The difference between complex and complicated

I used to treat the words “complex” and “complicated” as synonyms. As if they were slightly different takes on essentially the same thing, i.e. something opposite of easy or simple to achieve.

To say that something was “complex” was to me just an enlargement of “complicated”: essentially the same thing but even more difficult.

Turns out I was very wrong, and finding out the difference made a big impact for me.

A while ago, I came across a couple of articles talking about feeling flow. Not the kind of flow-in-the-moment that Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined, but having a sense of flow in one’s career and work.

And an important piece of the puzzle of finding what you like to work with is knowing whether you thrive in a complicated or complex environment. 

The articles I read are in Swedish but I contacted the author, Bisse Frid, and she graciously gave me permission to translate and re-use her words. I tried and began to translate them, but I found not everything to be relevant for the point I want to make.

What follows is therefore not necessarily a word by word translation, but a summary and condensation of these articles. 

The credit for the analogies, concepts and explanations all go to her and does not come from my thinking. Her work in return is based on research and thoughts of several other authors. I want to share it with you because understanding this difference can be a crucial piece in the puzzle of your life.

To start with, a good image to separate complex from complicated is “a car is complicated while traffic is complex”.

High and low degree of complexity

High complexity

Something that is complex, or has a high degree of complexity, is affected by many factors and circumstances. The factors might even be unknown or be far removed in time or distance. At the same time, the individual tasks in the complex work are all intertwined so it’s hard to see where one stops and the other begins.

It’s often impossible to calculate what the best course of action is, and it’s hard to see immediate causes and effects. There are so many things affecting the outcome that it’s impossible to calculate in advance what is a good or bad decision.

Even after a decision is made, it can be difficult to know if it was the “right” one.

You can’t base your decision-making on past knowledge alone because there are constantly new things coming up that you need to take into account, things that were previously unknown.

Low complexity

A work or task with low degree of complexity means that it is possible to describe how it’s supposed to be done. The more knowledge and experience you gather, the better your decision-making will be. 

It’s easy to draw a line between what is part of the task, what falls under the responsibilities of others and how that affects your own work.

You can predict and either know or somehow calculate what the best decision is. You can evaluate or measure the result.

High and low degree of complication

A complicated task is defined by how many variables and inputs it has, how much information needs to be taken into consideration, how hard it is to learn and how hard it is to calculate or predict the result.

But even so, the result is predictable.

The bicycle is not very complicated, you can understand how it works pretty easily. Same thing with making and serving fast food – it is made for being easy to learn and hard to make mistakes.

In contrast, heart surgery is a very complicated task that requires both knowledge and a lot of training to do well. Same with putting a person in orbit around the earth. Very complicated, yet possible to calculate.

So when we say that the car is complicated, it’s because while few understand all of the systems and components in it you can predict how it will function.

In contrast, the traffic in a big city is affected by so many factors, many of which are unsure, that it’s not possible to predict exactly what the traffic situation of tomorrow morning is going to look like.

A combination of the two

When you consider the difficulty of any single job, you want to think about where it falls on both of these spectra. 

To lead a global organisation within the tech sphere is both a complicated and complex thing. There’s a lot of information to process, many different variables to consider, hard to learn and understand, and at the same time as you’re affected by many circumstances and factors outside of your control in a very dynamic and fast-paced environment.

Different jobs have different combinations of the degree of complexity and complication.

The difficulty of a job role can increase, but either of these directions increase the difficulty in a different way.

Preferring one, the other, or both

Somebody who gets energy from deep diving into something complicated will not like when things becomes too complex. They experience the complex as unclear, uncertain and confusing, and prefer difficult tasks where it is easy to see when you’re right and wrong.

Somebody who is drawn to the complex will on the other hand struggle with the complicated tasks that takes a long time to learn and has a lot of details that need to be correct.

And lastly some people need tasks that are both complicated and complex in order to feel stimulated and that work is not becoming too boring for them.

You will have a personal sweet spot of how complicated versus complex work task you would thrive in. This will maybe evolve as you age and mature, but maybe not.

Most people thrive on working with tasks/jobs that have a moderate amount of both complexity and complication.

The specialist will want to stay in a job that is complicated, perhaps for a very long time. That is what is necessary to become really good at it. Other people will want to have an increased degree of complexity over time, as they progress in their career. The person who likes complexity will want to have a broad perspective and take many things into account.

It’s helpful to know what kind of preferences you have when choosing your career, or the next step in your current one.

Common misconceptions

It’s easy to believe that big, important and/or well paid jobs always are complex. This is not necessarily true. Some are, but some are only moderately complex.

And it’s not inherently “better” to have a preference for more complex challenges. It can actually be quite hard to find these jobs, since they are few and it’s hard to qualify for them.

Another thing to consider is the concept of intelligence, or IQ. There have been meta studies where they have concluded that a higher cognitive ability means you perform better at both complex and complicated tasks.

But the problem is that you can only measure work performance on tasks that are not very complex. You can’t measure the outcome of a complex task by its very definition, since the result is affected by so many variables that you cannot discern which result is due to what.

There are in fact indicators that you don’t need an extremely high result on cognitive tests in order to be really good at handling – and thriving – in complexity. So the conclusion of these studies should really be changed to only apply to complicated work.

Having flow in your work life

Flow is most often used when it comes to singular tasks, as described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The feeling of flow happens when you know what you are going to do, the task has the right level of difficulty for you – not to easy and not too hard – and you feel you have the resources to do a good job.

You can translate the same concepts towards feeling flow in your work life and your career.

Ending up in a job that is more complicated or more complex than your preference means you are above your flow level. You will have a hard time understanding what to do and feel unsure of whether or not you’re doing a good job. 

This can happen when specialists too soon get promoted to a manager. It’s not at all a given that this is the most logical next step in one’s career.

Conversely, being under your flow level means you’re in a job that is too unstimulating, boring or simple for you. You will have a hard time focusing on the task at hand, perhaps even have a hard time to do it well even if you know what’s required.

Having a good enough correlation between the degree of complexity you get the most energy from and the degree of complexity that your work requires, is one of the most influential things – together with the relationship of your direct manager – that affect whether or not you feel satisfied and happy at work.

A good match means that you will find your work “fun” to do.

Consider your whole life – not just work life

When looking at the degree of complexity that is the optimum spot right now for you, consider all aspects of your current life. It’s quite common for parents with small kids to desire a work they feel are more routine since life outside work takes much more energy and focus.

And there are other factors for job satisfaction – having good colleagues, relationship to your boss and task variety all help towards feeling good at work.

Choosing to work in a job that has a lower degree of complexity than you’d normally like can also be compensated with stimulating activities outside of work.

So there you are. I hope this explanation of the differences between complex and complicated was as helpful to you as it has been to me.

It was certainly an eye-opener for me and came to me in just the right time.

When I came back from burnout, it helped me understand that I had come from a pretty complex environment: freelancer in two different fields, and with two small kids on top. And I would not be happy with too simple things. I have tried working in a café before, it drove me nuts.

So I found myself a job that was complicated enough to keep me stimulated, but not so complex that it demanded too much from me. I needed to know what to do and when I was right and when I was wrong.

Programming is delightfully honest in this regard. 

Perhaps you know instinctively where you fall on each of these ends. Perhaps you need to do a bit of introspection to find out.

Either way, you’ll benefit from becoming aware of your own preferences.

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