When Less is More

By Scott Westerman
Listen to an audio version of this message.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” ~Confucius

A fundamental problem with the pursuit of happiness is our addiction to addition. Whatever it is we have, we always want more.

We learn it young. “Let me have the contents of your piggy bank,” we tell our kids.
I’ll put it in the bank where it will grow into more.” When we go to school, we are taught, “Study hard, get good grades and you will earn more.” When we go to work, we expect to get raises every year so we can earn more and buy more. Our company investors expect us to work harder, do more with less so that the stock will be worth more.

Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight. There is nothing wrong with improving your situation. The key is that improvement doesn’t always equate to more.

This, Inc CEO Greg McKeown warns that, if we’re not careful, success can be a catalyst for failure. “We can see this in companies that were once darlings of Wall Street,” he writes, “but later collapsed. In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins explored this phenomenon and found that one of the key reasons for these failures was that companies fell into ‘the undisciplined pursuit of more.’ It is true for companies and it is true for careers.”

He shares some suggestions for what he calls, “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”.

Sharpen your contribution criteria – What’s really important? I recently visited with a young Spartan who was finishing a PR internship in Hollywood. It was time to decide how she would express her  personal brand. I asked the Passion Question: What would you do if you were working for love and not for money? Is there a market for it? And how does your talent toolbox align with it? Passion, skill and need are the Happiness Triumvirate. Opportunity exists where the three circles overlap.

Throw out the nonessentials – McKeown suggests conducting a life audit. “In the same way that our desks get cluttered without us ever trying to make them cluttered, so our lives get cluttered as well-intended ideas from the past pile up.” In the work place this exercise is what Lin Yutang calls The Noble Art of Leaving Things Undone. It’s ok to check things off of your to-do list. But make sure they are worth doing. “The wisdom of life.” Lin writes, “consists in the eliminating the non essentials.” Relentlessly evaluate every one of your paradigms. Keep what works and throw out the rest.

Empty the closet – There is an “endowment effect” in human nature. We tend to value things that we own, whether or not they are truly adding value. Just take a look at your bookcase, your shoe collection or your garage and you’ll get a sense for this. When our Alumni Association moved upstairs to the third floor of Spartan Stadium, we were all given the opportunity to take a look at what we had in our drawers and on our walls. It turned out that we could easily live without more than 70% of it. When you attack your Spring and Fall cleaning routine, include a little simplification in the process. If you haven’t used something in the last year, you might well be able to live without it.

What does your life audit tell you about your priorities? What unresolved relationships, unproductive habits and obsolete material possessions are stored in your closet? Where  is the sweet spot in your Happiness Triumvirate and how can you adjust your daily deeds to head more deliberately in that direction?

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” DaVinci tells us. Eliminate the physical, material and psychological distractions and path to true happiness is revealed.