The Power of Subtraction

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A sculptor creates through elimination. He starts with a chunk of stone and slowly transforms it into a beautiful shape that previously existed only in his mind. We tend to think of creation as an additive process, like when we add paint to canvas or introduce light to film. But we forget that we can also create by removing something.

Our lives are also shaped by subtraction. When we say no to an opportunity or request, we are shaping our lives and future. By thoughtfully choosing what not to do, we can remove commitments from our lives and bring ourselves nearer to our visions and goals.

But why do we so often fail to say no? Why do we fail to chip off the pieces of stone that are preventing the sculpture of our lives from taking on the shape that we had envisioned?

  1. Lack of Vision


If you don’t have a clear vision of what you are trying to create, you won’t know whether a choice will contribute to it or detract from it. Imagine that tomorrow you get a call from a recruiter offering you a job that will pay you 30% more than you are making now. The job is in an industry that is different from the one you’ve worked in for the past 15 years and it will require you to move 150 miles from where you are currently living. In that scenario, you’d have to decide whether taking the job would bring you closer to your goal or further from it, which is impossible if you don’t have a goal you’re striving towards. People without a vision for the future drift in the direction of least resistance or are pulled in the direction of the almighty dollar.


  1. People Pleaser


Volunteering for every project or pursuing every strategic initiative can ingratiate you with others. The problem is that eventually you’ll overcommit and really tick those same people off, or you’ll spend all your time helping other people pursue their dreams while yours slips away. Invariably, saying no will disappoint or irritate someone, but that’s okay.


  1. If You Want Something Done Right, You Have to …


Delegating a task is a way of saying no. A lot of small business owners and managers don’t delegate enough because deep down they think they’re the only ones capable of not messing up. The thought of letting one of their team members stumble their way through the process of learning a new skill or taking over a client relationship is too unbearable to accept, so the leader remains in the personal prison of micromanagement.


When should you say no to an opportunity or request?


  1. Regardless of your own personal desires and goals, you must put your duties to yours spouse, parents, and children first. If an opportunity or request or commitment will prevent you from carrying out your duty to those you care about the most, then, the answer has to be no.
  2. Will it compromise your core values? If so, the answer is no.
  3. Does it bring you further away from your vision or life purpose? Then, the answer is no.


Every day we are surrounded by a world of possibilities and requests. Consider carefully which ones you will say no to and the path forward will materialize in front of you. Continue on with this and your vision will become reality. This is the power of subtraction.

Image credit: “Stone Sculptor” by dan at

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