It may sound simple, but in fact it’s complicated

Like most people using the internet and social media interfaces, I get dozens of flashing titles selling universal low-effort recipes for a worry-free life, the dream job, perfect relationship(s), smart and respectful children, a lean and young body, the cleanest house, for outperforming your boss and the list could go on and on for pages… Many a time (I refrain from using absolute terms such as “always” because I can speak only about those “adverts” I read, not about those I haven’t) such recipes simplify reality, generalise human behaviour, individual and social, from a few (or just not enough) cases and put in the spotlight only the aspects that support their product. What is not specified in the recipe becomes irrelevant and redundant not only for supporting their product, but for explaining reality itself, so it should be further ignored.

When you analyse such lists of simple steps, or maybe you directly start following them, reality strikes back. It is no longer easy and fast to reach the wonderful outcome these articles propose. Those simple steps breakdown in many other smaller steps and each seems to have its own context and some seem incompatible. So, how should we make sense of what’s happening?
Careful reading helps understanding that the simple message is actually complicated. I’ve recently read an article about how to be lucky in life. Obviously, there was a conceptual inconsistency in the title. One cannot learn to be lucky as luck is the definition of randomness, hazard, lack of control. I put this contradiction on the poor choice of words, or just on the need to sell the message.

Simplicity

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The title is only the beginning of the process of oversimplification of reality. In such articles the reader is presented with several steps to be followed, such as being clear about one’s goals, being assertive and independent, master of their skills, focused, and what not. No argument about such aspects/traits, they could really help you move further in your personal development. The issue with such lists is that developing only one/some of those winning traits can require an investment of time and effort and for anyone lacking large amounts of resources (time, money, support, connections) this investment can be substantial. However, these steps are usually described as simple changes to make. Thus, because the whole set is not achievable by many people in their lifetime due to their own life dynamic and configuration, which maybe only allow them to take baby steps (or they need to solve many issues before even starting on the first), people may become disheartened and lose interest and trust even in trying a smaller change that can help them move forward.

 The assumptions of such articles seem to be that context doesn’t play any role in influencing outcomes and the failure to meet the outcome belongs only to the person. It may also give the impression that the individual is presented as an adaptable (updatable) piece in a rigid system and when they want to improve their life the system can stay the same, but the person must change and adapt to the system (or only change their view on the system). In fact, sometimes the system is the root cause of problems, not allowing a person-system integration that nurtures progress, so should we deny that possibility exists and follow the list?
Some other lists present the number of actions one needs to complete to reach their outcome (e.g. make the best of this year, master a skill, become a better person, etc). So, for every person reading the list it can only be that number and no other, or, if we are being nice, the maximum number is the one the lists gives you, but no extra effort is needed. Such a recipe stipulates a pre-configured reality for every person. What if for my situation I need an extra step, or ten of them, does it mean I don’t understand my own case and I should stick to the list in order not to fail? The simplification of reality (mechanical systems, human cognition or behaviour, social interaction, etc.) is a scientific practice and it is needed to understand the dynamics of that reality, the connections between its known parts in various combinations and experimental parameters. Such an approach can stipulate the existence of other components. But once scientists understand its variations, even partially, they put together the complex picture of its functioning, one which could explain and predict its workings. In no situation the simplification of reality can be a practice leading to the deep understanding of its complexity.

Complexity

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Apart for the undeniable positive effect of making people dream and sometimes visualise a better life/self, these universal recipes for problems or personal advancement create unrealistic expectations about the involved effort and their outcome, if not tempered with a fair description of their limitations to capture the multiple perspectives and forms a problem/situation/solution may take.

Additionally, the effect of the person-environment interaction on the targeted outcome should not be disregarded or minimised when presenting a solution to a problem. Each person, depending on their environment, may see various determinants of a situation and, thus, its solution may be based on the salient determinants of that situation from their unique perspective.

I reiterate, it is good, even desirable, to present people with multiple solutions to a goal/problem because each person is unique and they can choose what works for them. What needs to be improved is the description of these solutions, which are limited perspectives themselves, not universal cures. Acknowledging that there is some unknown you cannot capture allows the reader to absorb the message using critical thinking, and perhaps to apply only a fraction of it and not feel they failed in any way. And I know some people already do this because they learned to see through the foil of salesmanship of such articles and they dig further, they learn and build their own solutions. But it would advance the practice of information sharing to a new level of responsibility and ethics if such articles show epistemological and empirical humility.

So, even if the title of this article sounds simple, it is in fact a complicated summary about simplification and complexity in real life. Paradoxically, had I made it simpler it might have lacked the complexity to make its own point.

Understanding complexity takes work

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