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Why less is better than more

Posted in the following categories: Creativity, Decision Making

I was in the studio last week to record the audiobook version of my forthcoming book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist. The full audiobook will be about 8 hours long, but I was scheduled for 4 full days in the studio.

I didn’t ask any questions about the seeming disparity, assuming my publisher knows something I don’t. I trekked to the studio with one giant mug of water and one equally giant mug of coffee in hand. I was joined by an audio engineer in one ear and a director in the other—both extremely competent in their jobs.

It became immediately apparent to me why I was scheduled to record for 4 days. The engineer and the director stopped me frequently, to correct my tone, pace, or pronunciation. Names were particularly hard.

Me [reading from the book]: This led the French mathematician . . . [stops mid-sentence]. Wait, how do you pronounce Urbain Le Verrier?

Director: Let me play a clip for you [plays audio clip of a French speaker pronouncing Urbain Le Verrier with a perfect French accent].

Director: Got that?

Me: [Starts banging head against wall].

Aside from the proper pronunciation of French names, my biggest takeaway from my first day of recording was this: Less is better than more.

Let me explain.

When I was writing the book, I felt the pain of having left a lot of material on the cutting room floor. There was more that I could have included in the book, but I ran against a word-count limitation, which forced me to prioritize.

I recorded the audiobook roughly six months after I finished writing the book. Looking at the book with psychological separation from the writing process, the feeling I had was the opposite. At no point during the recording did I wish I had written more in the book. I no longer mourned the material I cut.

Here’s the thing: When we’re in the middle of a project, the temptation to add is acute.

Squeeze in more text into your PowerPoint slide.

Add yet another argument to your legal brief.

Tell another story in your keynote.

Add more text to your email.

Resist that temptation. As the quote attributed to many luminaries says, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” No one complains about a keynote, an email, a blog post, a book, or a letter being too short. The complaints always run in the opposite direction (When you send an article-length email to someone, you’re basically telling them “I don’t care about your time.”).

It’s harder to simplify than complexify. “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex,” economist E. F. Schumacher said in a quote often misattributed to Einstein. “It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” The final product may look simple and effortless, but it obscures the messy and complicated drafts that the author had to winnow down through tremendous effort.

Follow the example of Alinea, the three-Michelin star restaurant in Chicago. Grant Achatz, Alinea’s chef, explains that when he and his co-founder opened the restaurant, “one of our creative roads was to look at a dish on paper or in front of us and ask, ‘What else? What else can we do? What else can we add? What can we add to make this better?’” But over time, they reversed their approach. “Now,” Achatz says, “we find ourselves constantly asking, ‘What can we take away?’”

Michelangelo approached sculpting in the same way. As he explained, “The sculptor arrives at his end by taking away what is superfluous.”

So the next time you’re tempted to add more, just stop.

Go back and ask, “What can I remove?”

Your work will be far better as a result.

P.S. To learn about a mental model that will help you spot and remove the excesses from your work and life, check out my forthcoming book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist (if you already have the book, head over to pp. 71-76).

I’ve been ecstatic about the early reviews. The book was named a “must read” by Susan Cain (NYT Bestselling Author of Quiet), “endlessly fascinating” by Daniel Pink (NYT Bestselling Author of Drive and A Whole New Mind), and “bursting with practical insights” by Adam Grant (NYT Bestselling Author of Originals). The book was also selected by Adam Grant as his # 1 pick among his top 20 books of 2020.

If you haven’t pre-ordered the book yet, you can get digital access to it within seven days of your pre-order (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound). That means you can start reading it NOW, months before the book is published.

After you pre-order the book, please send your receipt to [email protected]. You’ll also get pre-order bonuses worth at least 10 times the cost of the book. You can head over to this link to learn more:

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