The Purity of Simplicity

When I was just now reading William H. Gass’s essay “Simplicities,” I thought of Steve Jobs, not that Gass was writing about him in this essay or would have written about him since the piece was first published in book form in 1996 when Jobs was still in the wilderness and not on many philosophers’ lists of businessmen to discuss.

But I thought of Jobs especially when Gass wrote about the simplicity of Shaker craftsmanship, which reflected in its own way the Japanese style of design that had influenced Jobs, the craftsmanship Gass described as “spare, straight, upright, plain, simple, direct, pure, square, tight, useful, orderly, unaffected, neat, clean careful, correct.”

He said:

Yet the Shakers used only the finest maple, the truest oak and clearest of pine, the best slate. Grooves and pegs which were internal to a piece, and therefore never seen, were finished as finely as if they would live their whole lives out-of-doors.

This statement closely resembles the way Jobs felt, as recalled in Walter Isaason’s biography of the Apple co-founder and CEO. Once as a boy when painting a fence with his father, Jobs was told that because he would know the quality of the work he had done, Jobs needed to paint the back of the fence located in the corner of the yard, even though no one would ever see it. He always remembered, and lived by, that lesson. When working on the first Mac computer, Jobs insisted that “the printed circuit board that would hold the chips and other components deep inside the Macintosh” be as beautiful as possible, Isaason wrote. Years later, Jobs said about this belief:

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

Such quality, whether on the back of a fence, inside a computer, or “only” within a sentence or paragraph you’re writing for a blog post, bylined article or news release, is often invisible to those who merely glance at the work. To them its quality may make little difference. But it’s not invisible, insignificant, lost or forgotten to you if you care about what you do and how you do it and if you strive for this sense of purity that Gass called “the property of simplicity.”