Subtraction is an idea I’ve been thinking about lately, but it certainly seems counterintuitive as we are so conditioned to think that adding something—a new skill, product, or app, is inherently good. But consider this question: Are you more proud of the things you’ve stopped doing, or the things you’ve done? At first glance, the answer feels obvious, but think a bit deeper and the “stopped doing” may become more revealing—at least it does for me.
I’ve stopped buying more stuff, stopped reading every opinion, stopped 90% of my social media activity, and stopped believing I didn’t have what it takes to reach my potential—not overnight, but through difficult reflection. What’s important here is not judging or comparing ourselves to others, but embracing that there’s always room for improvement.
If clarity, focus, and deliberate practice are necessary for improvement, are there any non-essentials you can eliminate to focus on the necessary?
This shift in my thinking was inspired by the book “Essentialism” by Gale McKeown
, which influenced my approach to photography and life a few years ago. It certainly helped me eliminate many of the “extra’s” that in hindsight weren’t contributing to my growth or my potential.
While an “essentialist” approach certainly applies to gear and technology—it doesn’t always mean you have to limit yourself to a single lens or piece of software, for example.
I use an approach that focuses on subtraction to gain efficiency and effectiveness. One that deeply questions why I add something rather than on a list of features or benefits.
- What ideas, creative approaches, mindsets, and yes, gear actually provide meaningful benefits?
- Are you happy in your creative path and are your creative efforts gratifying?
- Do you feel like you’re spending your time and money in the best possible way?
- What is getting in the way of the progress and growth you know you can make?
Are you doing your best work? (Best doesn’t mean compared to all the other images out there, it simply means the best of what you are capable of right now.)
All of these are questions that I believe are directly tied to the ideals of essentialism because the less there is to get in the way of the answers, the freer you become to develop the vision you have for yourself.
For example, early in my career, I believed that my chances of success were greatly influenced by the camera I used. Of course, we know the most important part is behind the camera. But how easy we all forget when a new improved camera is announced, or a new plugin or application promises limitless creative options. That’s effective marketing, but not necessarily in your best interest.
I say “not necessarily” because you may in fact benefit from a new camera, but only if it contributes to your efficiency and effectiveness. It has to contribute to the simplicity of your process, and not simply towards providing more options—a deceptively easy way to add complexity. Shiny new toy syndrome is powerful, but no tool will change your life or your ability to tell stories with your work.
What can you subtract from your workflow or your daily life to bring clarity and focus to what matters most to you creatively?