How do you build a meaningful career? All you need to do is listen to advice from a celebrity CEO, and you can skip the hard work and frustration that comes with building a meaningful career. How do we solve climate change? No need to make real sacrifices. If we praise Elon Musk enough, he’ll take us to Mars once Earth becomes uninhabitable.
At least that’s what some of the content we read tells us.
A desire for simple answers to hard questions is nothing new. The term “path of least resistance” is part of our vocabulary for reason—but simplicity has never been easier to find.
I don’t even have to enter in the passcode on my phone to find an article promising wealth without real work. The News Alert feature on my iPhone will do it for me, sending me articles like “3 Stocks With Promising, Amazon-Like Growth Potential”—as though Warren Buffet became the Warren Buffet by reading tips accessible to literally millions of other people.
But when Steve Jobs emphasized simplicity in design, he was talking about phones and computers, not solving big economic and political problems.
Collectively, we’ve grown an insatiable appetite for simplicity. We’ve become the societal version of a person who only eats processed food: We know it’s bad for us, we know it’s killing us, yet anything that isn’t simple sugar doesn’t taste as good.
This addiction to simple sugar has changed the way we approach political and economic problems.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the election with a campaign slogan that promised to “Make America Great Again.” Research by Carnegie Mellon’s Language Technologies Institute showed that Reagan typically used an 11th grade vocabulary in speeches—higher than any other politician the Institute measured, including Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln. Though he never claimed to be an intellectual, Reagan used relatively complex (at least for a politician) language to talk about simple ideas.
Things have changed: Donald Trump’s use of a 7th grade vocabulary is the lowest of any politician the Institute scored.
Does that mean Donald Trump is dumber than the other candidates and Presidents included in the research? I have no idea. I know intelligent people who have a relatively limited vocabulary, and, conversely, people who mistake big words for big intellects.
What it may mean is that since Reagan’s day we’ve increasingly embraced the idea that difficult problems have easy answers. Politically, that creates a cycle where politicians are rewarded for making simple promises, only to be replaced by candidates making even simpler promises (using even simpler language) when they can’t fulfill those promises.
Our aversion to complexity isn’t just harming our political systems.
By two measurements—the stock market and the unemployment rate—the economy is doing better than it ever has.
But by multiple other measurements, our economy is struggling. Labor force participation has been declining among males since the 1950s and has now declined among women. Wages have stagnated for decades. Jobs have left that will never come back, no matter what a politician promises. Young people face enormous student debt and are far less likely to be more upwardly mobile than their parents.
Yet, we’ve obviously overcome worse.
My great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather used to tell my brother stories of trying to keep their ranch afloat during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. My grandparents and parents have also told me stories of the gas shortages and inflation the 1970s.
The challenges we face now might be new, but facing challenge itself is nothing new.
The answers to the economic challenges of the 1930s and 1970s were not easy. The New Deal was a large collection of complex programs, some of which worked immediately, some of which took years to take effect, and some of which utterly failed. The inflation of the ’70s was defeated by a huge increase in interest rates. That increase required a willingness for Paul Volcker (the Fed Chair at the time) and Ronald Reagan to endure significant political backlash—and while raising interest rates may not be a complex solution, implementing short-term pain for long-term gain is hard to imagine today.
So how do we change things?
We can begin by demanding more of ourselves. We can begin by embracing the idea that complex problems—whether those problems are the problems we face individually in our careers or collectively in our societies and economies—usually have complex answers.
Only when we demand more of ourselves can we demand more of our leaders. If we’re willing to accept simple (and ineffective) ideas because they require less work and less thinking, that’s all we’ll get.
But we can change that.