In 2008, I read Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Essentially, it is about making slideshow presentations more powerful, more focused, more interesting and more effective. (I think this book should be mandatory for all students and business presenters.) It is also about the value of simplicity. Simplicity is not easy, but it is powerful and I think a worthy goal in almost any endeavor. As Leonardo DaVinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Well this week I picked up the sequel, Presentation Zen Design. The follow-up volume is equal parts effective presentation strategies and a crash course in the basics of design—mostly what we would consider graphic design—at an elemental level that translates into many of life’s pursuits. It was inside this well-crafted package that I found a principle so elegant that I was compelled to spend more time with it. Reynolds often comments on how restraint is key to powerful design, a beautiful yet counter-intuitive idea. But deeper still was the following quote about working within constraints from Steve Hagen,
True freedom doesn’t lie in the maximization of choice, but, ironically, is most easily found in a life where there is little choice.
I find this notion far more counter-intuitive than merely the notion of restraint. In fact, I would expect most readers to read and reject this idea out of hand. However, I think there is a great truth here. In a country based on freedom, where we even have a statue of liberty, and in a world with few restrictions, what external constraints are left? We aren’t coerced by a king, or a master. We are free to adopt the only true control there is, which is self-control.
Victor Frankl said, “A human being is a deciding being.” and, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This idea of space relates to what Hagen is talking about. If we look at our lives from the deciding moments, we are essentially looking forward at the unwritten story of our lives. Nothing exists there yet but space. And then we make a decision… From Presentation Zen Design:
If you take an empty slide and put even a single word on it, you have created “space.” Before you put anything on a slide, it is just a frame filled with possibilities. Once you add an element, you activate the space.
When we choose to act in our lives, from those moments of critical decision, we “activate the space.” We are constrained by the consequences of our actions, but within those constraints is where we can achieve the greatest freedom. When we try to act without consequence, we are slaves of our own thinking, because we have rejected the constraints that would have made us free. In fact the energizing creativity that is required to keep harmony with each subsequent decision we make after “activating the space” is exciting and alluring.
In Presentation Zen Design, Reynolds discusses the Japanese ink and wash art called sumi-e. In sumi-e, the ink is always black. A monotone palette from pure black to very light shades of gray is created by the manner in which each brushstroke is made. There are rules in traditional sumi-e. If you do not understand the rules, you can paint all you want, but you are not making sumi-e. You are not free to make sumi-e unless you understand the constraints, the proper method for how it is made. I remember my grandmother telling me that when she was a child and she saw her first opera, she wanted to come home and write one herself. Of course when she sat down to write it, she found that she couldn’t. It was an impossibly hard task from her current level of skill and understanding. I had a similar experience after reading Tolkein, I thought it would be great to create my own language. I spent several hours attempting this, only to discover that I did not yet understand enough about grammar and syntax to produce more than a few code words that related 1:1 to their English counterparts.
If exercises like these demanded that we learn the rules and operate within the constraints, what about the big things in life? What about happiness, relationships, religion, and meaning? Well, it stands to reason that you need to learn to embrace constraints there too. If god’s plan involved giving us our agency, the freedom to choose for ourselves and to act rather than be acted upon, yet at the same time gave us a laundry list of commandments, of constraints, then it stands to reason that if we want to become what we have the potential of becoming, we really don’t have a choice at all.
The irony, as Hagen says, is that to be truly free, we have to choose to act in complete harmony with all of the constraints. If freedom is what we desire, we really don’t have any choice in the matter.