Christian Ankowitsch: How to Reduce Complexity

Christian Ankowitsch is the author of a book titled “The Art of Finding Simple Solutions”. Seemed like the perfect guy to ask about how to keep it simple. The conversation turned out to be more complicated than expected. But just as entertaining as we imagined.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Josef Fischnaller

Our world is not only complicated; unfortunately, it is also very complex. Is there such a thing as simple solutions?
I would suggest drawing a clear distinction between the terms “complicated” and “complex”. Machines in which one cog meshes with another are complicated. Living systems like people and societies, on the other hand – and here I adhere to systems theory – are ultimately inscrutable. The best example of this is our brain. We can describe the input and the output, but what our brain really does remains a black box. It is the same with our fellow human beings: We see how they react to something, but why they do so remains their secret. Because, as we all know, it’s impossible to read someone else’s mind.

You once said that people are the grand masters of ­simplification.
Exactly. Not necessarily voluntarily, but because we simply can’t stop doing what we need to do just because we’re faced with an inscrutable world. We have to get by somehow, and the only way to do that is to try to make sense of inscrutable circumstances every second of our lives. That is dangerous, because what we do is we block out important things. On the other hand, it is vital, because otherwise we would go crazy or fall down dead. We cannot escape this dichotomy throughout our entire lives. So the search for simple answers is about finding the ones that will help – and not whether simplification is legitimate. It is by necessity.

Does experience help in solving problems?
What we call experience or gut feelings are rules that we believe will help us master life – because these rules have already served us well, because we have been told that’s how it is, and so on. Experience is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, experience helps us to cope with problems. On the other hand, it tempts us to react to new situations with strategies that are unsuitable because they are old. Gut feelings are a special form of this: If you have some idea about something, then gut feelings – a classic complexity-reduction strategy – are a good thing. If, on the other hand, you have no clue, then you shouldn’t pay them any heed. If you say, “All I have to do is put one and one together,” you’re going to fall flat on your face. And you won’t even see it coming.

»There’s a lot to be said for loving your problems – and not trying to solve them until they really get on our nerves.«

Christian Ankowitsch

There’s this method called First Principles Thinking, according to which you deconstruct a problem and then put it together again. Would that be a good way to go?
That sounds good at first, but it can only work if you consider something very fundamental – and I’m sticking with the constructivists here: Problems cannot be described objectively, unless you’re standing in front of a broken engine, for example, where it is possible to analyze exactly why the oil is leaking out at the bottom. This isn’t possible with social or psychological problems. Instead, their description is entirely in the eye of the beholder. This begins with the fact that something may appear to be a problem for some people, while others don’t even see anything at all. The reason for this is that our view of the world is highly subjective. Each of us creates his or her own private map of reality. The stupid thing is that there is no objective map that could serve as a yardstick. Only by comparing our maps can we get some idea of what is really happening out there. Our only chance is to always remind ourselves of what we are doing. If not, you end up as a conspiracy theorist, someone who mistakes their assumptions for reality and acts accordingly. There’s a nice metaphor from systems therapy here: “Reality is the food, and our description of reality the menu.”

Very illustrative.
I agree. And you can take this even further: If you confuse your description of the world with the world itself, what you’re doing is trying to eat the menu. And then you are surprised that it doesn’t taste good. That’s also the reason why, although it was in many ways painful, I’ve said goodbye to Facebook and Twitter.

Why exactly did you do that?
Because social media is the menu, but all the users and producers ignore this fact. They think Facebook and Twitter are the food. So people go about bashing in their heads on Twitter and Facebook because they think they’re dealing with the truth, an objective description of reality, and not with their subjective understanding of that reality. And that confusion makes people angry and unhappy. I know that from my own experience. But that’s not the way things really are. What you personally think is a problem is your subjective construction; whether others see it that way is decided by the “connectivity” of a statement. Whereby – to make things even more difficult – you can never tell whether others really understand things the way you do or whether it merely seems to you that they do.

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