Our parents warned us about using four-letter words. And yet, we can probably rattle off most of them from memory. But, there is one particular four-letter word that I really hate to hear. Yet, I still use it all of the time. And I am not alone! Sometimes a manager will use it as a deadline approaches. Or, a teacher will use it when assigning homework. My wife Stacy has become particularly adapt at using it when handing out projects around the house. These four letters can add hours to our day, “just” like that.
It just sounds so innocent, so harmless, and so insignificant.
Just a minute…
Just a few seconds…
Just a little more…
The problem with “just a little more” is that we are often adding it to a plate that is over flowing with “just a little more” that was added just yesterday. Fortunately, the solution is simple. I mean the word “simple,” and not the act of simplicity. We cannot just practice simplicity. Simplicity is the polar opposite of “just a little more.” Just should never be used in the same sentence as simplicity. Simplicity is staggeringly difficult to achieve. Why? Because simplicity is founded upon the art of saying a thoughtful, meaningful, purposeful, and honest “no.”
Saying “no” is difficult for many of us. But, I don’t believe that the difficulty lies in denying ourselves something that we personally want. Saying “no” is most difficult when we have to say it to someone else, especially someone that we care about or respect. Perhaps we want to avoid conflict. Maybe we don’t want to disappoint a friend. Instead of saying “no,” we agree to “just one more” for the sake of the relationship. As a result, our quest for simplicity is often tied to the strength of our relationships. And relationships are anything but simple.
When I was a freshly minted aerospace engineer, I found myself on a new design team at a large space and communications company. We were working on an incredibly powerful and ambitiously accurate geosynchronous satellite. The mission parameters made this program particularly complex. We were tasked with making this spacecraft so powerful and so accurate that customers could get even more television channels, while eliminating the twenty-foot diameter satellite dish that was taking up most of their backyard.
Stationed 22,236 miles above the earth, roughly ten times the distance from New York to Los Angeles, geosynchronous satellites exist in an environment that is comprised of extremes. Traveling nearly two miles every second, a space vehicle will encounter intense temperature fluctuations from -420˚F to 570˚F during its daily orbit. This causes the structural components to expand and contract widely and unpredictably. If you have ever taken a hot casserole dish out of the oven and put it directly into the refrigerator you know that extreme temperature changes can cause bad things to happen. (Not that I have done this against Stacy’s repeated warnings…)
One of the biggest problems with these incredible temperature variations is that different materials expand and contract at different rates. This makes precisely aiming the satellite signal nearly impossible, especially when you are trying to hit a twelve-inch satellite dish mounted to your roof from 22,236 miles away. (Basically, if our aim was off by 1/1000th of a degree, your episode of The Office would be sent to one of your neighbors a half mile away. This is not 100% accurate, but you get the general idea.)
In addition to the engineering complexities, there was just one more huge complication for our design team, the relationships. Each department had different responsibilities and areas of expertise. The antenna designers focused on getting the signal to the right spot on the earth, the structural design folks worried about preserving the body of the satellite, propulsion engineers were all about the rocket science, and so on. And, like the extreme and unpredictable temperatures in orbit, the working relationships between these departments where sometimes just as harsh and unstable. The problem was typically not engineering or design related. It was far more basic. Every place on the satellite where components designed by different departments interacted, there was a fight for control. And, the reason was just as simple. The more interfaces that each department controlled, the bigger slice of the budget they received. So, before ever getting onto the launch pad, we had to deal with earthly complexities of office politics.
The most prized interface up for grabs was the method of attaching the antenna arrays to the rest of the satellite. That was the heart and soul of what we were trying to accomplish. The design team who developed the best solution would become “King of the Lab” (for you fans of the TV show Bones). For months, engineers on all sides worked on complex, elaborate solutions to ensure that we could deal with the expansion and contraction issues while maintaining the ridiculously tight margin of error to point the signal properly.
For months, nothing that was proposed worked. When we solved one problem, another popped-up. There was always just one more fix, just one more correction, just one more needed part. And, there seemed to be just one more tension filled meeting and the complexity grew exponentially.
Our design team had been working long hours for weeks, so we thought it might be fun just to relax a bit. One Friday evening after work, a few of us decided to decompress over dinner and some board games. I don’t remember which games we played, but one of them had little plastic, cone-shaped pieces that you moved along the board. As we played, someone was fiddling with an extra piece that was not being used. He was trying to get the game piece to spin like a top. If you are not familiar with tops (outside of the movie, Inception), they are fun to watch. As they bob, weave and wiggle, they trace a path along a fixed table. As we watched the top spin, a very simple idea hit us. The top could move wherever and however it wanted, and the table didn’t care. As long as the top was touching the table in just one, single, simple point, the top could move unpredictably. Just like that, we had our solution, and it was just so simple. If we attached the precision stuff that could not move, like the antennas, to the stuff that had to expand and contract in just one, singular point we could make the satellite act like a top on a table. Our answer was as simple as a kid’s toy.
One point was all that was needed. Just one. Everything else was actually getting in the way, including our need to be “King of the Lab.” We all wanted to be the ones who won the day. We wanted to be praised by our bosses, or rewarded with a bonus. We wanted to be recognized for our contribution. In the end, our personal goals were just one more complication getting in the way of seeing the simplest solution.
You might assume that I am about to encourage you to find that “one thing” to focus your life around (much like Curley in City Slickers). I would, but you already know that. The real trick is knowing how that one thing will interact with a world that is constantly changing in wildly unpredictable ways. Life is complex. We will face unanticipated challenges. There will always be just one more thing, just one more moment. It is just the way it is.
However, in the midst of this complexity, we need to remember that the most important, single point connections that we have with an infinity complex world are the relationships we have with those around us. These are the places where we touch an unpredictable universe in meaningful, lasting ways.
It is for the sake of these relationships, that we continue to strive for simplicity. This means rejecting Nike’s “Just do it,” for a more thoughtful approach. We need to admit that we can’t muscle in just one more task, if we want to create space for an unhurried conversation. When it is our decision to make, we can discipline ourselves to say, “no” or at least “not now,” so we can more accurately point ourselves toward those who matter most.
It is just that simple…(just kidding)