Subtraction

On the art of stripping things away.

Some years and several countries ago, I started getting rid of many of the things I owned. As I recall, I spared only a bed, a desk, a desk chair, and two small dressers with drawers and shelves for my few clothes and books. It was about more than just furniture, though. In fact, it had almost nothing to do with furniture. It was about my mind. There was too much happening in it. And I was simply unable to get a grip on most of it. As I began stripping things away, I felt a kind of catharsis, a space clearing on which I could stand, a path forming on which I could walk, and a comparably distraction-free space from which I could at least attempt to figure some things out. Little things like how does one live a life?

I sacrificed some of that to the gods of getting married and building a house with someone whose name I often prefix with "Hurricane." But those were mostly material sacrifices. We still don't have much furniture. But we do have much more than the two bags I left America with. Still, in my home office, where I spend an unmentionable amount of time, I have only the things I need: desk; desk chair; desk lamp; whiteboard; a small mat and pillow I keep on the floor for meditation breaks and afternoon power naps; headphones for many things and a microphone for when I figure out what might be better said than written; an air purifier, for purifying the air.

I won't pretend that my mind is equally free of detritus because it is not. But it's freer than it would be were I not to be selective about what I allow entry into it, i.e., what I allow it to fixate on.

A few weeks ago, I read a blog post that alerted me to a Nature study and companion article from April. The study looked at whether people are more likely to make additive or subtractive changes in problem solving, and found that they default to making additive changes, even when it's more efficient to make subtractive changes. Here's the abstract:

Improving objects, ideas or situations—whether a designer seeks to advance technology, a writer seeks to strengthen an argument or a manager seeks to encourage desired behavior—requires a mental search for possible changes. We investigated whether people are as likely to consider changes that subtract components from an object, idea or situation as they are to consider changes that add new components. People typically consider a limited number of promising ideas in order to manage the cognitive burden of searching through all possible ideas, but this can lead them to accept adequate solutions without considering potentially superior alternatives. Here we show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations. Across eight experiments, participants were less likely to identify advantageous subtractive changes when the task did not (versus did) cue them to consider subtraction, when they had only one opportunity (versus several) to recognize the shortcomings of an additive search strategy or when they were under a higher (versus lower) cognitive load. Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape and damaging effects on the planet.

Clearly, I have a bias toward making subtractive changes. So it's not surprising that I found the findings personally satisfying. But personal satisfaction leads nowhere, and I found myself pausing regularly throughout my days to test the findings against whatever I was doing, reading about, etc.

Anyone who writes and keeps it up for long enough will know that what might appear as "magic" on the page is often just the result of innumerable edits and revisions and cuts. I've long thought of writing as an attempt to put words in the right order. I think this began in my mind as a sort of spiritual quest; "the right order" being something that would set the writer free from whatever demons were compelling them to write. And I do still think there's some subconscious truth to that compulsion to get the words in any one text right. There is for me, at least. But no one's getting set free. Maybe for an afternoon or a day. But then it's time to get back to work. Because we are people and that's what people do. We go on. Always changing but always unresolved.

These days, when I talk about putting the words in the right order, I'm speaking strictly of mechanics and style. Finding that right order necessarily means removing words that stand in the way of it. I'm not saying that I often achieve this, or even that I've ever achieved it. I'm just saying it's the aspiration. It's what I admire most about so many skilled writers, comedians, speakers, and so on. It's perhaps the thing I try hardest to learn from them. The art of irreducibility. Making things as alive and potent as they can be by locating their nucleus.

This doesn't always apply, of course. Sometimes you need to add things. There are often great reasons for adding things. You can't subtract from nothing. You have to add something first. And there are other individuals I admire whose magic seems to emerge from their additions, their going on at length, their long movements through layer upon layer of complexity. But even then, there's still nothing in their words that would be strengthened by adding more than is needed. Likewise, there will probably always remain, even among masters of their craft, elements of their work that could have been improved through further revision and subtraction.

That’s the art. Knowing when to do which thing. But having no choice, by virtue of being human, but to know only approximately. And I don’t just mean the art of writing. I mean the art of everything. The art of thinking and doing. The art of making something from nothing. The art of making it better. So yes, sometimes we need to add. But we accumulate so much in a life, and just in a day. Why would we not need to routinely strip things away?

There are no absolutes. And this is not one either. But I think giving more consideration to subtractive rather than additive changes might prove useful for those of us looking to un-muddy our minds.

I also think it would be useful at the societal level. I was reminded while reading the Nature article about a study I came across a year or so ago. The study is about concept creep. And actually, I'm reminded of it pretty regularly. Here's the abstract:

Why do some social problems seem so intractable? In a series of experiments, we show that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. When blue dots became rare, participants began to see purple dots as blue; when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening; and when unethical requests became rare, participants began to see innocuous requests as unethical. This “prevalence-induced concept change” occurred even when participants were forewarned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it. Social problems may seem intractable in part because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them.

What do we do when problems get smaller? We add to them, of course. By expanding our concept of them. Is this helpful and progressive or a recipe for eternal division and discontent? I don't know. But I think it's probably neither and both. Because it will always depend on the particular problem and its context. The best we can do, then, is be aware, and careful, and selective about what we choose to allow (or add) in.


Notes: