The 3 Stages of Expert Simplicity

From simpleton to schemer to zen, it’s all part of the plan

Photo by Michael Weidemann on Unsplash

The more you advance in your career, the easier each working day should become.

Not easier in the sense that you won’t make hard decisions or accomplish big goals, but easygoing in the sense that each day is straightforward, calm, and devoid of pressure.

If your workday gets harder the more you achieve, you’re trading your expert status for the wrong rewards.

A partner at a big consulting company, for example, might work even longer hours than an associate. She may constantly fret about her partner status, the high stakes in each deal, and the ill-will among her peers. That’s not independence, that’s a shark tank: You get out or you get eaten. If she leaves, her pay and status will take a hit, but in the long run, she could build her own company: Equal earnings and prestige, much better working conditions.

Assuming you want such an outcome from the beginning — a life where your days are tranquil yet meaningful — you’ll have to go through three distinct stages, and you must not land in a shark tank as you go from beginner to expert. In an edition of his 3–2–1 newsletter, James Clear calls those phases “ignorant simplicity,” “functional complexity,” and “profound simplicity.”

What follows is my unique, personal definition of those phases. I feel they accurately reflect my own journey. I hope they’ll help you spot where you are and adjust accordingly.

Here are the three stages of expert simplicity for easier, more meaningful days at work.

1. The Beginner: Ignorant Simplicity

When I first started writing, I was highly productive because I wasn’t aware of all the mistakes I was making. I wrote an ebook in a week. I released article after article, blissfully unaware of how riddled with flaws each one was.

This is why it’s easy to start projects you’re passionate about: You don’t know what you don’t know yet, so you just get going. You’re a simpleton of sorts.

The simpleton knows quite little, but he also doesn’t mind because he doesn’t realize how little he knows. The simpleton isn’t worried about tactics. He has no time for nuance. In fact, he doesn’t worry about much at all, which is why he can leap forward.

We need to be a simpleton sometimes because otherwise, we’d never start anything. Ignorant simplicity allows your passion and excitement to carry you uphill until you reach the first dip. Without it, you might never get there, but of course, the dip always comes.

As you barrel ahead in your new skill, job, or project, you begin to notice patterns. You compare your work to that of others. People point out mistakes.

After the “I can’t believe I’m doing this” high wears off, doubt slowly enters the picture. In my case, I realized I was making many grammatical errors, commas specifically. I switched tenses a lot. As my thesis advisor once put it: “You swerve between Shakespeare and slang.” It hurt, but it was true.

The “ignorance is bliss” phase of becoming an expert is wonderful, but it must end. Doubt can be crippling, but it’s important to confront our shortcomings head on — and to do that, we must see them.

Naturally, when we first become aware of what an amateur we are, we resist. We overcompensate. We want to fix every mistake immediately, and so we throw everything we have against our simpleton-ness.

The result is functional complexity.

2. The Intermediate: Functional Complexity

An easy solution to grammar mistakes is a grammar checker, so I installed one into my writing process. I began to edit my work. I deliberately tried copying what other writers did — but to put my own spin on it. Enter “the system.”

“The system” is the process behemoth you’ll build as a knee-jerk reaction to realizing you’ve been a happy fool. Once we learn we’re not as smart as we think we are, we layer rule upon rule to squash our mistakes before they can get away. This is…smart.

Fixing mistakes combats doubts and builds confidence. It’s good to have a process. If you run your reports through a formatting tool, your boss won’t have to look at squished graphics. The more you dig, the more instances you’ll find where a new tool or routine will let you avoid yet another mistake. One by one, you’ll combine those rules, and together, those rules will add up.

In the functional complexity stage, the simpleton becomes a schemer, both in the good and bad sense of the word. It’s great to make plans, to build structure, to organize your efforts. The schemer’s problem is that the scheming never stops.

Systems are good, but if you have too many of them, you can’t breathe. There’s no room for breaks, failures, and adjustments. Eventually, additional guidelines will collapse over your head instead of cutting away pesky problems. So when does it stop?

For the budding expert, the answer is always the same: Too late — and that’s the maturing point of the functional complexity stage. When you find yourself in a functioning but highly pressurized system, it’s time to open a vent. Let some air in. Dismantle some of your rules. See if you’ve internalized them.

Once you find the courage to do that, you may be on the cusp of the expert’s true reward: profound simplicity.

3. The Advanced: Profound Simplicity

I don’t have a writing schedule anymore. I don’t even set an alarm. I wake up, get ready, and write. Sometimes, I just think for three hours. Sometimes, I write a whole essay in one go.

Every day, I do something that’s productive. Whether it’s a single thought or an outpour of results, I have great faith in this process. It’s not the kind of process you can build with rules and templates — it’s a process born from confidence in who I’ve become.

The more you learn in your field, the stronger your gut will become. Thousands of actions and decisions train your brain to make snap judgments with great accuracy. This is what you have worked for, the expert button you can push at a moment’s notice.

Profound simplicity has no need for elaborate systems. Loose structures to not get lost out at sea, sure, but no 318-rule framework can tell the seasoned expert something she not already knows. She is no longer a simpleton nor an obsessive schemer — she’s a zen master, and her approach to work is calm.

Even the best system sometimes fails. Someday, you’ll drop rules that begin to feel oppressive, and you’ll realize: “Hey, I can still ship the code on time!”

Profound simplicity is not a method, it’s a destination. It can only be earned through sweat, failure, and perseverance. Until you have the skills upon which the confidence that enables it grows, you won’t find the peace of mind it brings. That too is part of the plan.

A zen master is a symbol of balance. Everything is temporary, and while it’s great to learn and grow, there’ll always be things we can’t do, things we won’t know. A true expert is wise but not foolish, powerful but reserved, and calm yet persistent. He sees no need to rush and no need for clutter, but there is always progress to be made.

Take one step each day and find contentment in that. That is expert simplicity.

All You Need to Know

You want to be good at what you do so you’ll have the freedom to do what you like. In the pursuit of expert status, many veer off track and get stuck in highly paid, highly miserable dead ends.

To avoid this pitfall of success, heed the three stages of expert simplicity:

  1. Ignorant simplicity is when you’re too busy to look left and right. You’ll do a lot but eventually doubt your abilities and rightfully so.
  2. Functional complexity is when you tack an immediate, repeatable solution to every problem — even if none actually exists. Your catalog of rules will be useful and lead to better results, but soon, you’ll see it too has its limitations.
  3. Profound simplicity comes from years of actual experience. It’s the kind of confidence-based, long-term trust in yourself you can’t manufacture. As hard as it is to attain, it will lead to your approaching each workday with calm and relative ease.

Don’t shy away from the roles of simpleton and schemer. We all hold them at times. They’re necessary rungs on the ladder to zen mastery, and even after we take them, we still sometimes climb back down.

Like the zen master who, when confronted by his disciple while haggling vigorously over the price of peanuts, could only think to say: “Be simple, not a simpleton!” If only it were that easy.

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. For my best writing and book updates 1–2 times/month, you can be my email friend:

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