Some Days, We Subtract by Adding

My mom is a math teacher.  A beloved one, at that.  And I am the beneficiary of her brilliance and passion. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, I am good at math.  Yet, I was an English major…

While math sees the world through hard numbers, rules and predictable formulae with exclusively right and wrong answers, I see the world through poetry and metaphor. 

This has made for a fun-loving jousting between my mom and I.  She on team “everything comes back to math,” and I on team “everything comes back to literature.”  (I can’t help but take this opportunity to challenge any doubters to find any essence of the human experience you can’t trace back to Shakespeare…)

So, it is with awareness, and deep respect and appreciation for her and all math purists, that I delicately introduce a concept I’ve been exploring:  Subtraction by Addition.

It is important that this be put forward with the caution and caveats it warrants.  I am not advocating for absolute hedonism or burning the candle at all ends or busyness for busyness’ sake.  It is more subtle and nuanced than that.

But, I have come to believe that one possible solution to “too much” is more rather than less.

A big way this has shown up for me is finding and leaning into my passions.  That which brings me purpose and joy.  A lot of people say they don’t have time for this.  They need less on their plate, not more.  I spent decades saying the same thing.  Still do, some days.  Except, there is time.  It is possible to hold both.  And we can’t view time in isolation.  There is also choice.  Agency.  The intentional commitment to do the thing.  And, in doing the thing, we turn the kaleidoscope and the whole pattern changes.  Often in ways we couldn’t have predicted.  Ways that can amaze and delight.  And, when we do this, the whole is not only greater than the sum of its parts, it is more manageable.  It feels lighter.  Abundance instead of overwhelm.  Somehow, the charge of the energy of each of the different parts fuels and nourishes the integrated whole.    

I talk often about big rocks and sand in the sense of focusing on the big rocks (the most important things) to ensure they fit and the sand (everything else) finding room in the space that remains.  It calms me to bring to mind that famous Franklin Covey video and tell myself that, by prioritizing right, it will somehow all fit (whatever it is in that given moment).  But it’s also true that our assortment of rocks and sand isn’t static, nor is it finite.  While the space in our bucket is.  We are constantly presented with big rocks and sand.  And, each time we choose to add a big rock, there is naturally less room for sand.  Kind of an elimination by intentional default.  Seeing what spills out can also help clarify what the sand is in the first place.  We can spend our lives trying to make sure there’s enough room for all of the sand (see my early career attempts at inbox zero…) or we can spend our lives embracing big rocks, knowing the sand isn’t going to be what matters most.

This also underscores the importance of recognizing the big rocks.  There can be a tendency to think of big rocks only in terms of “productivity” or shoulds – the things for which we can get gold stars – but it’s important that we challenge this.  We must open our awareness to the importance of the things that fill us up or cause the energetic shifts in us – however seemingly small –and prioritize them too.  Coffee or lunch with a colleague.  That thing at our child’s school.  A networking or industry event we’re convinced we don’t have time for.  Date nights.  Me-Treats.  Talking on the phone with a friend.  Exercise.  Mentoring.  Sleep.  Even just settling in, fully present, no multitasking, for our favorite show or the big game.  

There is much talk these days about boundaries and saying no, and I think there’s a lot of value in that discussion.  I also think there is a lot of value in saying yes.  Be discerning in what we say yes to, yes.  And, push ourselves out of our inertia, and ensure we do say yes to the things that can light a spark in us.  At least here and there.

On a more macro life level, I hear frequently from clients, mentees and friends who are hesitant to take on something big when things are already feeling like a lot.  I think we’ve all been there.  Maybe it’s being in a very intense role or period at work or in life.  Maybe it’s a huge transition or life-changing experience.  When it feels like it’s too much already, we tend to think the answer is less.  Maybe leave that role.  Take a break.  Wait to start a new endeavor until things have calmed down.  Maintain the status quo where you can in an effort to restore equilibrium.  And those may be great choices – everyone ultimately must decide what is right for them in any given moment.  But again, I’ve found that when it feels like it’s too much, some days there can be a great unlock in more.  More of the right things.  (I hesitate to say “right” because it could imply there is a “right” and a “wrong” in all situations and I don’t believe that to be the case.  I also believe that puts undue pressure on us.  But, you know what I mean…)

When I was pregnant with my son, many people told me (unsolicited…) that I would not want to have such a “big job” once he was born.  Maybe I wouldn’t want a career outside the home at all.  I try to maintain an open mind so, despite my passion for my career, I accepted that this could be a possibility.  As the days counted down to his arrival, I wondered if I would yearn to take a step back from what I’d dedicated so much of my life to thus far. 

What happened instead was surprising.  I received a very intriguing opportunity to build and lead the North American legal function for a company that thrilled me.  My son was literally days old when the recruiter reached out.  I remember thinking “This is the absolute last thing I should be even considering right now.”  Not only was it not moving away from a big job, it was effectively doubling down and moving to a bigger job (all while moving into my biggest job yet, being a mother…).  And, yet, it completely changed the trajectory of my life and my family’s life for the better from the moment I said yes.    

As I look back at my life, I see this pattern playing out over and over again.  In spite of all the reasons not to and all the too much, I have gone for it anyway.  And, when I have, that’s often when the balance has shifted and I’ve found my flow.  “Too much” falling away and an energetic lightness emerging in its place.

Some days, the answer is turning the rules we think we know on their heads.  Some days, we must open ourselves to the counterintuitive.  Some days, our hearts are wiser than our intellect.

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