There is something different about Djokovic. This was the main thought running through my mind after my first night of attending the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York. Many of the top players looked and played like the freakish athletes I expected to see, but not Djokovic. For all intents and purposes, Novak Djokovic looks like a normal guy. His tennis game is deceptively normal looking, too. This isn’t someone who charges his opponents and overwhelms them like Roger Federer or grits and grinds them into dust like Rafael Nadal. In fact, there is only one thing that really separates Djokovic from everyone else: The simplicity of his game.
There are no frills to Djokovic’s game. No flourishes or waste. Just stroke after stroke of carefully measured footwork and surgically straight cuts at the ball. At first I thought the simplicity of his game was incidental to the fact that he was the best tennis player in the world. But over the course of two weeks it became apparent that this simplicity helps him in important ways: He doesn’t tire, he’s unbelievably consistent, and he can channel a higher portion of his energy into his shots. As I watched this player who is not the fastest, tallest, or strongest dismantle everyone in his path on his way to the title, something became apparent: I was witnessing the superiority of simplicity.
Simplicity in Business
There are obvious business parallels to be drawn from Djokovic, and the most obvious is probably sitting in your pocket: The iPhone. One of the iPhone’s Android competitors, the Galaxy S6, has a larger and higher resolution screen, faster processer, better camera, thinner build, and lower price point. And yet I didn’t see a massive line of rabid fanboys lining up for the launch of the Galaxy S6. The smaller, less powerful iPhone has one thing that counteracts all of these disadvantages: Its user interface is simpler and easier to use. The iPhone’s advantage boils down to simplicity.
If you look at the major business successes of the last twenty years, almost all of them can attribute their success to simplicity. Walmart took every purchase you make on a regular (or even semi-regular) basis and put it all under one roof. Amazon took all of your online shopping and centralized it in one easy-to-use location. Uber took all the complexity and uncertainty out of getting a cab. The list goes on and on.
One recent startup called Casper brings simplicity to a notoriously complicated industry: mattresses. They sell just one type of mattress, its only modification being the size you buy it in. The mattress can be folded up and shipped so it comes directly to your door. That’s it. No more wandering through endless rows of mattresses on a showroom floor. No more picking your sleep number. No more tying a mattress to the roof of your car. With this simple business model, Casper did more than $20 million in sales in their first 12 months and have raised more than $55 million.
Simplicity and Your Professional Success
So the question: How do you use simplicity to your own advantage? There are some obvious lessons for the more entrepreneurial minded but it can be advantageous in other settings as well. The uses for simplicity fall into two areas: Removing decisions for others, and removing decisions for yourself.
1) Removing decisions for others
I saw an ad for a trash company the other day with the slogan “We’ll handle it from here.” I thought it was genius. When I put out my trash, I just want it gone. If I have to put out extra trash, I still just want it gone. If it’s a snowy day, I (yep, you guessed it) still just want it gone. I want everything taken care of properly and I don’t want to be involved in the process. Like it or not, most people feel about your job the way I feel about trash: They want you to take care of it properly and they don’t want to be involved.
I saw an example of the wrong way to do this at work when I needed a new laptop. I went to the IT staff and they asked me what kind of laptop I wanted. When I said I didn’t know they said to look it up, find something I like, and then come talk to them about it. It made me wonder why we pay them. IT staff are, by definition, technology experts and they should know what kind of laptop will best suit my needs better than I do.
The antidote to this is solutions first thinking. I’ve worked out an arrangement with my barber where I come in and he offers a solution first. It usually sounds something like “Hey Ben. So, I think it would look slick if we went with a four on the sides and took a half inch off the top, does that sound alright?” My haircuts are better and I am happier because the process is now simpler.
The reason my IT department doesn’t want to make life simple for me is it takes extra work. Steve Jobs, a master of creating simplicity, said “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” Anyone who has tried writing knows this. You spend about as much time deleting as typing. Being simple, succinct, and to the point takes work. It’s why Mark Twain once said “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” If you want to be successful, you have to take the time to remove decisions for others.
2) Remove decisions for yourself
In my closet at home, you will find the following things: Five dress shirts, five pairs of slacks, two suits, two sweaters, and two jackets. The rest of my piles and piles of clothes are sitting in boxes in a back room. I decided to remove the decision of what to wear from my daily routine. Doing this has made the start to my days significantly better. I haven’t suddenly become a billionaire or found the love of my life, but I am able to get out the door quicker and concentrate better at work for the first hour of my day.
Removing decisions from your life is hard because it means you won’t always make the very best decision. There could very well be a shirt in my storage that would look better, but I wouldn’t know because I refuse to reevaluate. Here’s the thing: I’m okay with that. Like the Galaxy S6’s slightly superior hardware, picking the very best shirt does not matter that much. Living simply allows me to focus on the things that do matter , like work and maintaining social ties.
If creating simplicity within your decision making sounds difficult or daunting, you can begin with a simple experiment: Next time you go to a restaurant, read the menu until you find the first thing you think you would enjoy. Then shut the menu. Don’t open it back up. You know what you’re going to order. Now you can focus on conversation with the other people at the table and being present in the moment. Congratulations, you have just simplified your life and allowed yourself to focus on the things that really matter. And I guarantee you, you’ll enjoy the food just as much as if you had spent fifteen minutes picking out the perfect dish.
By removing decisions for yourself and for others, by taking out the flourish and making things simple, you can add value where you are an expert. Like Djokovic on the tennis court, you can learn to devote exact, precise energy to the things that matter in your life.