In his new book, Matthew May, an author and the founder of an “ideas agency” in Los Angeles, sets out to guide us through this “age of excess everything.” From the outset, it seems he might be in trouble. He organizes The Laws of Subtraction into sections based on his six laws, which are themselves spawned from May’s “unraveling” the tenth law of graphic designer John Maeda’s laws of simplicity.
It gets more convoluted. At the end of each chapter, May includes a series of “Silhouettes in Subtraction,” or short vignettes that dovetail with the section’s theme and are written by various big-idea personalities. One, the “Power of No,” complements the section well, explaining how a niche graphic design firm started expanding into mainstream work before later deciding to lop off that new revenue stream and re-focus itself on its core business. Another, written by Little Bets author Peter Sims, seems out of place, reading more like an inside-publishing outtake from his book than a useful anecdote for this one. A third passage deserves attention for its name alone: “The Two-Pizza Rule.”
Still, the message is more important than the form. And it delivers.
For example, May highlights Netflix’s vacation policy to shed light on why the best rules are the simplest rules. By subtracting the complexity of the typical paid-time-off policy and allowing its employees to take as much vacation as they want—as long as their work gets done—Netflix frees managers from charting hours and reduces employees’ stress of organizing their time. “Since Netflix wasn’t tracking how many hours people were logging each day at work,” writes May, “why should it track how many holidays people were taking each work year? Good point, said management. So the company scrapped the formal plan.”
This corporate sketch reveals the well-written book’s core advice: stop worrying about the do-it-all trappings of modern business that everyone else wastes time on and instead hone your work towards a clear, simple purpose.