Logo

    Do Less

    Less is often more when it comes to creating impactful and powerful art, as evidenced by William of Ockham, Lao Tzu, and Bruce Springsteen's success in using subtraction and minimalism.

    enJune 06, 2022

    About this Episode

    The human drive to invent new things has led to pathbreaking achievements in medicine, science and society. But  our desire for innovation can keep us from seeing one of the most powerful paths to progress: subtraction. Engineer Leidy Klotz says sometimes the best way forward involves removing, streamlining  and simplifying things.

    If you like this show, be sure to check out our other work, including our recent episode about the psychological traps we fall into when it comes to money. 

    Also, check out our new podcast, My Unsung Hero! And if you'd like to support our work, you can do so at support.hiddenbrain.org. 

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Narrowing focus and stripping away extraneous information can lead to better results in problem-solving and innovation. Remember that less is sometimes more.
    • Removing unnecessary components can be more effective than adding to them. Consider subtraction as a solution instead of always adding more. This approach can lead to more innovative and sustainable outcomes.
    • Subtraction can be a creative problem-solving tool, not just adding to things. Embrace the power of subtraction to find innovative solutions in all areas of life.
    • The value of adding to something is culturally ingrained, but recognizing the potential benefits of subtraction can drive innovation. However, economics and human behavior also present obstacles to this approach.
    • Our natural inclination towards acquiring more, along with cultural and logistical pressures, often prevent us from considering the benefits of subtracting. However, deliberate efforts towards efficient decision making can lead to meaningful progress both personally and professionally.
    • Our brains are wired to seek pleasure in acquiring things and experiences but often overlook the benefits of letting go. By consciously practicing subtraction, we can simplify our lives and improve overall well-being.
    • Subtraction can be more beneficial than addition and communities should identify opportunities to subtract, even if it requires overcoming psychological obstacles. San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway demolition showed how subtraction can lead to numerous benefits.
    • Subtraction can be difficult to see the value of, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how removal of certain things can have positive effects. Addition and subtraction need to work together for the best results.
    • Take a step back and consider what you can subtract from your life or work to make room for innovative ideas and opportunities. From products to policies, subtraction can be a valuable tool for progress.
    • By eliminating unnecessary elements, we can enhance the quality of various aspects of life. Simple rules like removing two laws for every new one and checklists can improve lawmaking and medicine, while art and creativity are often sparked by eliminating the unnecessary.
    • Less is often more when it comes to creating impactful and powerful art, as evidenced by William of Ockham, Lao Tzu, and Bruce Springsteen's success in using subtraction and minimalism.
    • Showing patience and using creative tactics to help children with autism during haircuts can not only make them look good but also help ease their anxiety, build trust and develop a special bond.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    The Power of Doing Less in Innovation

    In brainstorming sessions, we often overlook the idea of doing less and focus solely on expansion. This narrow focus can hinder innovation and prevent organizations from streamlining processes and eliminating ineffective projects. Leidy Klotz, a professor at the University of Virginia, found that stripping away extraneous information and focusing on the fundamental principles can lead to better results, as evidenced by his success in his college course on mechanics. It's important to remember that sometimes, less is more when it comes to problem-solving and innovation.

    Embracing Subtraction for Better Design and Engineering

    Subtraction can be a powerful tool for improving design and engineering, as demonstrated by Anna Keichline's invention of the hollow building block. Leidy Klotz's journey to recognize the value in subtraction led him to realize that removing unnecessary components can often be more effective than adding to them. This mindset shift can lead to more efficient and cost-effective solutions. Klotz's experiment with building a bridge using Legos with his son also highlights the importance of considering subtraction as a solution instead of always adding more. Overall, embracing subtraction as a viable option in problem-solving can lead to more innovative and sustainable outcomes.

    The Power of Subtraction in Innovation and Design

    Subtraction can often lead to remarkable results, as demonstrated by the invention of the Strider bike and Leidy Klotz's home renovation project. Familiarity often leads us to look for ways to add to an object rather than to subtract from it, making the act of subtraction an innovative approach. In the home renovation project, Klotz challenged herself and her students to come up with designs that focused on subtraction, but ultimately, the final result was an addition. However, it's important to note that the process of subtraction still allowed for creative and livable designs. It's worth considering subtraction as a problem-solving tool in all aspects of life, from design to everyday challenges.

    Overcoming Obstacles to Subtraction in Innovation

    Subtraction may be a powerful driver of invention, but many obstacles stand in its way, such as economics, cultural expectations, and even human history. Leidy Klotz, an engineer at the University of Virginia, discovered this firsthand during a home renovation project. He found that the value of a home increases with square footage, making it difficult to subtract space without risking a financial loss. Additionally, architects, builders, and contractors are incentivized to add more instead of taking away. This is a cultural expectation that has roots in human history, where monumental architecture played a key role in the development of civilization. Today, people are rewarded for adding, not subtracting, which poses a challenge for those who recognize the benefits of subtraction.

    The Bias towards Addition and the Importance of Subtraction in Decision Making

    Our tendency towards addition over subtraction is driven by cultural and political pressures, the mental and logistical effort required to subtract, and a biological inclination towards acquisitiveness. Even in brainstorming sessions and university planning, people are more likely to offer ideas for additions rather than suggesting subtractions. This is further supported by research that shows our willingness to acquire and keep things, even those of little practical value. However, in order to make meaningful progress and improve outcomes, it is important to challenge this bias and make deliberate efforts towards efficient and effective decision making in both personal and organizational contexts.

    The Power of Subtraction for a More Enjoyable Life

    Our brains are wired to find pleasure in acquisition, whether it's acquiring food, material possessions, or experiences. This reward pathway can even be stimulated by things like website design and hoarding behavior. On the other hand, our brain often neglects the power of subtraction, meaning that we struggle to let go of things or activities even when it would make our lives easier and more enjoyable. This tendency to add rather than subtract is evident in our approach to scheduling and travel - even when presented with a jam-packed itinerary, most people tend to add rather than subtract activities, leading to an overburdened and less enjoyable experience. By recognizing and consciously practicing subtraction, we can improve our overall well-being and simplify our lives.

    The Benefits of Subtraction: How San Francisco Tore Down a Freeway

    In writing and other areas, people have a tendency to add rather than subtract to improve. However, the benefits of subtraction are vast, and smart communities and individuals take advantage of opportunities to subtract. The story of San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway shows how difficult it can be to convince people to subtract something they consider necessary. However, after an earthquake changed people's perspectives, the freeway was torn down and the waterfront was opened up, leading to numerous benefits for the community. It's important to identify opportunities for subtraction and overcome psychological obstacles to take advantage of the benefits it can bring.

    The Benefits of Subtraction and How it Can Make Things Better

    The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to subtract things from our lives that we never would have managed to do on our own, such as commutes, evictions, and carbon emissions. This crisis has allowed us to see what a world with some of these subtractions might look like. However, we often need an external push, such as an earthquake or pandemic, to see the value of subtraction. Emotionally and cognitively, subtraction is difficult, and we don't get many reminders of it, making it challenging to see its benefits. Subtraction and addition need to work hand in hand, as seen in evolution, with adaptation being an addition and selection being a subtraction. Ultimately, subtraction can make things better, as seen in the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, leading to an increase in housing, jobs, and the restoration of the waterfront.

    The Power of Subtraction: From Nike's Air Max to Public Policy

    Subtraction often goes unnoticed or unappreciated, but innovators can find ways to make it more visible and valuable. Nike's Air Max 1 displayed the invisible innovation of air cushioning, setting them apart and launching them to success. Measuring what we're not doing with a stop-doing list can help us make room for new tasks without overwhelming ourselves. Subtraction also has a place in public policy, where lawmakers should consider removing outdated laws instead of only creating new ones.

    The Power of Subtraction in Enhancing Quality

    The practice of subtraction, or elimination of unnecessary elements, can have a powerful impact in various fields. In lawmaking, accumulation of laws has led to redundancy, and a requirement to remove two laws for every new one introduced can be a helpful rule. In medicine, a simple checklist that focuses on eliminating infection-causing elements has almost entirely eradicated catheter infections and saved lives. Tidying expert Marie Kondo's principle of keeping only what sparks joy is an example of reframing losses as additions, and a common thread among experts in various fields is the idea that art and creativity can often arise from eliminating the unnecessary.

    The Power of Subtraction and Minimalism in Artistic Pursuits

    The power of subtraction and minimalism in artistic and creative pursuits is often overlooked, with many believing more is better. However, successful artists and creators from different eras have extolled the virtues of subtraction, with notable examples including William of Ockham's razor, Lao Tzu's teachings, and Bruce Springsteen's album Darkness on the Edge of Town. Springsteen famously recorded over 50 songs but only kept 10 for the album, with some of the cut songs becoming hits for other artists. The key lesson is that subtraction and minimalism can often lead to more impactful and powerful creations, as seen in Springsteen's stripped-down aesthetic and Racing in the Street's simple but memorable lyrics.

    Barber's Creativity Helps Autistic Child Overcome Traumatic Haircut Experiences

    LaQuista Erinna's son Jackson, who has autism, had a traumatic experience with haircuts. However, she found a barber named Ree who goes the extra mile to make Jackson comfortable during haircuts. One day, when things didn't go as planned, Ree used a clever game to distract Jackson while she cut his hair, creating a special bond that has helped Jackson feel more at ease during haircuts. This special relationship has made a significant impact on Jackson's life, especially during tough times like transitioning to a new school. Ree's dedication and care have not only made Jackson look his best, but has also earned her a place in the family's heart.

    Recent Episodes from Hidden Brain

    Innovation 2.0: Shortcuts and Speed Bumps

    Innovation 2.0: Shortcuts and Speed Bumps

    Most of us love to brainstorm with colleagues. But so often, our idea-generating sessions don't lead to anything tangible. Teams fill up walls with sticky notes about creative possibilities and suggestions for improvement, but nothing actually gets implemented. Some researchers even have a name for it: "innovation theater." This week, we explore the science of execution. Psychologist Bob Sutton tells us how to move from innovation theater . . . to actual innovation.

    You can find all the episodes in our Innovation 2.0 series in this podcast feed, or on our website, hiddenbrain.org

    Hidden Brain
    enMay 20, 2024

    Innovation 2.0: The Influence You Have

    Innovation 2.0: The Influence You Have

    Think about the last time you asked someone for something. Maybe you were nervous or worried about what the person would think of you. Chances are that you didn’t stop to think about the pressure you were exerting on that person. This week, we continue our Innovation 2.0 series with a 2020 episode about a phenomenon known as as “egocentric bias.” We talk with psychologist Vanessa Bohns about how this bias leads us astray, and how we can use this knowledge to ask for the things we need. 

    Did you catch the first two episodes in our Innovation 2.0 series? You can find them in this podcast feed or on our website. And if you're enjoying this series, please share it with a friend or family member. Thanks! 

    Hidden Brain
    enMay 13, 2024

    Innovation 2.0: Multiplying the Growth Mindset

    Innovation 2.0: Multiplying the Growth Mindset

    Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that people wrote you off? Maybe a teacher suggested you weren't talented enough to take a certain class, or a boss implied that you didn't have the smarts needed to handle a big project. In the latest in our "Innovation 2.0 series," we talk with Mary Murphy, who studies what she calls "cultures of genius." We'll look at how these cultures can keep people and organizations from thriving, and how we can create environments that better foster our growth.

    Do you know someone who'd find the ideas in today's episode to be useful? Please share it with them! And if you liked today's conversation, you might also like these classic Hidden Brain episodes: 

     The Edge Effect

    The Secret to Great Teams

    Dream Jobs

    Innovation 2.0: How Big Ideas Are Born

    Innovation 2.0: How Big Ideas Are Born

    Why is it so hard to guess where we're meant to be? To predict where we'll end up? Nearly all of us have had the experience of traveling down one road, only to realize it's not the road for us. At the University of Virginia, Saras Sarasvathy uses the lens of entrepreneurship to study how we plan and prepare for the future. We kick off our new "Innovation 2.0" series by talking with Saras about how we pursue goals and make decisions.

    Do you know someone who might benefit from our conversation with Saras about expert entrepreneurs? Please share it with them if so! And be sure to check out our other conversations about how to get out of ruts and figure out a path forward: 

    Who Do You Want to Be?

    You 2.0 : How to Break Out of a Rut

    Parents: Keep Out!

    Parents: Keep Out!

    If you're a parent or a teacher, you've probably wondered how to balance play and safety for the kids in your care. You don't want to put children in danger, but you also don't want to rob them of the joy of exploration. This week, we talk with psychologist Peter Gray about how this balance has changed — for parents and children alike — and what we can do about it.

    For more of our reporting on children and parents, check out these classic Hidden Brain episodes:

    Kinder-Gardening

    Bringing Up Baby 

     

    The Curious Science of Cravings

    The Curious Science of Cravings

    We've all had those days when all we want is a little treat. Maybe it's a bag of chips, an ice cream sundae or a glass of wine. But sometimes, these desires become all-consuming. This week on the show, psychiatrist Judson Brewer helps us understand the science of cravings, and how we should respond to them. 

    If you liked today's conversation, be sure to check out other Hidden Brain episodes about ways to regain a feeling of control over your life: Creatures of Habit and Taking Control of Your Time.

    What Is Normal?

    What Is Normal?

    Anthropologist Tom Pearson was devastated after his daughter Michaela was diagnosed with Down syndrome. When he began to examine that emotional response, he found himself wrestling with questions that have roiled his field for decades. Early anthropologists would often compare people of different backgrounds and abilities, asking questions like: How is one group different from another? Which one is stronger or smarter? And how do we understand people who don’t fit our expectations? This week, we talk with Pearson about his family’s story, and the evolution of our thinking on disability and difference.

    If you liked today's show, be sure to check out these classic Hidden Brain episodes:

    "Emma, Carrie, Vivian"

    "Why You're Smarter than You Think"

     

    The Transformative Ideas of Daniel Kahneman

    The Transformative Ideas of Daniel Kahneman

    If you've ever taken an economics class, you were probably taught that people are rational. But about 50 years ago, the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky began to chip away at this basic assumption. In doing so, they transformed our understanding of human behavior. This week, we remember Kahneman, who recently died at the age of 90, by revisiting our 2018 and 2021 conversations with him. 

    If you enjoyed this look at the work of Daniel Kahneman, you might also enjoy our conversations about behavioral economics with Kahneman's friend and collaborator Richard Thaler: 

    Misbehaving with Richard Thaler 

    Follow the Anomalies 

    Are You Listening?

    Are You Listening?

    Have you ever sat across from your spouse, colleague or friend and realized that while they may be hearing what you're saying, they aren't actually listening? Poor listening can lead to arguments, hurt feelings, and fractured relationships. But the good news is that active, thoughtful listening can profoundly benefit both people in the conversation. This week on the show, psychologist Guy Itzchakov helps us understand where interactions go awry, and how to become a more attentive listener. 

    For more of our work on how to better connect with the people in your life, check out these episodes:

     Why Conversations Go Wrong with Deborah Tannen

    A Secret Source of Connection with Amit Kumar

    Relationships 2.0: What Makes Relationships Thrive with Harry Reis

    Relationships 2.0: How to Keep Conflict from Spiraling with Julia Minson 

     

    The Ventilator

    The Ventilator

    Many of us believe we know how we’d choose to die. We have a sense of how we’d respond to a diagnosis of an incurable illness. This week, we revisit a 2019 episode featuring one family’s decades-long conversation about dying. What they found is that the people we are when death is far in the distance may not be the people we become when death is near.

    If you enjoyed today's episode, here are some more classic Hidden Brain episodes you might like:

    The Cowboy Philosopher

    When You Need It To Be True 

    Me, Myself, and Ikea 

    Thanks for listening!