Time to “Marie Kondo-ize” Your Knowledge

January 3, 2024

Time to “Marie Kondo-ize” Your Knowledge

May 29, 2023

We are a culture of knowledge hoarders. What are we supposed to do with all this knowledge? No more SATs for me. Philosopher Lao Tzu long ago suggested, “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” I cited this quote when I joined Airbnb and asked the founders and leadership team if they were open to evolving their 30 strategic initiatives into just 4.

Given that MEA’s “Great Midlife Edit” is a core part of our curriculum, I was curious to read Leidy Klotz’s book “Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less.” Let me start with an ironic warning. This is a heady book full of Klotz’s research, spanning nearly 300 pages with almost 33 pages of footnotes. If I were to give one piece of advice to the author, it would be “more is less”....this book should be half its size. But, having said that, I learned a thing or two.

The first half of life is about accumulating, and the second half is about editing. But, there are some cognitive and egoistic barriers to prioritizing less versus more. By adding something, you see the result of your work. You can’t see your subtractions (except in a Google doc). We also have a sunk cost in what already exists, so losing that could be difficult (that’s why your closet is so full). And there’s the mindset that if I get rid of something, it’s gone forever (but doughnut holes still exist and have value). 

One of my favorite research examples in the book involved the Lego structure depicted below. Each research participant was shown this structure and told, “Improve this project so that it can hold a brick just above the stormtrooper’s head without collapsing. You will earn a dollar if you successfully complete this task. Each piece you add costs ten cents.” The majority of participants added a few Lego blocks from the roof to come down to the trooper’s helmet, which cost them some of their $1 prize. But, the best answer was to remove the single block forming the thin part of the column and then reattach the roof to the larger section of the column below. Subtracting a block was the fastest and least expensive way of solving this problem, but our mind seems more wired to add than subtract. 

Then, they compared this sample cohort with a different one in which they gave the same instructions, including the ten-cent cost per added brick, but the researchers added this new language: “But removing pieces is free and costs nothing.” Now, the majority of participants subtracted the block rather than adding Legos directly above the stormtrooper. 

How is this relevant in your personal and professional life? How can you be given more cues to edit rather than accumulate? How can your team see the value in distilling down what’s absolutely essential?

-Chip

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