Some years ago a friend lost the use of his vocal cords to throat cancer. It made me wonder what I would do if I could no longer speak. I jotted down as many alternative careers as I could imagine. They ran the gamut from researcher to aid worker, but my list was neither expansive nor imaginative. I was engaging in a hypothetical exercise, not something real.
To my voiceless friend, however, the decision was real and immediate. He was a salesman, he needed another career and he preferred to engage in something he loved. Since he and his wife were avid golfers, they started an online business buying and selling used golf equipment. The couple’s timing was exquisite. They caught the late 1990s upsurge in both golf technology, which increased the trade-in activity in golf clubs, and Internet e-commerce. Within two months they were making a profit.
None of this would have happened without cancer and golf — two words you don’t usually see together as part of a happy story. But the key here is the element of subtraction. It creates need and direction. Losing the use of his voice created a need in my friend for a new path — and directed him to golf.
Most of us don’t employ the power of subtraction in our lives until it’s too late. We don’t change unless we’re compelled to. Until then, most of us are trapped in the status quo, rarely questioning our choices.
I’m not just talking about subtracting daily rituals or habits like going on a “media diet,” no TV, no radio, no Internet for a month. I’m talking about subtracting something that is a big deal.
In a world where addition is the customary method of rewarding ourselves — more money, more things, more friends, more productivity, more fun — subtraction is not the most obvious success strategy, or the first tool we reach for. But it can reshape our world.
Consider the career of the football broadcaster John Madden. He was a successful NFL coach who gave up the coach’s whistle for the broadcaster’s microphone at age 42. This was not a slam-dunk career switch in 1979. Former coaches were not common in the broadcast booth. Plus, Madden’s extra-large, bull-in-a-china-shop personality was a radical departure from the usual smooth, soothing announcer voices coming from our TV sets.
Madden had only one self-imposed restriction for his new job: Because of claustrophobia, he wouldn’t fly on a plane. He subtracted the fastest, most efficient mode of travel from a job that required extensive travel.
Madden’s “no fly” rule shaped much of what followed in his career. It forced him to get a bus — at first a modest vehicle, eventually a luxuriously appointed, corporate-sponsored home on wheels known as the Maddencruiser — to take him every week from his home in northern California to Dallas, New York, Washington and other NFL towns. On a cross-country trip, he’d be on the bus for nearly three days of straight travel. He had all the time in the world to indulge his passion for game footage. This gave him a big edge over other broadcasters, and it showed on television. Madden’s insights and analysis of each play quickly set him apart as the smartest voice in the game. Eventually, he became the highest-paid sportscaster in the world.
Madden’s reputation as a blunt, insightful analyst made him the perfect choice in 1988 to get involved in the burgeoning field of video games. He put his name and voice on a game called “Madden NFL,” which is updated annually and remains the top-selling sports video game in America.
By the time Madden retired at age 73 in April 2009, he had achieved one of the most popular, lucrative broadcasting careers in television history. I cannot believe he would have ended up in the same place if he had taken a plane.
The untapped power of subtraction is within your grasp. The only thing holding you back is your imagination and daring.
Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 31 books, including MOJO. He can be reached at email@example.com.