Two Rare—But Powerful—Words: “It Depends”


In a recent Growth Equation mastermind group, the topic shifted to what is lacking in so much of the mainstream so-called “wellness” or “productivity” or “self-improvement” movements.

Someone named Jason said, They are always offering silver bullets and magical solutions.

Someone named Rob piped in, What separates the Growth Equation’s approach is that you all are willing to embrace the nuance, to say “it depends.”

This is not meant to be a humble-brag about the Growth Equation. We do some things well and other things not so well. Here, I want to key in on the nuance and it depends nature of most things, and try to offer a practical framework for thinking about this.

First thing is first: Endless complexification of everything is every bit as much a problem as certainty about everything. You especially see this when people are trying to monetize something like diet or fitness or creativity. They take something that is relatively simple (though simple does not mean easy) and use all kinds of jargon and pathways and triggers to dress it up and make it sound like something worth paying to learn more about.

To be clear, nuance and it depends thinking are not about making things endlessly complex. They are about making things as simple as possible and being discerning about their application. There’s an old saying that the path of mastery looks like this: simple –> complex –> simple.

First, you have no idea about the thing so you take it at face value. It is very simple. Then, you start learning the ins and outs of how and why something works; it becomes complex. After you’ve learned all that, sometimes years or even decades later, it simply becomes simple again.

(A fun aside, in Zen there is a teaching: Before I sought enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers. While I sought enlightenment, the mountains were not mountains and the rivers were not rivers. After I reached enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.” I think this teaching is similar to simple, complex, simple.)

Perhaps where nuance and it depends thinking comes in, then, is on the very back end. After—or perhaps better put, as a part of—the second level of simplicity in the simple, complex, simple framework.

Understanding concepts at their essence is powerful. Knowing in what circumstances, for what duration, and with what explanation to apply or teach those concepts is a superpower. And that superpower requires a whole lot of nuance and it depends thinking.

Another way to think about it is this: Wellness and productivity and performance and self-improvement concepts are like tools. You want to have a big toolkit, and you want to keep the tools very simple. But knowing what circumstances call for what tools requires nuance and the ability—the humility—to say it depends.

Coming back to the framework I promised: simple –> complex –> simple, applied with discernment and a (sometimes) hefty dose of it depends.


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