Harry Smith

Subtraction - A Theme for 2023

An exploration of how to make a richer life next year by removing more than you add.

I hope you are thinking about making some changes in the new year. But it’s a challenge to hold the whole year in your mind at once. A year is short enough to need detailed planning. But too long for you to be able to make accurate predictions. You can’t analyse that many options. You need a way to pare down the infinite number of choices, so that you can reason about them. You have to allow enough choices to fill a year of effort. Without being so nebulous that you can’t measure your progress against it. An effective constraint is to choose a theme for the year. This theme will link many smaller areas to improve under one coherant banner.

In the last twelve months I’ve noticed a clear anti-theme in my life. I’m always adding more objects, people and activiites. But more is not more, and each addition has made me less effective. You want to believe that something new will unlock your potential. But as far as I can tell, it’s dead wrong. Your life hasn’t got the room for more things. What it needs is space. To make a change, you must first subtract.

What should you subtract exactly? It’s quite simple. Everything that makes you unhappy. How do you know what makes you unhappy? By observing your internal state as you go about your day. This habit of observation alone will make a huge improvement. It will snap you into concious awareness of how you are spending your life. Though you may have forgotten it, the base state is happiness. Children are happy because their lives are simple. Free from the additional gained complexity of adulthood. Happiness is what remains when everything else is gone. Subtract.

You can’t abandon everything and return to a child like state. But we can start with the most immediate cause of unhappiness, our possessions. Every object you own is a vote for the person you want to be. The objects of your past self are a vote against making a change. The new, better version of you will have a new, better set of objects. It’s not stuff. Your looking at the votes you’ve cast every single day. It tells you a story about yourself. And it’s the story you tell yourself that is the most powerful story of all. With the right story you will become the right person.

Some objects have become shameful relics of the past. They are memories of ideas you never quite get too, but can’t quite let go of. They are telling you the wrong story. You are not good enough. It’s time to take that dusty guitar down off the shelf and make a choice. Either act. Or subtract. You try sometimes you fail. Be proud of it. But it’s time to move on and create space for something new.

You are always in the act of doing something. Even doing nothing is something. You either do an activity, or you do nothing, and those decisions sum to your life. You must subtract every activity that doesn’t have a clear, positive purpose. You are clear on why you’re doing it and what it will achieve. It has an indisputible positive effect on your life. And it serves your current goals and priorities. If you can’t subtract it, change it to the extent that you can to achieve those three properties. But it’s not only what you do, but the manner that you do it.

Your perception of the world depends on the manner in which you act. The world will form its image as a mirror of your behaviour. Whatever you choose to think, you’ll always find plenty of evidence for it. If you think the world is dark, dangerous and horrible you’ll only notice that which is dark, dangerous and horrible. If you seek oppurtunity, you will find oppurtunity. Behave in the manner of your best possible life. And the steps to getting there will materialise. Your behaviour filters the world. With the right behaviour, you will notice the right things.

Some behaviours will poison your mind. And the brilliance of the world will hide in their shadows. If you allow the poison to take hold, it can become impossible to remove. So you must remain vigilant. Unchecked negative behaviour will do permanent damage your psyche. It is your responsibility to prevent mental health problems as much as it is to treat them if they occour. Engaging in complaint, gossip and argument are sure fire ways to send you to a very dark place. Don’t normalise it, it’s no joke. Subtract these behaviours when they are small. Don’t let them become monsters lurking in the shadows.

We have looked at three areas that define how you understand your self in the world. Objects, activities, behaviours. If you look at these three areas in others you get a pretty strong read on their place in the world too. It follows that you should avoid any person who exhibits one of your targets for subtraction. Removing a person from your life is much more painful than removing an object. But it’s much more important. The wrong people will trap you where you are. It’s what binds junkies to their drugs. Losers to their dropout lives. Serious change has casualties.

Don’t ignore your key relationships. There are things to subtract here as well. You want the richest possible relationships with the people that matter the most. Remove all the cruft from your key relationships. Identify small, unsavoury elements. And have open and honest conversations about them. From a place of love, respect and kindness. It’s the process of subtraction that’s more important than the result. A compassionate and active engagement with the people that you love.

Focusing on subtraction has made something clear to me. Self improvement isn’t only doing good work. The best possible you is the best possible you in relation to other people. Because none of us exist in isolation. Our security, safety and success comes from the community around us. Our friendship, love and support will have more impact than our professional work. I go into 2023 with one word in mind - Subtract. To create a simpler life. A richer life. A life of meaning.

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