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More is Less

July 7, 2009

The famous modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once summarized his design philosophy thus, “Less is more.”  The simplicity even starkness of his designs struck many observers as soulless.  This critique, however, reflects a distinctly western perspective, which tends to equate quantity and complexity with progress.

The revered Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, has written of the paradox of our present age:

We have bigger houses but smaller families;

More conveniences, but less time;

We have more degrees, but less sense;

More knowledge, but less judgment;

More experts, but more problems;

More medicines, but less healthiness;

We’ve been to the moon and back

But have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor.

We build more computers to hold more information to

Produce more copies than ever but have less communication.

We have become long on quantity,

But short on quality.

These are times of fast foods but slow digestion;

Tall men but short character;

Steep profits but shallow relationships.

It’s a time when there is much in the window

But nothing in the room.

I find it interesting, and not necessarily coincidental, that the Dalai Lama’s poem begins and ends with references to buildings.  The soul or essence of something reflects its inner morality or purpose, and our homes and how we choose to live in them is in many ways an extension of our inner spiritual selves.

When we look at our houses, what do we see?  Most of us view our homes as a sanctuary from the chaos, confusion, and competition that rage around us at work, school, and elsewhere.  How much of what we see and live and do in the world beyond our homes follows us there?

The complexity and volatility of our world not only tend to obscure the true nature of things, including the intentions behind them, but can also encourage us to see these circumstances not only as normal, but also as ends in or of themselves.

As such, we value the ability to see through volatility, ambiguity, and complexity, which often distinguishes our most esteemed experts and leaders.  In contrast, making things more complex or difficult does not require any special skill.  The tendency of a leader or expert to make matters more complex than they really are or need to be may reflect little more than a self-serving need to be needed, that is to be seen as the source of solutions.

At one some time or another, most of us find ourselves repeating the well-worn aphorisms of our parents.  These tidbits do not answer all the tough questions we have about how to live our lives today, but they do serve to remind us that the important challenges we face do not change.

We would do well to look with suspicion on any leader who seems to have all the answers but knows none of the important questions.  Effective leaders cut through complexity to help people question their assumptions, look inside themselves, and tap into their inner sources of strength to embrace change at its most elemental level.

One of Mies’ contemporaries, LeCorbusier summed up his own conception of houses as “machines for living.”  In doing so, he helped illustrate the value of focusing on only those elements that foster successful living.  All else is unnecessary or little more than frivolous decoration.  Too many moving parts means more maintenance or more repair, neither or which is the way most of us wish to spend our time.

Reconciling our needs with the changeless values that motivate us and give meaning and purpose to our lives is the central challenge of our age.  Getting our own house in order is the first step toward reconciling our inner and outer lives.

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