On Simplicity: Curly Got It Wrong

Reducing a life or business strategy to one thing leaves too much out.


Remember the movie City Slickers? Curly was the crispy, gruff drover.  Played by the late, great Jack Palance in an Oscar-winning performance, Curly is in some minds immortalized for his advice to Billy Crystal’s character Mitch in that movie; it was his philosophy of life.

The exchange goes like this:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

[holds up one finger]

Curly: This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.

Mitch: But, what is the “one thing”?

Curly: [smiles] That’s what you have to find out.

The secret of life is figuring out your “one thing.”  That’s what Curly had to say: Find the one thing, and the “rest don’t mean shit.”

But you know what?

Curly was wrong.  Reducing your life, work, or strategy to one thing leaves out too much, and it also leaves out the art of having to do more than one thing.

Simplicity, then, is too simple sometimes.

Life should be as simple as possible, and not one bit more simple.  That means that saying life is about one thing is probably insufficient for anyone who takes the time to read this blog.

I know executives who say that their “one thing” is financial performance. I know others who say it’s their people. I know others still who will say it’s their faith. But I don’t know a single one who can do one thing to the exclusion of all others and find success.  It may be true that none of us can truly serve more than one master, but it’s also true that we all have to attempt to do so.

That’s where too many executives fail: they talk simple, but life isn’t simple. They say, “Just grow the company and all will be fine,” but they end up with an Enron.  They say, “Just treat people well and all will be great,” and they end up with General Motors.  They say, “Worry about the customer and we’ll be fine” and they end up like WebVan.  Or they say, “Just do what gets us compensated,” and they turn into Lehman Brothers.

One thing can lead to dark stuff, and that’s why I’m writing this: as an antidote to “one thingism.” You may work with a one-thing executive, and that may work well for him or her at a moment in time, but for all the talk of one thing, actions have to take into account many things.

Any CEO worth her salt has exceptional focus.  That focus may be on building a team, closing a financing, developing a product, or influencing stakeholders.  Any of these could be a given CEO’s one thing, but the truth is that they have to be good at balancing their “one thing” at any given point. CEOs have to build teams, and boards, and products, and customers, and relationships, and bad CEOs get “one thingism” in their blood and never let go.

Notably, though, bad strategies do too. How often do we as management strategists find executives or their critics attempting reductionist, one-thingist views of strategy.  They get so high-level, so abstract, that they end up achieving a grand unifying theory of organizational strategy that is significant to no one.  They “one thing” their strategy to empty pablum like “focus” or “innovation” or otherwise.

Reality is messy.  Practical strategy is tough.

So, if you are working really hard to simplify and synthesize your strategy or focus, congratulations, that’s not a bad thing. A strong strategy should be reducible to simple terms, but no more simple than necessary.

In short, if you are simplifying beyond usefulness.  Watch out.

I suspect that a mountain of Dilbert cartoons could be drafted on the backs of strategy statements that state nothing.  Some jewels:

“We will be a growth company.”

“We will build a great company.”

“We will be innovative leaders.”

“We will have a winning culture.”

“We will be a community of leaders.”

Perhaps the best way I can convey this notion to more seasoned executives is to use an interesting case study:  A survey of millennials about their life goals showed that more than 80% of them had a major life goal to “get rich.”  That means they wanted to make a lot of money as a goal in itself.  This is a generation that is being somewhat venerated for its focus on purpose and meaning.

If you are on older worker or executive, with a family, hobbies, pursuits, relationships, and other sources of meaning that do not derive from your bank account, think about how hollow the goal of merely making money is to a good life.  You’ve probably had friends who have hurt themselves and others in pursuit of mere money.  Money isn’t an end (okay, you and I both might say “but it helps…”).  It’s a representation of value provided to someone else.

It’s a “one thing” that has no meaning to anyone other than the person who collects it.

And, that’s what’s dangerous about one thingism in strategy.  Your one thing (earnings growth, people development, customer service) may not matter one whit to a truly rich strategy.

Reducing a life or business strategy to one thing leaves too much out.

Now, a challenge for you:  Take a moment and leave a reply on this post about a “one thing” strategy that has or hasn’t worked.  What’s your gut reaction to this post?

3 replies
  1. Scott
    Scott says:

    You’re wrong, because you’ve misinterpreted the simplicity of the message. Curly asked “what is the secret of life?” He did not ask “what is the secret of business?”

    The truth of the message is that it is subjective and we each must look for the primary driver in our lives. All other goals and motivations should be orchestrated to that end if we are to feel balance and accomplishment in our life.

    It is not about only “doing” one thing, or adopting a single strategy. The brilliance of the observation, fictitious as the movie is, is that it is universally correct. There is one priority each of us has that will take precedence over all other “things” and discovering it gives you clarity in all your decisions and the setting of secondary priorities that follow.

    • Geoff Wilson
      Geoff Wilson says:

      Scott, your clarification on the context of the philosophy is an important one. I suspect context is important in any reductionist approach to life or business strategy. If you are going to live with a philosophy that says one primary driver is the way to seek balance, you had better understand the context constantly. We all face defining moments where a “universal” primary driver comes into conflict with some other (and likely good) value. Thanks for the comment!


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  1. […] know that I have a healthy skepticism for what I’ll call “one thingism.”  In an earlier post linked here, I used an old movie scene to set off the notion that strategies formed around “one […]

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