Celebration of simple

I was about eight years old, and in a car with my parents. We were driving on a country road at night. Ahead, along the middle of the road, I could see a row of lights, and my Dad was keeping the car just to the side of them.

‘What are those lights in the middle of the road?’ I asked.

Mum said, ‘They’re not lights. They’re cats’ eyes.’

I had an eight-year-old’s reaction to that answer. ‘Cats’ eyes?!’

‘Not actual cats,’ she laughed. ‘They’re mirrors, and just like a cat’s eyes reflect light back, so those mirrors reflect back the beam of our car’s headlights so we can see where to go.’

I was amazed, and, of course, asked more questions. How could we could drive over mirrors without breaking them? (They sink down when compressed.) How do the mirrors stay clean? (Every time a car runs over they’re pushed down into a tiny reservoir of rain water, and they get cleaned.) To this day I’m still impressed.

A ‘cat’s eye’ set in the middle of the road. Dozens more will be spaced about 20 yards apart. The white circles are the mirrors.

Cats’ eyes were invented by Percy Shaw. There are various stories of  how he got the idea, including seeing a cat’s eyes reflecting back light on a dark night, or noticing how light bounced off tram tracks set in the road. Whatever the true story, he had the genius to translate inspiration into invention, and he patented his cat’s eye design in 1934. Initially sales were slow, but grew considerably during blackout restrictions in Britain during World War II (because roadside lights were off). Soon his firm were manufacturing more than a million ‘roadstuds’ a year and exporting them all over the world.

Percy’s idea was simple, but brilliant and lasting.

Many inventions have been simple, and so obvious we wonder ‘why no-one thought of it before’.

The wheel is the most often-cited example. Before the wheel, people dragged things along the ground, which was difficult to do and damaging to whatever was being pulled. Then came the idea of laying round tree trunks across the path, and rolling heavy objects over them. Finally someone had the simple but important thought that those trunks could be cut into narrow circles and attached to the side of ‘carts’. Soon those ‘wheels’ were put on wagons and chariots, not unlike the wheels I have now on my Nissan chariot.

Buttons were first used in the Indus Valley (in modern day Pakistan) several thousand years ago. Tiny holes were drilled into a disc so it could be sewn on to clothing, and then fastened with a loop. Amazingly simple. It changed clothing design forever.

Nails were invented 5500 years ago. Before nails, rope was used to bind interlocking boards. But rope can be of variable strength, and tends not to weather well. Once techniques were invented to cast and shape metal, someone had the idea that short, sharp lengths of bronze could be used to hold lengths of wood together. The humble, simple nail was born, and we’re still using them, albeit now made of steel.

As you’ll gather, what fascinates me about these life-changing inventions is their simplicity. Because we live in a technologically-advanced world, we think inventions must be highly complex. Some are, but others – like the cats’ eyes – have been relatively simple. Just a matter of seeing how things could be put to a new use.

And that’s true for more than inventions. ‘Identify the simple and do it’ could be a useful life principle.

John told me his children had drifted away from him. They were teenagers – and, of course, teens often want to do their own thing – but John feared something more serious was happening. We talked it through. He reckoned the change had begun when his son and daughter were about eight and ten. They started showing little interest in talking to him or being with him. ‘To be fair,’ John said, ‘my work had most of my time anyway. I couldn’t be with them very much.’

‘So, in what ways were you involved with the children?’ I asked.

‘Well, I made sure there was money for them to have the best brand clothes that would impress their friends. And we gave them TVs for their bedrooms, and the latest computer games.’

I was gentle with John, but the hard truth was that instead of building a relationship with his son and daughter he’d tried to buy one. Before it was finally too late there was one simple and vital thing he had to give them: love. Which would mean: a) reserving time to be with them, doing what they wanted to do; b) being interested in their lives and futures; c) making himself someone worth relating to.

Often the best answer to a problem or need is not complicated, at least not in principle.

For many years I listened as people poured out their troubles. They found every day wearying. Their marriage had lost its lustre. They had unpayable debt. Their career was going nowhere. They drank too much, smoked too much, ate too much.

I never claimed there were simple solutions for these problems, but for some there were certainly simple steps they could take. Energy lacking? Stop sitting up late at night watching TV, and instead get a solid night’s sleep. Children distant? Marriage lost its excitement and joy? Invest energy, commitment, inventiveness, tenderness into the relationship, and be more interested in him/her than you. Overcome with debt? Get help, make a plan, stick to it. Career boring? Do whatever it takes to get out of the rut, learn new skills, consider changing career. And so on.

Is this simplistic? Yes, if words like these are meant as a total solution. But not simplistic if seen:

  • As a direction to start out on
  • As a guide to the heart of their problem.

I like the saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, because it points us to a destination and encourages us to get started. The biggest decision is to take the first step. But of course after that there’ll still be many challenges, and a 1000-mile journey is wearying. But worth it.

So, to be clear:

Simple does not equal easy. What’s the cure for smoking? Stopping. Sounds simple, and it is when we’re defining the goal. And it’s an achievable goal. Many have quit. But it’s hard, very hard, and plenty give up. So, let’s be honest: there are simple answers, but nothing easy about achieving them.

Simple often (though not always) identifies the core issue. You’re driving and suddenly the car engine stops. You’re able to pull over, and you ponder why the engine has failed. Maybe there wasn’t enough coolant, it overheated, and the pistons melted. Or, there wasn’t sufficient oil and, without lubrication, the engine seized. Or your transmission fluid was low, the transmission overheated and gears were damaged. Or there were electrical problems, and the clever little computer sent the wrong signals to the engine which became confused and stopped. Which of these is right? None.

Because the right answer was the simplest of all. You ran out of fuel. You meant to fill up but forgot, and cars won’t go without fuel.

We can bury ourselves among options, but the simplest one is often the right one.

The simple solution may be right before our eyes but we don’t see it. There are at least two reasons we’re blind to what’s obvious.

  • We don’t see what we’ve never seen. Long before Percy Shaw, someone else could have invented cats’ eyes. All the necessary parts existed. But nothing like a cat’s eye roadstud had ever existed, so no-one thought of it before Percy.
  • Often our vision is clouded by emotion, panic, and haste. We’re overwhelmed by the complexity of our problems, and excitement or fear turn a straight line into a spider’s web. Panic, depression, anxiety mean we can’t think straight – our vision is clouded – we can’t conceive of any answer to our troubles. One of the least helpful things to say to someone entangled by emotion is ‘just think straight’. They can’t. They see everything through the prism of their fear or nervousness. Instead, be their friend, someone not caught up in their emotions, a person they trust who can help them take steps to a better place.

Simple can feel too challenging. Many of my golfing friends slice their shots (which, for a right-handed golfer, means the ball curves in the air from left to right). Slicing means losing distance and accuracy, so golfers hate doing it. But they don’t need to. They could stop slicing by changing their swing. But, even after lessons from a professional golfer, they don’t change. Why not? Because curing a slice takes hours of practice and ongoing discipline to erase the old habit and create a new swing pattern. Most won’t put in the work. They shrug, and say, ‘I guess I’ll always be a slicer…’

There’s a general truth here: it’s one thing to know a simple answer, and quite another to apply it. It happens with priorities, with lifestyle, and with attitudes. They could change. Getting more sleep and taking more exercise would improve life. Spending more time with spouse and children would vastly improve relationships. Learning new skills could transform a career. But, for many, these things are too challenging, and they settle for a permanent second best. Which is very sad. Simple is challenging but worth it.

One last story in celebration of simple. When I was a pastor in Aberdeen, numbers grew, we searched for a larger building and were eventually able to buy one. There was work to be done to get the place ready, but there was one unexpected and welcome find: a safe. It was built into a wall, and hidden behind a panel. We’d had a safe in our previous building, but it had stayed there. We were planning to buy a new safe for our new building, but good safes are not cheap. So, finding one already installed was great news.

Except we couldn’t open it. This safe was operated by turning a key and then a handle. There was no key and the handle wouldn’t move. It was locked. People had searched everywhere in the building for the key – searched several times – but there was no key. The only way to get that safe open was bring in a locksmith. Perhaps he had a professional secret for opening a super-strong safe. In a sense, he did. The locksmith listened as we explained that the safe was locked and there was no key. He stood and looked at the safe, then walked up to it, and pushed down very hard on the handle. The safe opened. The handle had just been stiff. And inside the safe? The key.

There are times when solutions really are simple.