The Art of Adding by Taking Away

Image by David Saracino

Written by Matthew E. May

NORMALLY I have more ideas than I know what to do with. Several years ago, however, I ran out of them.

At the time, I was working closely with the senior leadership of a very large and successful Japanese company. I had been hired to help it develop new ideas and strategies in the United States, but was struggling with a particularly difficult project that required me to reconcile two completely different perspectives. (Eastern and Western ways of thinking are often at odds with each other.) I found myself at a standstill.

I must not have done a very good job of hiding how useless I was feeling, because a 2,500-year-old snippet of Chinese philosophy found its way to me anonymously, via a handwritten note on a Post-it stuck to my work space.

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day,” it said, capsulizing teachings of Lao Tzu. “Profit comes from what is there, usefulness from what is not there.”

My first thought was, “Someone wants me gone — I’d be more useful that way.” But as I read it again and thought about it, lightning struck.

It dawned on me that I’d been looking at my problem in the wrong way. As is natural and intuitive, I had been looking at what to do, rather than what not to do. But as soon as I shifted my perspective, I was able to complete the project successfully.

Even though the idea of subtracting things every day was thousands of years old, it was still radical to me. I decided to explore the idea further.

I discovered an essay by the management educator Jim Collins, in which he confirmed the ancient philosophy: “A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit — to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort — that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company or, most important of all, a life.”

In reading several articles in scientific literature, I discovered that subtraction lights up a brain scan differently than addition does, because it uses different circuitry. In fact, accident victims suffering brain injuries often lose their ability to both add and subtract, retaining only one of the two. Subtraction is literally a different way of thinking.

While it hadn’t occurred to me to use subtraction in my own job, I realized that it is at the root of many professions. Scientists, mathematicians and engineers search for theories that explain highly complex phenomena in stunningly simple ways. Musicians and composers use pauses in the music — silence — to create dramatic tension. Athletes and dancers search for maximum impact with minimal effort. Filmmakers, novelists and songwriters strive to tell simple stories that foster both multiple meanings and universal resonance.

The principle of subtraction carries over to the corporate world. Here are some examples: W. L. Gore, recognized as one of the world’s most innovative companies, eliminated job titles in order to release employees’ creativity. When it started out, Scion, the youth-oriented unit of Toyota, decided not to advertise, and it reduced the number of standard features on its vehicles to allow buyers to customize their cars. The British bank First Direct operates successfully without branches, relying instead on Internet, telephone and mobile transactions. Steve Jobs revolutionized the world’s concept of a cellphone by removing the physical keyboard from the iPhone. Instagram, acquired last year by Facebook, grew quickly once its first version, called Burbn, was stripped of many of its features and reworked to focus on one thing: photos.

THINK about what you could do — or rather not do — in your own life that would put these principles into play. There are two easy ways to begin subtracting things every day:

First, create a “not to do” list to accompany your to-do list. Give careful thought to prioritizing your goals, projects and tasks, then eliminate the bottom 20 percent of the list — forever.

Second, ask those who matter to you most — clients, colleagues, family members and friends — what they would like you to stop doing. Warning: you may be surprised at just how long the list is.

The lesson I’ve learned from my pursuit of less is powerful in its simplicity: when you remove just the right things in just the right way, something good happens.


About Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May is the author of “The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything.”

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The Art of Adding by Taking Away

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