Subtraction

You know, every now and then, you have an idea that you keep ignoring implicitly thinking it would go away, but it keeps coming back to you. For me, having one wristwatch for the rest of my life was one such idea. Let me explain. I like mechanical watches (a lot). I also like learning about them, and I can spend hours on end doing so. I also find it endlessly fascinating to collect them, the result of which is a small, modest collection.

But here’s the thing: Not too long ago, I thought to myself, “What if I gave away most of my watches and just wore the same watch all of the time for the rest of my life?” I became obsessed with this idea. I’ll admit, I was partly inspired after hearing stories of those who played sports professionally, most of whom received (or bought) a luxury timepiece at some point in their career to celebrate a milestone, after which it never left their wrists. It meant something to them. It reminded them of the sacrifices it took to reach their goals. Now, they could easily spend money on watches and hoard as many as they wanted, but they were not collectors. Quite the opposite — I saw them as someone who embodied the Less But Better philosophy (by virtue of having a single timepiece because it meant something to them), of which I am a huge proponent.

When I found myself obsessing over things (watches) to no end over the course of time, I learned there is no limit to wanting more things in life. It’s a never-ending desire. Later, I had the more rational idea of rather than wanting to have many watches (which might not get enough wrist time), why not just wear one watch and truly enjoy it? Why not build an emotional connection with that watch, have it be a witness to the events in my life, and maybe pass it down to someone I love in the twilight of my life? Wouldn’t that mean something?!

Of course, the less obvious reason is when you have/wear only one watch, there is no decision to make as to which watch to wear every day. It’s the one decision you make now that cuts down a thousand decisions in the future. Of course, now I have gone from limiting myself to a dozen to simply wearing one timepiece. Here is what I wrote in an earlier draft:

To give you another example of a more deliberate constraint, I like to collect timepieces. At the same time, I have set a personal limit of having no more than a dozen in my lifetime. The point being there is no end to things we want, so unless we have some limits in place by design, we will always end up having more by default.

Here’s the thing. We are a society obsessed with having more and more things. It never ends. We get so focused on what we have (and want) versus who we are (becoming). We are under the influence of the material/physical world that we forget those things/experiences are fleeting. It’s a fallacy to think that our life gets better by adding more and more things to it.

Life is better lived with a less is better ideology. For instance, when Gandhi passed away, he owned fewer than 10 items. I am not asking us all to be Gandhi, but there is something to learn from his example. We can all live a life of simplicity, contribution, and meaning. Subtraction isn’t something you do (once), but part of who you are.

Even though I started this piece talking about an artifact (timepiece) as something you can relate to, this idea of subtraction goes beyond having fewer things and experiences. It applies to every aspect of our lives, be it ourselves, the work we do, or the relationships we have.

The other thing is when we talk about improving our lives, it’s usually about starting to do something (or addition) to make it better and not as much about removing things from our lives (subtraction). I’d argue the latter to be more effective in most cases.

The Persian poet Rumi has said there are two kinds of intelligence in the world. One is when you are a student and you go to school to acquire information (memorize facts and figures), you compete with others to get ahead in life with the implicit assumption that you need things outside of you to complete you, but seeking external things in life is a fool’s errand that most of the physical world is obsessed with.

The other kind of intelligence is about subtraction — when you don’t look outside of you, but rather within. The assumption is you are enough, meaning you have everything you need while the fountain of knowledge flows from within you, and not from the outside in. There is nothing to achieve. It’s about uncovering yourself slowly like the layers of an onion to realize your potential, which is the actual goal of education — but that’s a conversation for another day.

Apart from the aforementioned wristwatch example, here are some ways I subtract from my life to add to it:

I used to read a lot. I would read anything that I could get my hands on. The problem was I was mistaking reading for retention, so I decided I wanted to read for depth instead of pleasure alone. I would rather read fewer books and retain more as opposed to reading many books and not remembering even a tenth of what I read. Besides, I learned from experience that bookmarking pages and highlighting passages in a book doesn’t help you remember things.

I routinely purge my closet once a quarter to keep it current and complete. For instance, when an item doesn’t spark joy in my life, it has to go. When I am traveling, I am thinking of the fewest things to carry for my trip — as much as I need and as few as I can get away with. I am always looking to keep myself lean and agile while being conscious of having a lighter footprint on the planet. In other words, I am a huge advocate for living with enough.

I started keeping a sugar log not too long ago to keep track of my sugar intake. I believe the recommended daily sugar intake to be no more than two teaspoons, which I have in my tea most mornings. Any time I have sugary food/drink besides this goes into the log. The need to have less sugar arose from having emotional hunger after dinner. Even though I didn’t keep any sugary foods in the house, I often found myself going outside to get an ice-cream or a shake (which I could have easily ordered through an app, but that’s beside the point). Anyway, as part of my evening routine, I now open this document once and log things in it. It helped me be more aware of my habit and it helped me slowly reduce my sugar intake. One of the results of this is I don’t crave anything sweet in the evening now, though reading after dinner might have more to do with it.

For me, subtraction in my work meant consolidating my consulting business and making it easy for others to work with me. Instead of offering five different services under an umbrella of leadership and management consulting (which was input based), I offered only one service, which is to help successful and overworked business owners live a balanced and fulfilling life by doing a few things better. It also meant working with fewer (but better) clients, saying no to unpaid strategy work, and to stop making free proposals for prospects. It meant working only with those who were a natural fit for me as I believe the goal of business isn’t to work with everyone, but only with those who believe what you believe. That is what determines the success of any project or partnership and builds your credibility long term. In other words, I set myself up for success.

I have no qualms about giving up on relationships in life that keep me from moving forward, be it friendships, family, or what have you. When something’s not working, it’s quite obvious. You don’t have to overthink. I don’t let labels in life hold me back; I don’t distinguish between family and friends. For me, it simply boils down to: do I want to keep in touch with this person or not?

I quoted Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher and poet in an earlier draft:

To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.

Think about how you can bring subtraction to your own life as a discipline instead of a one-time occurrence. Think about the habits you want to stop in the long term. Do you want to reduce sugar or give it up? Are there things you think about that robs you of your attention and affects your ability to live in the present? Are there any relationships in your life that hold you back and leave you drained? Can you move forward without them? Have you taken commitments that aren’t worth your efforts anymore? Do you have limiting beliefs that hold you back? Think about the one thing you can never give up in your life and then try not having/doing it for a month to see what you learn from it.

A man next to Alexander The Great once said, “This man has conquered the world! What have you done?” The philosopher replied without an instant’s hesitation, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world”.

Conquer your need to have more. Be content with less (but better). Dependence is slavery. You have enough — everything you need and nothing you don’t. Get rid of what doesn’t spark joy in your life. When you declutter, you find more space for what really matters. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness.

Think about how you can use constraints in your life to add to it. You can’t innovate when you identify with your past. Something has to give in order to change things. This is true for organizations and individuals alike.

We can often do things with far fewer resources (time, money, manpower) than we think. For instance, in 2014, the Mars Oribiter Mission (MOM) successfully completed their mission on their first attempt (India being the only country to do so among US, Europe, and Russia). It’s budget was $74M, which is a fraction of the cost of what other countries (including Japan and China) have spent on similar projects in the past. It also happens to be less than the $100-130M budget of the 2013 film, Gravity.

Here’s the thing. There seems to be an excess of endless choice and feature bloat in all but a select few experiences. The simple life has become a thing of the past and is looked down upon and perceived as simplistic, but that view is wrong.

You don’t always have to add things to your life to improve it. You have to cut through the noise to get to the signal. It’s easy to do more and more things in our lives and spread ourselves thin, but sometimes not doing things adds more value to your life. The need for more and more is a never-ending trap.

Sign up to get my best advice on improving your personal effectiveness via my weekly Newsflash: