As a young engineering student, I had the concepts of optimization and minimization drummed into my brain early. We learned that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and that the simplest and most elegant solutions are generally the best solutions.
The more complex the system, the more costs and inefficiencies tend to be built into it, and the more likely it is to break down somewhere along the line. So it pays to start with the end goal in mind and then work backward as directly as possible to where you are, noting functional problems to be solved and eliminating unnecessary material and moving parts whenever possible.
What I learned as I got older is that the same concepts often apply surprisingly well to business — and to life. If there’s a goal you want to accomplish, it’s basically a point-A-to-point-B situation. You need to define where you are and where you want to be, then draw a straight line between those two points, noting the key transitions and to-dos that sit between you and your desired outcome. Then you quickly start moving toward the first challenge in your path.
Yes, you’ll discover all sorts of new challenges and obstacles along that route, and you’ll inevitably end up off course at various intervals, too. But if you just keep course-correcting and tackling the next problem and the next, you’ll very quickly make progress toward your destination — and learn plenty along the way.
I know, I know. Life is a little more complicated than a basic engineering problem.
There are people involved, for one thing. People with all their wonderful strengths and frailties, their unpredictable flights of fancy, their fears of moving forward and their fondness for repeating their most familiar patterns again and again, regardless of whether or not they show any sign of working.
I sometimes think we are hardwired as a species to make things far more complicated than they have to be. Take diet and nutrition, for example. The basics are so clear: Don’t overeat. Stick to fresh, whole foods in their natural state. Strive for variety and balance and eat plenty of plants. Avoid artificial ingredients, processed sugars and flours, preservatives, man-made fats, and any foods that disagree with you. And that’s about it.
Unless you’re an extreme athlete or suffering from some kind of extreme health condition, that advice should stand you in good stead. And once you get the basics down, you can start tweaking and fine-tuning however you see fit.
But for some reason, people get obsessed with tweaking and fine-tuning long before they have done any of these basic essentials. They get overly concerned with calories and macronutrients, with milligrams and micrograms, with point-systems and glycemic indices — and they very quickly become completely, utterly confused. They complain that, for some reason, “nothing is working” for them, and then they move on to the next super-complicated diet regimen or experimental weight-loss scheme.
I’ve seen it time and time again. After years of grappling unsuccessfully with a stubborn weight problem and a fleet of vexing health issues, a person finally gives up denial and bargaining, and instead embraces a super-simple, nutrition-boosting, crud-clearing program like the one Dr. Mark Hyman presents in “UltraSimple Slimdown.” They suddenly start seeing results. Within a couple of weeks, they are feeling better than they have in years.
It can seem like a miracle. But it’s just basic point-A-to-point-B logic — the result of a person finally getting out of his or her own way and letting the body fire up its metabolic engines and engage its extraordinary healing capacities. Which, when you stop to think about it, really does represent a miracle of sorts.
As much as I appreciate the clarity and simplicity of engineering, I must confess that I also love the strange and wonderful complexities involved with living systems. Perhaps the key to optimization in life, as in engineering, is to eliminate unnecessary complexity while also acknowledging the beautiful intricacies that exist both in laws of science and in the laws of human nature.
We may be hardwired to make things tougher than they have to be, but we are also hardwired to invent new and better ways of doing virtually anything, and to be fascinated by things we don’t quite understand. I suppose the two are inextricably tied.
Einstein taught us that things should be made “as simple as possible, but no simpler.” I think that’s wise counsel for virtually any situation. So if you’re struggling with how to make a change — in your work, your body or your life — start by drawing a line between two dots. Make that your map, and see where it takes you.