The Laws of Subtraction: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: October 12th, 2012 by bobmorris

The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything
Matthew E. May
McGraw-Hill (2012)

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To add wisdom, subtract things every day.”  Lao Tzu

While writing his latest book, Matthew May invited more than 70 people to be guest contributors, sharing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences about subtraction. More than 50 accepted and I was among them, pleased to be included. That said, only when I read the book in final form did I understand and appreciate what his specific objectives were. As with the objectives for The Elegant Solution and In Pursuit of Elegance, he achieves them fully and eloquently. May observes, “neuroscientists have shown, using magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), that addition and subtraction require different brain circuitry” from what many (most?) people prefer, “hardwired to add and accumulate, hoard and store.”

This book offers to guide new and innovative thinking on how people can make better decisions (to add as well as to subtract) and produce better results by artfully and intelligently using less (or more). “The Laws of Subtraction is meant to be a guide to creating more engaging experiences not only for others but for ourselves.” There seems to be remarkable agreement over many centuries about the potential benefits of subtraction, simplification, reduction, etc. The title of my review is from the Tao Te Ching, dating back to 6th century BCE. It is also noteworthy that the insightful quotations about the subtractive mindset, strategically inserted throughout the book, are selected from a wide and diverse range of sources.

May offers six “simple” rules or laws that are, he explains, based  on one of the laws in John Maeda’s brilliant book, The Laws of Simplicity. Here is #10: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.” (Maeda is another of the contributors.) May devotes a separate chapter to each, concluding with a cluster of guest commentaries that are most relevant to the given law. I appreciate his clever use of a “Spotlight on” device which features mini-commentaries on topics such as “What Isn’t There” (Pages 10-11), “Connecting the Dots” (80-81), “Constraints” (127), “Sunk Work” (159), and “Doing Nothing” (190).

These are among the dozens of other passages that caught my eye:

o  The Zen of Nothing (Pages 18-20)
o  A Sense of Place (38-49)
o  Let It Be (51-56)
o  Connecting the Dots (70-74)
o  Audience as Author (93-95)
o  A Tale of Two 25a (118-123)
o  The Chains of Creativity (128-132)
o  Breaking Barriers (151-158)
o  Daydream Believin’ (179-184)

I agree about both the difficulties and  the benefits of making better decisions during what many regard as an Age of Excess. May observes, “At the heart of every difficult decision lie three tough choices: What to pursue versus what to ignore. What to leave in versus what to leave out. What to do versus what to don’t. I have discovered that if you focus on the second half of each choice — what to ignore, what to leave out, what to don’t — the decision becomes exponentially easier and simpler. The key is to remove the stupid stuff: anything obviously excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use or ugly.”

However, I think we should keep in mind that the power of subtraction, reduction, elimination, etc. can have both positive and negative imoact. I learned years ago that only severe pruning could save our crepe myrtle trees during a period of sub-zero temperature.  But to extent the gardening metaphor, we must not rip out seedlings to see how well they’re growing. Thank you, Matthew May, for your latest book. I think it is your most entertaining as well as most informative and valuable book…thus far.

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