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Chapter 2: work: Sorrows of Work

On Being Wary of Simple-Looking Issues

One of the reasons we sometimes don’t think things through properly is that they seem so simple. Physics is very complicated and – helpfully – it signals that it is:

© AP
What it says on the tin: theoretical physics is really hard

Einstein’s blackboard makes it totally plain why one won’t be able to make fundamental advances in science without thinking very deeply. The process is incredibly complicated and looks very complicated too – which is a bonus. 

By contrast, many other impressive results don’t come with a public reminder of the thinking that went into them. They look simple, natural and easy.

© D68 Design+art
It looks as if anyone could have designed this in about two minutes

One of the principles advocated by Dieter Rams, Chief Design Officer at Braun from 1961 to 1995 – is that good design makes products unobtrusive and intuitively understandable. In other words, it has a paradoxical effect: the better the design, the less you notice the labour that has gone into it. The design team might be slogging away for years, discarding imperfect versions and bashing their brains to simplify the product. But when they succeed, they make us – the consumers – feel as if none of that ever happened.

Some problems hide how tricky they are. So we forget how long it takes to get them right. We forget how much difficulty they exact – and tend to rush and get impatient when we stumble over them.

We need to think hard not only about physics, but also about the big everyday challenges that trip us up: how to form stable relationships, how to master emotions, how to bring up children, how to find careers that can satisfy our talents, how to deal with the defensive member of our team… Each of these is a devilishly complicated matter, almost as hard as Einstein’s conundrums, but sadly for us, the difficulties get concealed.

We should ensure we have an accurate map of difficulty and won’t be undermined by the idea that certain troubles are unworthy of minute attention.