How I Cut My Finger and Got a Book Deal

A frustrating encounter with an unyielding plastic package leads the author to an epiphany and the basis for a new approach to business.
Strategic Facilitation & Ideation, MatthewEMay.com
October 18, 2012

In preparation for our annual family camping trip, I went to the local hardware store to buy some D-cell batteries to power the flashlights. When I returned home, the real work began. And I’m not talking about loading up all the equipment. I’m talking about trying to get the batteries open. The plastic packaging was extra heavy-duty, slick and hard to grasp. It looked like it should easily pull apart, but it didn’t. For the life of me, I could not get the thing open.

Feelings of inadequacy crept in: I must be missing something, I thought. It can’t be this hard, can it? I wondered what possessed the package designers to think they needed such rugged protection for a $6 purchase. Nearby was package of lightbulbs—perhaps the most fragile household items on the planet–insulated by nothing more than a flimsy bit of corrugated cardboard.

Frustration mounted, as I’d already wasted four minutes, and I needed to open three more packages. I grabbed the kitchen scissors and tried cutting into the case, but the double-reinforced edge stopped me cold. I needed to somehow pierce the softer middle with something sharp. Steak knife to the rescue. I was able to make a cut, not without a good bit of muscle, mind you, but I got in. I tried prying apart the opening, only to slice my thumb on the razor-sharp plastic edge I’d created. I was bleeding. That’s when the cursing started.

You can imagine the rest. You’re right to think it’s a silly story about a benign annoyance. I tell it only to introduce in a lighthearted way a much larger problem and far more serious challenge: thriving in a world of excess everything.

And that’s worth devoting a book to, which is exactly what I decided to do. In pitching my idea for a book to a publisher (McGraw-Hill), I retold the story and made a case about the world being more overwhelming than ever before, that our businesses are more complicated and difficult to manage than ever, that our economy is more uncertain than ever and resources are scarcer than ever. I argued that there is endless choice and feature overkill in all but the best experiences, that everything is too complicated and time-sucking.

In short, I said, excess everything is choking us. At the same time, though, we all face the same question: How do you stand out and stay relevant—win—in the age of excess everything? I suggested that the answer—the key to winning—is to remove the stupid stuff: anything obviously excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use or ugly. (Battery packaging exhibits all seven qualities in a rather inglorious way.) Better yet, refrain from adding them in the first place.

This, I argued, was the art of subtraction: When you remove just the right thing in just the right way, something good usually happens. That was the single idea at the heart of my proposed book. And you know what? They bought it. And thus was born The Laws of Subtraction, which I’m proud to say hits bookstore shelves this week.

I believe subtraction is the path through the haze, one that can allow us to create clarity from complexity and to wage and win the war against the common enemy of excess. If subtraction is our weapon against excess everything, we need to know how to use it in battle.

That’s where six simple rules, which I distilled from examining over 2,000 ideas over the course of six years, come in. These “laws” serve as a sort of creative code for everyone try to stand out and stay relevant in a massively distracting and disruptive world:

  • What isn’t there can often trump what is.
  • The simplest rules create the most effective experience.
  • Limiting information engages the imagination.
  • Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints.
  • Break is the important part of breakthrough.
  • Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing.

But just because they’re simple, doesn’t mean they're easy to follow. Subtraction doesn’t come naturally or intuitively, at least not for me. From the days of our ancestors on the savanna, we are hardwired to add and accumulate, hoard and store. This not only helps explain why the world is the way it is, it also lays out the real challenge: battling our instinct. To employ subtraction is to think differently. I mean that quite literally: neuroscientists have shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), that addition and subtraction require different brain circuitry.

And that’s why I asked more than 50 writers, businesspeople and academics to contribute short essays on the role of subtraction in their work and life. Their stories bolster the case studies, and provide that elusive mix of insight and inspiration that make a story memorable.

It’s a bit ironic, I think, that my trying to remove batteries from packaging and cutting my finger led to a book being published about how to remove just the right things in just the right way.

Matthew E. May is the author of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, just out from McGraw-Hill. 

What is your best tip to simplify? Let us know in the comments.

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Strategic Facilitation & Ideation, MatthewEMay.com