Keep it Simple, Stupid

Why does fun have to be so damn difficult?

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A funny thing happened in Providence on Columbus Day. The fifth annual PRONK! Providence Honk Fest kicked off in India Point Park. It’s a daylong gathering of street and marching bands, a truly grassroots event that came to Providence after the original Honk Fest was founded in Boston. What struck me as funny was its simplicity: you just show up.

Granted, a substantial effort goes into organizing this thing – people volunteer their time, money is raised to cover transportation for bands from all over the county, visiting musicians are housed in guest rooms and on couches of local participants, organizations like the Providence Tourism Council and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts pitch in – but the experience for the end user, the person attending the festival, is refreshingly simple and low impact: you just show up. There’s no ticket to buy, no list to be on, no cover charge to pay. And when you do arrive, there are no food vendors charging pumped-up prices for mediocre food, no bar where you need to show ID or buy drink tickets, no merch vendors hawking t-shirts or posters. There are no lines to wait in, no rules to follow (other than the everyday rules of a civil society, of course), nothing to do except enjoy the music and have a good time. It sounds simple, but how many examples of that kind of streamlined, low impact fun can you bring to mind?

Another great example of this simplicity is Project Night Vision, something that I’ll call an after after school program. It’s an intramural sports and activity program for children and teens in underserved communities – basically, it’s a way to keep kids off the street who might not otherwise have somewhere to go and something to do. Again, a tremendous amount of (unpaid) time and effort on the part of dedicated volunteers led by founder Kobi Dennis goes into making Project Night Vision happen. But again, the beauty is the low bar to entry and thelow impact on the end user: the kids just show up. They don’t apply to be in this program. There’s no tuition or fee to be paid. No permission slip to be signed. No application to be filled out. They show up and play a game of basketball or hang out and listen to music or join a discussion of an issue that affects them. It’s simple, enjoyable and effective.

Unfortunately, most things that happen in our society – even most good things, like music festivals and sports programs for kids – are not that easy. In addition to the work and cost that goes into making them happen, participation for the end user is expensive, difficult, inaccessible, confusing, high pressure or otherwise less than enjoyable. There are additional costs to be paid, extra products and services to buy, paperwork to fill out, applications to submit, tickets to purchase, rules to follow, lines to wait in. In a highly regulated, litigious and economically troubled place and time, we don’t allow many things to just happen. We’re constantly asking for permission instead of begging for forgiveness. Musical performances, basketball games, fun, activity, community – these are things that should just happen spontaneously and be nurtured when they do. Instead we muck them up with planning, permits, fees, expenses, sponsorships, grant applications, ticket sales, product placement, crowd control, regulations, more complexity, more bureaucracy.

Look, we need safety, order and the ability to generate profits in order to maintain a stable, civil society – but we also need to leave room for things to just happen. We need simplicity. We need to make sure a good idea doesn’t die on the vine just because we’ve created an environment in which it’s too damn difficult or expensive to execute. We need people to feel like they have the power to make something happen. And when they do, sometimes we need to be able to just show up.