Breaking it Down: Making the Simple Complex

 th1 th2





I don’t know why, but I was driving today and became enamored with words that begin with “th”.  I started saying them aloud and noticing the difference among them and I found that there were two distinct sounds we use for “th” in the English language as demonstrated by the words “thought” and “though”.

Go ahead, say them aloud and focus on the difference in the sound.

I then started thinking about how I would explain the difference to someone that was learning the English language and how difficult that would be.  It is amazing how complex things are when you start to break them down to their fundamental parts and then try to build them back up.  It’s like that radio you took apart as a kid and tried to put back together, always leaving one part out and wondering where it came from.

So how does this relate to our lives?  I think it is a necessary skill to be able to explain all sorts of things to all sorts of people and this skill requires the ability to understand that the simple isn’t simple.

Bruce Lee said (and I am paraphrasing)

Before I knew how to fight, a punch was just a punch and a kick was just a kick.  When I was learning to fight, a punch was not just a punch and kick was not just a kick.  Now that I know how to fight, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.

As an engineer I find the same to be true with my projects.  I have to understand the Why and the How and then be able to explain that to someone else – someone with a different background, experience and culture than mine.  In turn I must also be able to interpret others’ explanations to me about what they do and how they do it.  I have to then be confident enough in what I understood to be able to design a project around it.

How do we break down simple things to make them difficult so that they will be simpler again?

  1. Assume nothing. Never think you understood something or that someone understood you.  Confirm it.
  2. Map every step. No matter how mundane or silly it is, you can always take it out of the process or task list later.
  3. Ask stupid questions. Stupid questions demonstrate that you are humble enough to admit you don’t understand, but smart enough to admit you don’t understand.  (That was not a typo.)
  4. Take it on a test-drive.  Mentally go through your project or process and shake down every step.  Try to see it from an outsider’s perspective.  Get an outsider’s perspective if you can.  You may learn something.

By making simple things more complex we can understand them better and then build them back up in a way that others can use and understand.  Engineers and managers tend to be proud of their smarts and I think that is pretty stupid.  Try to explain the difference in the sounds of “th” to someone and see how it goes.

What are some other examples of taking simple things for granted?

How can this be applied to your profession or personal life?


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