Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.
– Chinese proverb
Volume 75 | Issue 5
September 2007

From the President: Keep it simple

Lincoln Johnson

Recently, after a busy morning spent cleaning, I walked a few blocks to a local park to enjoy the warm sunshine and unwind. As I ran out the door, I grabbed a notebook, pen, and the latest book I am attempting to read, hoping that I would finally get beyond the first chapter—the same chapter, I might add, that I started weeks ago. I was also hoping that the beauty, peace, and quiet would give me the needed elements to relax, reenergize, and focus. The day was particularly stunning. Colorful kites dancing in the wind, Frisbees floating to and fro, children playing on the industrial-sized jungle gym, families paddle-boating, and beginner rollerbladers barely staying upright. Yes, it was the perfect afternoon. Well, nearly.

Just as I was beginning to enjoy the solitude of the afternoon, there it was. The sound is faint at first, but it is enough to disturb the solitude. Ring. Rrring. Rrrrring! You will not be surprised to know it was a cell phone. Can we not do anything without some kind of electronic device? Moments later, along came a man running with a baby stroller and talking on his cell phone. Never mind that I couldn’t run, push a stroller, talk without huffing and puffing, and avoid a collision. But still, the sight struck me as kind of silly. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought so because the sight of this highly coordinated man made a lot of people laugh out loud.

Every day I see people with their electronic sidekicks, and it doesn’t normally make my head spin, but that day got me thinking. Is it any wonder that it is more difficult than ever to simply slow down every now and then? While we try to survive the current methods of communication, new methods are being developed every day. Think about it—there are e-mail, text messaging, the Internet, pagers, voice mail, video-conferencing, iPods, mini-computers, fax, teleconferencing, cell phones, blue tooth, and PDAs. And many of us are utilizing these three or four at a time. The availability, efficiency, and inevitability of technology is exciting and valuable, but every now and then I just want to unplug. Often I crave for the time when we weren’t as accessible, issues were not as immediate, and life was not always on, on, on.

I wonder if all of the technology at our fingertips is causing our humanity to slowly slip away (byte by byte). The pervasive nature of technology seems to allow more and more of us to stay at our desks and drift further away from face-to-face interactions. We are all aware of colleagues who actually operate completely from their computer terminals. And I am sure many of us vividly recall individuals at conferences who cannot go an extra second without checking voice mail or e-mail the moment there is a break between educational sessions. I do not begrudge anyone who has to handle some emergency back at their campuses, but part of me wonders what kind of message it sends to our coworkers and colleagues at home. Can they not be trusted to handle situations? What does that say for our leadership style?

Perhaps I am on techno-overload, but I long for a bit more simplicity in my life and the ability to take myself less seriously at work and at home. I simply do not have the need or desire to be available 24/7/365. Some friends and colleagues call me a Luddite. Depending on the moment, that might be true. Maybe I am just old-fashioned; in fact, I often long for the fleeting art of handwritten cards and letters. I remember sitting in junior high math class writing notes to friends, folding the notes into paper footballs so no one could read the actual message, and discretely passing them across the room, just hoping and praying that the teacher wouldn’t intercept the notes and throw them away. Or worse yet, read them aloud.

I appreciate the feel of paper between my fingers. I like reading The New York Times and getting black ink all over my fingertips. I enjoy jotting notes on cards and placing them all over my home and office desk. Attempting to decipher my shorthand, my scratch-outs, and my chains of thought is always challenging. This might seem counterintuitive, but for me, unplugging from technology allows me to simplify my life.

In a recent article, Jeff De Cagna (2007) suggests that as we grapple with increased ambiguity and complexity in our lives, perhaps we should embrace a commitment to simplicity, especially in the workplace, "because it helps defeat the negative forces that restrain our successes, as well as accelerate and strengthen our ability to deliver on other commitments" (p. 62). De Cagna (2007) continues: "To put it, well, simply, a focus on simplicity is the straightforward recognition that [we] must make it as simple and as easy as possible for … customers and stakeholders to … connect, collaborate, and create with each other …" (p. 64). De Cagna (2007) suggests that this be extended from programs and services to the way employees, students, and volunteers are engaged. For you, being "plugged in" might be the best means to accomplish a commitment to simplicity. For others, it might be stepping away from all-things-electronic and having what I call "hallway conversations" with students and colleagues.

Wishing for more simplicity in our lives certainly does not imply that we "dumb down" our programs, services, and interactions, or make things simplistic. John Maeda, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: "above all else, simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful" (in De Cagna, 2007, p. 64). Those willing to grapple with subtleties and nuances of simplicity "are more likely to open themselves to the possibilities of other original and intellectually challenging ideas" (De Cagna, 2007, p. 64).

As I have gotten older, I have come to realize that the use of laughter and humor have a way of bringing simplicity to our lives and allowing us to take ourselves less seriously.

In their book, "The Art of Possibility," Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (2000) offer a story about two prime ministers sitting in a room discussing affairs of state.

Suddenly a man burst in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him by saying, "kindly remember Rule Number 6," whereupon the man is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws. The prime ministers return to their conversation and are again interrupted several minutes later by someone gesticulating wildly. Again the intruder is greeted with the words, "please remember Rule Number 6." Complete calm descends once more, and they too withdraw with a bow and an apology. When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague, "my dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?" "Very simple," replies the resident prime minister. "Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so … seriously.’" "Ah," says his visitor, "that is a fine rule." After a moment of pondering, he inquires, "And what, may I ask, are the other rules?" "There aren’t any," says the resident prime minister (p. 79).

Granted, I take myself too seriously much too often, and I suspect that many of you reading this do as well. However, humor and laughter are good ways to "get over ourselves," and more often than not, have the power to be infectious. The Zanders (2000) state that, "humor can bring us together around our inescapable foibles, confusions, and miscommunications, and especially over the ways in which we find ourselves acting entitled and demanding, or putting other people down, or flying at each other’s throats" (p. 80). Recognize anyone you know? I most assuredly do.

Bringing simplicity into one’s life is easier said than done. According to De Cagna (2007), it requires us "to give up more control than [we] are prepared to relinquish. … The move to create a simpler organization means the inevitable and necessary transition from top-down control to top-down influence grounded in the deep-seated trust" of those with whom we work and interact. Organizations should "pay close attention to the creativity the process unleashes and look for ways to nurture fragile ideas that have the potential to create radical new value" (De Cagna, 2007, p. 64).

I have goals that come and go through the year; I do not rely on the New Year’s method. One of my current and, I hope, lasting goals is to bring more simplicity into my life. Whether this is simplifying organizational processes, enhancing the involvement of my colleagues, identifying opportunities to reduce complexity, "unplugging" from technology every now and then, or grabbing a pen and paper and handwriting a note to a colleague, it is a commitment that I hope to deliver over the coming months and years. The more we simplify ourselves and our organizations, "the more we will be able to take a fresh and open-minded look at the core ideals and values … and identify news ways to pursue and capture growth in a manner consistent with those beliefs." (De Cagna, 2007, p. 65) While we might not fulfill every aspect of this, it is a framework for which we all should strive.


 Zander, R.S., & Zander, B. (2000). Transforming professional and personal life – The art of possibility. New York: Penguin Books Ltd.

De Cagna, J. (2007, January). The struggle for simplicity. Associations Now: The Volunteer Leadership Issue.