Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

Learn To Subtract

Girl In A Desert

Life is an equation. You’re either multiplying or subtracting. Most of us will look at that sentence and instantly know which side of the sum we fall on. It’s multiplication. I know this because I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to multiply what I already have.

The general idea is that more is better. The more knowledge you gain, the better. The more money you accumulate, the better. The more material possessions you own, the better. This is what it means to live ‘the good life’. We’re a culture obsessed with addition.


“Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that.” – Joko Beck


This quote from Joko Beck got me thinking about this culture of addition and how it shapes our attitude to happiness. Like most of us, I’m always pursuing some goal or another. I’m almost programmed to act like this. There’s always something bigger and more satisfying on the horizon, if only I could reach it…

But what would life look like if we decided to scrap all that ambition and try the opposite strategy? Could we stop trying to add more to our lives and still feel satisfied? To subtract somehow feels backwards to us. But when was the last time you gave that a try?

Learn To Want What You Have

The idea that we need to add more to progress is often taken for granted. But whenever an idea seems obvious I start to get worried. If I’m operating on concepts that I’ve never questioned then how do I know that they’re the best ones to use? We can probably be content with a lot less than our ambition would have us believe. Part of the problem is that we never try to get rid of stuff in our lives and that makes it hard for us to know what’s essential.

To test this out, you’ve got to try it. So I’m going to flip this ‘treat yourself’ mentality and suggest an experiment. Go ahead and deny yourself something.

Give away some clothes to charity, turn down that beer in the evening. See if you can be happy with less rather than more. It doesn’t sound like a path to enjoyment but you won’t know if it works until you give it a go.

People who’ve thought deeply about what makes us happy tend to agree that addition doesn’t work. Because endless addition is not only an unsustainable approach it’s also exhausting. Subtracting is sustainable. The Stoics would tell us that the path to happiness is to learn to want what we already have:


“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” -Epictetus


Getting Back To Basics

Subtracting doesn’t just have to be about objects. We can also use this idea to change the way we think. We spend much of our time studying, reading and learning to improve ourselves. There is a practical necessity to this, no doubt. But maybe we should also create space in our life to learn less. This is what Joko Beck is saying when she describes enlightenment as a stripping away. It’s what Picasso meant when describing how long it took him to get back to the state of seeing the world like a child:


“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” – Pablo Picasso


There is something to be said for going back to basics. It’s about getting in tune with what’s deep down inside rather than embracing ignorance. And this seems to make sense intuitively. We can kind of feel that there is an innate wisdom within us. The challenge isn’t feeling that. The challenge is accessing it in some meaningful way.

So how do we go about figuring out the best way to strip back and subtract the non-essential? One way is to test things out by simply denying ourselves the chance to add them to our life (like I suggested above). This is a quick strategy to try out, but not the most useful long-term plan. The best way, in the long run, is to figure out who you are and what you value.

It’s a virtuous cycle. The more you begin to strip back your life, the more you know who you are. You develop a compass by which to navigate. It becomes easier to do the right things because decisions become clearer.


“As I know more and more who I am, I begin to strip my life down to what my life truly needs.” – Joko Beck


Good advice Joko Beck. For example, I might want to lose weight. So I’m not going to eat the whole tub of Ben & Jerry’s that I know is in the freezer (if you’ve never had that exact conversation with yourself, count yourself lucky my friend! I have, too many times to count). Dieting is no longer an exercise in denying myself, it’s about being honest with myself.

Or how about the number of possessions we own? Most of us now have big enough houses that we can them fill with items that don’t get used. Why do we cart this baggage around? Joko Beck would say that it’s because we don’t know who we are well enough. If we did we’d be honest with ourselves and remove an item when it’s no longer necessary.

How easy is all the subtraction talk? I won’t lie, it takes effort. But no matter who you are, we can practice it by periodically taking stock of our life and cleaning out the junk. Get rid of those clothes at the back of the cupboard. Stop replying the person who you don’t want in your life anymore. Stop committing to things you don’t need. Sometimes the simplest advice can be the hardest to execute. It’s often the most effective too.