Keep Things Simple, and They Will Be Easier

A Movie That Gets Things Right

I love it when I watch a movie that gets things right.

It’s 2013 and with the popularity of American Romantic Comedies most movies these days get everything wrong. It’s awful really. I’m sure its poisonous for us on some level. The current state of sitcoms isn’t much better. I’ve stopped watching.

In fact, I haven’t owned a TV in almost 4 years. I haven’t even missed it.

(In case you are wondering at this point what I think the worst movie ever is, I vote for Cyrus. God that movie was awful. Cringe-worthingly awful. If I wasn’t with friends I would’ve walked out of the theater and poured bleach in my eyes and ears. If you find yourself agreeing with anything in that movie.. then you’re wrong. About how life works. I’m sorry to tell you.)


Back to my story.

We have movie nights every Thursday here in Taipei. Don’t worry, we haven’t watched an American movie yet. Only French, Cuban, Sweden… and last week, an Indian movie: 3 Idiots.

these 3 idiots

Clearly, a proper name for a film

(The whole movie can be found on Youtube by the way, but I won’t link to it here.)

Note: If you’ve never watched an Indian movie before know that this is like most Indian movies: a bit long, intermission in the middle, all characters break out into song and dance every 10 minutes.

But it’s good. And, it gets a lot of things right.

On a broad level it pokes fun at the education system, the way things work in the current system, and the pressures placed on college students.

The scene I want to refer to today comes toward the beginning of the movie when school has first started. The main character, known as “Rancho” (he’s already made a name for himself at this point through his prior antics), gets called on in class to answer the professor’s question: “what is the definition of a machine?” (They are in engineering school by the way.)

Rancho’s answer is that a machine is “anything that reduces human effort.” He then goes on to elaborate with examples. Then he gets kicked out of class for not memorizing the proper book definition, which is given by the teacher’s pet/puppet type of character who sits in the front of the class: “machines are any combinations of bodies so connected that their relative motions are constrained and by which means, force and motion may be transmitted and modified as a screw and its nut, or a lever arranged to turn about its fulcrum or a pulley about its pivot, et cetera. Especially a construction more or less complex consisting of a combination of moving parts, or simple mechanical elements as wheels, levers, cams, et cetera.”

Yeah, its a bit over the top maybe, but it illustrates the point. Over the course of the movie the contrast between these two characters continues to play out. They are both good engineering students but one of them studies 18 hours a day, crams, and memorizes everything; the other tinkers with things, builds things, and generally just tries to have fun in life. From the description of the earlier scene you can already tell which character is Rancho and which is the teacher’s pet/puppet guy. I shouldn’t even have to tell you.

Be Lazy: Work Smarter, Not Harder

I also shouldn’t even have to tell you which character I relate to more. If you know me, you know. If you’ve read anything I’ve written previously, you know.

When I was 18 I worked a summer job in a cabinet shop building commercial cabinets. We would also occasionally deliver the cabinets to the office buildings they were being installed in. The first delivery I ever went on was just me and Mike, the driver. He was about 9 or 10 years older than me, but a bit shorter than me, smaller than me. He was a funny guy, always cracking jokes and smiling. The type of guy who if he showed up to work 3 hours late and hung-over he would bring doughnuts for everybody. (I take it as some kind of bribe, so we wouldn’t “notice” he was 3 hours late and hung-over.) He was a good guy.

Anyway, my first delivery. We go around to the back of the truck and open the door. I pull a cabinet off of the truck and get ready to carry it into the building. Cabinets, by themselves and when empty, are not so heavy, so I didn’t think anything of it. Mike looks at me, grabs a furniture dolly, puts a blanket on it, grabs a cabinet, stacks it on the furniture dolly, grabs another blanket, puts it on top of the cabinet, and then pulls another cabinet off the truck and stacks it on top of the blanket. Then he looks back at me, smiles and says, “work smarter, not harder.”

Here I am standing here, holding one cabinet, ready to take it into the building, and this guy who is 5 inches shorter than me has two cabinets, protected by blankets between them, on a dolly with wheels. He’s getting twice as much done with much less effort.

Why didn’t I think of that?

The image stuck with me. And, so did the motto. “Work smarter, not harder.”

Bill Gates once famously said that he’d always chose a lazy person to do a hard job, because “a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

And, it holds true in a lot of ways. Sometimes we waste too much time working hard and all we are really doing is working hard. There may very well be much better ways to do things.

When I first started my MBA program, we had a “toolbox” semester: a short semester of mostly pass-fail classes to get us up to speed on everything that would be required of us in an intensive MBA program. In one of our first team meetings in our case analysis class one my teammates showed up ready and eager to talk about the case, and he dropped this bomb on me: “I know all about this case, I spent 5 hours reading it yesterday.”

Wait… what?!?!


I was dumbfounded. 5 hours on a case for a pass-fail course!

Cue the proper What Should We Call Hult meme.

I’ll be honest. I hadn’t even looked at the case. I had forgotten all about it. I felt like a bad teammate. I flipped through the case right then and there and tried to gather as much information as possible to be able to provide my own insights to the team discussion. I still thought this guy was crazy for spending 5 hours on it though. He’s really going to have to manage his time better in a one-year intensive MBA program, I thought to myself.

After that point, I tried to experiment with case reading. And how little time I could spend reading a case and still be prepared for class. I would try reading a case while eating lunch, I would try reading a case on the T on the way to school. Both of those saved time, but my best method was this: sit down at a rather large table, unstaple the case and spread it out across the table (this way I could read it and jump around without flipping back and forth), grab a highlighter and pen, and then set a timer for 10 minutes –  try to read as much and get as much out of the case as I could in 10 minutes.

Some people needed hours to read these things. Some people didn’t sleep much that year. All I needed was a big table and 10 minutes (and a paper copy of the case – as much as I loved the iPad, the method didn’t work near as well with electronic versions.) For the record, I graduated near the top of the class.

The moral, I like to think, is: better method beats hard work.

Lazy and Chillin'

Lazy and Chillin’

The Importance of Guiding Principles

Now, I’m not against working hard. But, my goal when working hard is to find the guiding principle that makes everything easy.

By guiding principle I mean one sentence. One sentence that defines the topic at hand. One sentence that makes everything easy.

I’m willing to bust my ass to find the guiding principle, because once found, I can lay back on the guiding principle and coast. The context will be there and new info will fall into place without effort.

Using the example from 3 Idiots above, Rancho’s guiding principle for what a machine is was: “anything that makes human effort easier.” This is much simpler than the book definition and by using and understanding this guiding principle to engineering he didn’t have to spend the 18 hours a day cramming and studying.

Want some more examples of guiding principles that make things simple?

Here’s some I’ve come up with. Feel free to use them – but understand them first, then apply them.

Want to ace an accounting course?

Think of “how a business works.”

Want to ace the GMAT Quant section?

“Don’t do math.”

Consulting case interviews?

“Build an issues tree.”

Japanese grammar?

“Verb comes last.”

(quick note about this one: a lot of English speakers fear Japanese grammar because they think “everything is backwards!” But, that is both incorrect and ambiguous. What is “everything”? And what does “backwards” mean? A much better guiding principle is “verb comes last” because that’s all that really matters in Japanese grammar. It also instantly makes things simple, which is our whole goal.)

Want to make a woman fall in love with you?

“Hold your frame.”

(Ha! Another note: a lot of guys think that you have to “be an asshole to get the girl” or something like that. Again, like the above Japanese example, this one is not entirely true. A better guiding principle is to just to “hold your frame”, ie: don’t be a pushover, ie: stand on your own two feet. Given the extremes: the classical “nice guy” and the asshole, one holds his frame fairly well, the other is a complete pushover. Again, I don’t need to tell you which is preferable.)

Any guiding principles you’ve come up with in order to simplify things and make them easier in your life? Let me know in the comments below.


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3 thoughts on “Keep Things Simple, and They Will Be Easier

  1. If you maintain your frame, cultivate masculinity, and lift weights, girls will basically be raping you by the time you’re approaching 30.

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