Defining Simplicity: An Introduction

creative simplicity

I fell in love with women’s magazines by about age twelve. My mom had a friend who was a librarian, and she would bring us back issues that would then pile up around the house, their glossy covers beckoning. Each issue offered its own promises of quick weight loss, clutter-free closets, and five-minute meals. I guess you could say I grew up in a sort of magazine heaven. Our house was a place where serials came to live on, far past their prime, dog-eared and well-loved. They made the journey from couch to recycle bin only on rare occasions and more often remained nestled under beds, in over-full baskets, or between cushions. Ironically, these volumes of promise eventually became a part of the clutter and weight of our material lives.

Of all the magazines I lived among, one title stood out above all others: Real Simple. I devoured the how-tos on packing healthy lunches for your kids, simplifying your beauty routine, and entertaining effortlessly. I remember a summer weather tip that suggested cooling off by running cold water over your wrists. How simple. I couldn’t get enough of it.

If I visualized my grown-up life, it was a collage of images and checklists swiped from between the covers of countless issues of Real Simple. From an adolescent perspective, age 35 looked something like a hazy mishmash of perfect white button-downs, a couple of charming children, a golden retriever, and something called a “work/life balance.” Above all, I was filling notebooks and mental file cabinets with instructions for keeping it all “simple.”

These days, my dreams have evolved (although, the ever-elusive perfect white button-down is still on my radar), but “simple” has stuck. It’s become a recurring question and a promise I encounter on a daily basis. Simple time management strategies. Simple DIY. Simple meals. Simple cell phone plans. Simple apps. Simple weddings. Simple investing. Simple skincare. Simple living.

I can’t help but wonder, what does “simple” really mean? And what is “simplicity”? A state of mind? A practice? A place? An illusion? Even a dictionary defines “simple” mostly by what it is not. It is not complicated, ornate, artificial, elaborate, or affected. More subtly, I would argue that “simplicity” is not necessarily cheap or convenient or easy, though the terms are often used interchangeably.

What is “simple,” then? And why does “simplicity” continually elude us and tempt us as consumers and as human beings? These are just a few of the questions I hope to explore in this column, through stories and memories and wonderings.

For now, though, I’d love to know what simplicity means to you. Where and when and how have you encountered it or achieved it in your own life? Or, alternately, how has simplicity eluded you?