scientific without upholding the same rigor. If they were truly doing science, why had they discovered no universal laws or principles?

While the merit of Feynman’s comments is questionable, it does raise an interesting point. Why have we discovered laws of physics that hold to amazing accuracy, but have failed to uncover similarly strong principles in sociology or economics? After all, truly few principles of economics could approach the confidence intervals and generality we have for Maxwell’s equations.

I suspect the answer is that simple equations don’t exist for economics or sociology. Sociology is built on psychology, which is built on biology, built on chemistry, built on physics. These disciplines rest upon an enormous tower of complexity, so it’s no wonder we haven’t uncovered an equation with the simplicity and breadth of e=mc^2.

Chaos theory tells us that many common systems can have wildly divergent results based on slight tweaks of the initial conditions. Given that life emerges from so many of these chaotic subsystems, is it any wonder we haven’t found the perfect equation telling people how to live?

Managing Complexity

For their part, the social sciences have seemed to adopt two different approaches to managing the complexity. The most common has been to make simple models, but accept the limitations or lack of generality they create.

Models are often necessary. Simplicity has a power to make decisions, even if they are sometimes wrong. A solution that works much of the time is better than giving up because no perfect solution exists.

But models only work if you accept that they are only approximations. Instead, many people like their models enough that they prefer them to an ambiguous reality. Models are only useful if you recognize the boundaries where they break down.

Learning new models for life can be useful too. But only if you are aware, and expect, the model to break at some point. The most useful truths are rarely universal.

Another, more recent, approach is to avoid trying to make a comprehensible model altogether. Machine translation researcher, Peter Norvig, argues here that machine learning models can better predict grammatical regularities than the theories of linguists. The challenge is that such billion-parameter models are opaque in how they generate predictions.

In many ways this is why learning-by-doing works. The complexity of the situations is too vast to be understood consciously, and the accuracy of any comprehensible model is too low. The average person is an encyclopedia of such unarticulated facts, guided by principles they would never be able to explain consistently.

Searching for Local Truth

Instead of trying to find the perfect set of universal principles, we’re better off trying to find local truths. Things which aren’t true for all people or cases, but which are true enough of the time to be worth believing in.

Exploring local truths means we also need to work harder to find where they break. We’re endowed with thousands of these local truths over the years of our life, but few people ever try to see where they stop working. Experience without experimenting is just reaffirming those little lies.

More than anything it means that, perhaps, universal principles don’t exist. If they do, they are probably more complex than anything religion or philosophy has yet to offer.


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31 Responses to “Why Should Life Be Simple?”

  1. Hi Scott! I’ve been reading your blog for a while and I have been trying to understand your blog posts ever since. LOL.
    You always have something profound to say in your posts and I’m really learning… although it can get a little intimidating to comment, but I’ll do it now to thank you for such amazing reading material…:)

  2. This is a really great post and I would even say risky, for the past several years I have struggled with the concept of life and found myself with an obsessive need to define and structure it. Needless to say I hit walls all the time and I would jump from subject to subject constantly shifting my focus. And I would beat myself up for this kind of behavior.

    The past year or so I changed my thinking and I stopped trying to apply what I was learning to other people and accept my passing fancies whenever they come. I decided to start learning about myself and what your trying to say here has really hit home with me.

  3. Max says:

    Scott,

    I really enjoyed your blog in the past. The consistent message I received from it was : viable information that could accelerate my understanding and learning of a subject. This is what separated you from all the other bloggers out there. Except the more and more I delve into the subject of learning, the more and more watered down your blog has started to become.
    This post was such a turn off for alot of reasons. Yes you cited good research I give you that. Yes you made the blog very flashy through your use of language. Except what I want and what most people subconciously want are solid answers. You can’t say in your book that I paid thirty dollars for that rote memorization (repetiting something over and over) is the wrong method of learning then make a blog post several years later saying learning by doing is what ultimately works. Also I would like to add If you aren’t going to start from some sort of basic tenets in anything, take building a actual house, you have to have a solid foundation. A simple solid place to begin your work on. Now with this metaphor why wouldn’t you want to do this ideologically? Anyways I hope the content improves in the future…….

  4. Kathy says:

    Hi Scott
    The lack of consistent message is what I like most about this site. I particularly like come of your articles when you just raise a question or idea and discuss it without actually coming to a conclusion or giving any advise. It really encourages your readers to think for themselves.
    Simple messages can be useful too, but I think often they encourage people to hold on to the hope that out there somewhere exists one simple idea that once found, will solve any and every problem like some magic cure-all.
    But there is no one magic idea, but many ideas that are useful in different situations and in different combinations. And the only way to figure out how to put them all together and which one to use when, is to learn-by-doing.

  5. Jeroen Hendrickx says:

    This blog having no consistent message has had me coming back to it for years. It’s more “let’s see what Scott’s has figured out about the world that I haven’t figured out yet” rather than “all hail the Great Scott, he who bestows wisdom unto us”.

    I’ll be back next week.

  6. Nitin Puranik says:

    I wouldn’t agree with the disapproving commenters. Scott, of late, your posts have become increasingly thought-provoking and deep. Although I do have to tell that ease of readability has taken a hit and it sometimes strains the brain to comprehend what is being discussed because of the increased complexity, this complexity is beautiful, and definitely not pretentious. This randomness also gives you the freedom to explore unlimited arenas rather than binding you in confinement, like how some of the blogs that you have linked have fallen in a rut, resulting in churning out the same How-To’s repeatedly to the point that it makes one sick.

    I’m really interested (no skepticism here) in knowing what you’ll turn out to be in the longer run as I notice your increasingly complex thought process. Reading your posts requires hard focus which I enjoy. It is the same kinda satisfying mental exhaustion that I experience when I read technical papers in my own field. It sure isn’t easy to cook up an abstract, subjective write-up like this.

    So, definitely seek out chaos. I don’t want more posts on how to quit watching TV or how to wake up early. However, you sure do risk alienating readers more interested in these sorts of posts.. :)

  7. BV says:

    Funnily enough, I was thinking along the same lines re: the range of topics on this blog.

    I think for those of us who have been around for a while, seen the academic stuff and personal stuff that Scott has accomplished, then reading on other topics isn’t a problem because Scott has some authority. Perhaps for new readers, it could be confusing?

    However, it may also be that I’m more pro this blog becuase it is, to me, another 20/30 something trying to intelligently figure out life, whilst doing interesting things.

    What I like the most is that I look at titles of blog posts, then read what Scott writes and think, good God, I would have written something completely different! Although I don’t like sociology either but that might be because I was rubbish at it. I think we should be doing everything to simplify our lives but not make it simple or dumb it down. There can be a lot of profound material in what looks “simple” and humans aren’t so good at identifying those things, just to start..

  8. I wholeheartedly agree that part of the problem with social science is they’re many layers of complexity up from physics. And the linguists, for example, do have a a general theory that they’re working with (a couple of them, actually), but the whole field basically didn’t exist before the 1950s, and for that short time they’ve never had the manpower or funding that natural sciences and engineering get.

    As for Scott’s lack of a unifying theme, I’m a relatively newer reader but I don’t mind at all. I’d much rather that than a blog with a specific focus but less interesting content.

  9. Scott Young says:

    Max,

    First–I specifically state that I allow myself the opportunity for self-contradiction. That may irritate some readers, but unless I can think freely about ideas (without committing to ones, once put to print) I can’t be honest with you, the reader.

    Second, I don’t think anything I said here contradicts anything about holistic learning. Learning-by-doing isn’t rote memorization. And indeed, my books and courses are devoted to trying to give a lot more nuance to the studying strategy rather than simply “don’t memorize”.

    Third, I’ve written 900+ articles on this website. I only try to repeat ideas when I feel I missed something the first time I wrote it. That tends to make the portion of my writing which isn’t based on my current life more experimental. Which means some will like it, some won’t!

    Nitin,

    Yes, the reading level has definitely taken a hit on the blog more recently. It’s a fight I have to make between breadth and comprehensibility, as I don’t like to devote more than a paragraph to a tangential idea which doesn’t require full understanding to support my main point. That said, it’s a balancing issue and one I’ll try to address in the future!

    Thanks for the great comments everyone!

    -Scott

  10. Max says:

    Scott,

    I’m not attacking your blog in anyway, just expressing what I personally think would put it in the direction that would probably interests readers. Learning and education seem to your biggest strengths and is the sole reason of how I discovered this blog. I do enjoy this blog and your way of thinking and understand its hard to generate new ideas for posts, but as a reader I’m looking for something to put me in the right direction.

    -Max

  11. Tanner says:

    Hey Scott,
    I’m a fairly new reader and thought I would offer up my thoughts to this topic. As someone who is just in the infant stages of writing my own content I am beginning to understand how being able to have a free flow of ideas is valuable. I think that being able to take an abstract topic and find a way to extract the value in it for your topic is a skill that most people don’t have. From what I have read here I think you do that pretty well. Everything you write has a similar feel or sound, always probing and always trying to find the hidden value in seemingly abstract topics. I think it is unfair to hold anyone to a single idea of thought through the passing of time. Just as ideas evolve over time so do we as human beings. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to find value or adhere to two ideas that might be oppositional at times. In fact I think it is vital that we do. Thanks for everything Scott.

  12. Phil says:

    Scott, you should check out this lecture by Peter Thiel

    http://blakemasters.tumblr.com/post/22866240816/peter-thiels-cs183-startup-class-11-notes-essay

    I think you would find it really interesting

  13. Anarcoplayba says:

    Hi, Scott, just one little curiosity: by any chance you’ve been reading “The Black Swan” from Nassim Nicholas Taleb?

    Me and a great friend (also a reader of yours) read that some months ago, and let me tell you: your last 4 posts are totally inside the idea of the book.

    If you didn’t read, take a look.

  14. I think the driving force for writers to “focus” or to find a single angle and stick with it comes entirely from the desire to achieve more effective marketing. The reason people like Chris Guillebeau, Steve Pavlina and Leo Babauta have such a finely tuned message is because it makes their ideas stickier and easier to market when they’re formulated in the context of a bigger picture. I agree entirely that this make dilute the validity of their ideas and restrict them from truly exploring the depths of truth – but at the end of the day they’re writing for people, and people are flippant, have short attention spans and want instant gratification. It’s the same reason tactics like writing “10 Reasons…” posts works.

  15. Opil says:

    Hi Scott,

    You’ve put into words some of the things I’ve been thinking about for a while :)

  16. Shreen says:

    I agree with previous commenters who say that the lack of a single consistent message is a great plus – how boring must it be to have to stick to a singular topic or ethos anyway? The very nature of Scott’s attitude is all-curious, all-questioning, and no topic should be exempt from that inquisitiveness. We are under pressure to label ourselves, define ourselves, and in turn box ourselves in far too much. Keep that level of complexity Scott, it’s hugely appreciated. :)

    As for complexity – having moved from technical work into the vaguely political, I’ve spent far too much energy on attempting to simplify human behaviour. The underlying assumption being that simplicity is reasonable practical and attainable, which isn’t always the case.

    Most people fear complexity so much that they throw generalisations around assuming that it’s OK because everyone else is doing it. Being accurate in what we say is important I think. It makes it harder to sound eloquent, but I’d say it’s a small sacrifice for clarity of thought.

    BV, whilst you’re here, if you’re reading this can you please explain what that odd comment about frogs (and you accusing me of arrogance) was on the A La Carte Education post here? It was addressed directly to me and yet it was totally incomprehensible so I wasn’t sure if you were insulting me, or trying to make some sort of statement that I couldn’t understand. I love the fact Scott is no-nonsense about people trolling here because it makes this a veritable oasis in a jungle of Internet madness, but reading that comment made me feel very uncomfortable here, which is crazy because I was nothing but utterly civil and polite to you.

  17. BV says:

    Shreen – Apparently someone decided to use my nickname to make fun of you, and I assume, to try and annoy me. I didn’t even see the rest of the conversation, so I missed this – otherwise I would have corrected it earlier.

    I most certainly wasn’t insulting you.

  18. BV says:

    Re-phrase: not only was I not insulting you, but obviously, I didn’t write that bizarre comment about frogs.

  19. Shreen says:

    BV – thanks for letting me know. It did seem to come totally out of nowhere so I’d assumed it was a troll anyway. :)

  20. Justin says:

    Your blog is such a rip off of Study Hacks, man. You’re just restating the exact same stuff Cal says. This particular post is a rip off of Freelance Productivity that he came out with years ago.

  21. John Paton says:

    “Instead of trying to find the perfect set of universal principles, we’re better off trying to find local truths. Things which aren’t true for all people or cases, but which are true enough of the time to be worth believing in.”

    Instead of relying on local truths an alternative way to bridge the problem of universal principles might be to take a statistical approach. Yes, not all people will react the same way all of the time, but more often than not behaviors tend to cluster into certain areas.

    I think the goal of the social sciences is to try and explain these clusters. Why do people tend to eat more when they eat with others? Why does the fear of loss tend to be a better motivator than the prospect of gain? In both of these examples we’re not focusing on the individual, but instead we’re focusing on the tendency.

    I guess that to some extent the focus on tendency may cause over generalization. However, to my mind this is a good compromise because by looking on tendency we maintain a broader explanatory focus.

  22. Scott Young says:

    John,

    I think the goals of social sciences are laudable and the methodology is rather good. I think I’m more trying to defend them against the hard-science critique that what sociologists/economists do is pseudoscience. Understanding clusters is important, and it’s exactly that non-global knowledge that is so useful (even if it doesn’t reduce to a “law” the way it would in physics).

    Corey,

    It’s a strategy too–a lot of blogs suffer from over-focus which bores their readers. I try to strike a balance between my core topics and experimental ones. I’m not unique in this regard either, a lot of successful blogs work based on this strategy.

    Anarcoplayba,

    I read it a few years ago. It’s a good book, and I’ve referenced it in other posts. :)

    Max,

    I don’t feel attacked, don’t worry. I was simply articulating the philosophy of this website which is why I sometimes write posts which diverge from what subsets of my audience want to hear. My #1 goal is to write things I would like to read, it’s admittedly selfish, but it’s more satisfying (and I believe successful) than trying to pander. I like writing about learning and more how-to posts as well, so I’ll certainly return to those topics again.

    Justin,

    There are a lot of similarities with Cal’s writing and mine. We read each others blogs and I’m a big fan of his writing, so there’s many posts I’ve written which fall nicely into the Study Hacks philosophy. I’m not sure what this post has to do with Freelance Productivity, however.

    -Scott

  23. Peter says:

    “In many ways this is why learning-by-doing works. The complexity of the situations is too vast to be understood consciously, and the accuracy of any comprehensible model is too low. The average person is an encyclopedia of such unarticulated facts, guided by principles they would never be able to explain consistently. ”

    Powerful paragraph. You’ve defined a large part of an issue I’ve been working on in myself, in a very clear & eloquent manner. There’s still more related to this that I’m trying to articulate. I’m taking notes, inspecting this area, and I’ll figure it out.

    Thank you for sharing your insights with us. Very helpful and inspiring. We’re all rooting for you in the MIT challenge. Seeing you progress in that, seems to literally fuel me- and I’m sure many others- with energy to move forward in my own self-education/development endeavours!

  24. sandy says:

    Scott just continue to be who you are. Those that resonate will and those that don’t: oh well. It’s about expressing what is true to and for you. I’ve been following you “off and on” for years. As things appear in my life you seem to address. Call it synchronicity.
    Life is all there is. Period. There are “no rules”; just “is”. That’s one point of view. On the net there is so much judgement, trying, perfecting, criticizing, planning. What about just “being who you are” without concern for what others think.
    Keep on.
    Namaste

  25. An says:

    Keep doing what you’re doing, Scott. Keep evolving, keep thinking, keep challenging yourself. No one can expect you to stay the same person you were a few years ago. Be consistent in being inconsistent. It’s what sets you apart from the rest.
    If that means losing some readers, so be it. The cookie-cutter route will have you losing readers, too. Ultimately, it’s about being genuine. Don’t restrict yourself. You can’t please everyone.

  26. Lauren says:

    I like your posts because you come up with the same questions that everyone else has and articulate them in writing. Most of us do that self-talk and let it fade, either because something else captures their attention or think it’s not worth the attention. What I notice with myself is that I’ll ponder something for awhile and when I can’t think of a solution or resolution, I let it go for awhile. Later on, an idea will seeminly pop into my head that explains or solves the question I thought about earlier. With myself, anyway, I love getting to the heart of things. And Dr. Peter D’Adamo, creator of Blood Type Diet and a software developer on the side, says that reductionism to a single meaning isn’t always the best solution. In his BTD, he includes 4 different eating plans, not one like so many nutritionist, esp. the extremists, insist is the best for everyone. Personally, I doubt anyone will ever come up with a single or even just a few tenets to base to base psychology or economics upon. And it’s why we as a species and as individuals question and evolve.

  27. [...] Why Should Life Be Simple? Readers have often pointed out to me that my site has no consistent message. When you read other blogs, their philosophies are sharpened down to a point: simplicity, live consciously or… [...]

  28. ChadK says:

    Wow. Good article. Tip of a huge iceberg. Here is how I am currently exploring this topic. All non-fiction books breakdown into one of 4 categories :
    1) Self-help : I know how you should live. (This assumes the person has cultivated enough mental focus, physical energy and patience to apply all the advice. Think 7 Habit of Highly Effective People, GTD and countless other self-help books)
    2) Chaos Navigation : The premise of these books is that physical reality is dense indecipherable fog, and the best we can do is realize how we just surf along the surface and self-help is hokum. Examples : Chaos by Gleick, You Are Not So Smart, Thinking Fast and Slow (Kahneman), and The Honest Truth about Dishonestly (Ariely)
    3) Chaos Organizing : These books detail how life is a foggy swamp, self-help may or may not be helpful, but for your human purposes, reality can be gathered into buckets. Self-help overlaps here. The distinction is that this group doesn’t really care if you improve your life, they just provide a discrete organizing method. In other words, a new way to parse the input of your life. Examples : Pragmatic Programmer, Time Mgt for Admins, Are Your Lights On ? -Gause, How to Solve It -Polya. To a lesser extent, Art of Unix Programming -Raymond.
    4) That Which Is The Case : These are basically factual books. All history and biography goes here. These also state the scope of problems for the human condition. Conflict in the middle east, Blowback by Chalmers, Neurosis and Human Growth -Horneye, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance -Festinger.
    Importantly, only journaling, metrics, project planning, in other words, some kind of deliberate self-improvement (that includes periodic review) can weave any 2 or more of these into an applicable whole.
    I think of the 4 types of non-fiction as north/south/east/west and you are in the middle.
    Otherwise, we live forgetting our temporary higher insights, and crowd them out with our most habitual notions.

  29. <>

    I loved this paragraph because it touches a fine line between statistics (summarizing generalized data) and stereotyping (assuming the data is solid & static). Would love to read more on this WRT racism — not sure you’ve written on this topic before as I’ve been a hit-or-miss reader, so my apologies if I’m rehashing old ground.

    What I have read here, I do enjoy. Thank you for stimulating pieces. :)

  30. Scott Young says:

    Andi-Roo,

    I think the real challenge with stereotyping is that often it *is* a rational strategy for assessment. Information is imperfect, and often we need to make quick judgements. The problem with racism is when the cost of my quick judgement is paid mostly by you, instead of me.

    -Scott

  31. [...] the relationships feeling good about those with whom you give the ability to influence you.The people with whom you surround yourself have a huge impact on how your life is lives. Have you ev… no longer need. As hard as this exercise may be, there is I believe a harder one that many of us [...]

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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