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May 11, 2013

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Excess everything chokes life and clutters existence

SOME of my friends often nag me for not surfing Internet at home, hinting that I'm a hick in the modern world of connectivity.

I have a very small TV set at home - so small that most visitors mistake it for a laptop.

I seldom turn it on, except when I watch the 30-minute CCTV evening news from 7pm to 7:30pm.

I have no computer at home, and I have no plan to buy one.

I choose to tune out at home for a simple reason: to get rid of unverified truths that plague today's cyber world.

As a journalist, I work eight or more hours every day with online information in the office, and that's about enough for me to grasp what matters most for a given day.

At home I occasionally read my mobile phone to keep abreast of possible breaking news, but I refuse to entertain myself all night long in the virtual world of cyberspace - a world overwhelmed by sensational shows and uninformed comments.

Years of tuning out of the virtual world at home allows me to discover and appreciate the beauty of simple life in reality that some of my friends miss or choose to ignore.

When we meet, these friends often peddle online stories about some corrupt souls or polluted lakes.

They may even pound the table and declare, "Our world is rotten to its root."

Their brows are knit, their faces turn red and they clench their fists as they relay myriad scandals from the internet, as if these sordid goings-on really define our real lives.

They poke fun at me each time I tell them that, despite soil pollution across the nation, I still can buy fresh and organic food from farmers near my home in Shanghai.

They sniff at me each time I tell them that, despite air pollution across the country, I still can breath fresh air deep in high mountains somewhere out of Shanghai.

They typify a group of people so sunk in the virtual world of scandals and tittle-tattle that they hardly have a happy moment in real life.

Whenever there's babble talk in cyberspace, they go along with the herd without pausing to think that the virtual world is overflowing with misinformation, concocted news and doctored photos.

Even real scandals can be overplayed.

Recipe for better life

Matthew May's new book, "The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything," offers a recipe for a better life in the real world: spend less time in front of your computer.

"Everything is too complicated and time-sucking. Excess everything is choking us," says May. "At the heart of every difficult decision lie three tough choices: What to pursue versus what to ignore. What to leave in versus what to leave out. What to do versus what to don't. I have discovered that if you focus on the second half of each choice - what to ignore, what to leave out, what to don't - the decision becomes exponentially easier and simpler. The key is to remove the stupid stuff: anything obviously excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural ... or ugly. Better yet, refrain from adding them in the first place."

Cyberspace is not all about stupid stuff, of course, but many people stick to the stupid part day in and day out - they spend most of a day pulsing with the release and review of every piece of online sensational news which they actually have no way to verify.

For instance, many people lamented our "utterly decayed morals" the other day when they obsessed over an online video story about a woman relieving herself in a see-through Metro elevator in Shenzhen.

But there has been speculation that the whole thing was a stunt staged for some untoward commercial purpose.

If you unclutter your mind and remove the excess - often unproved - information from the virtual world, you will be able to "tune out to zone in" on the beauty of nature and people in real life. Life is actually much better than what's often depicted, defined and decried in cyberspace.

"This is the art of subtraction: when you remove just the right thing in just the right way, something good usually happens," says the author.

And subtraction is not just about letting go of the excess online information. According to the author, subtraction is about doing better (not more) with less in every aspect of our life. As a general rule, doing something isn't always better than doing nothing.

The author cites the examples of Albert Einstein and author J.K Rowling.

Their breakthroughs came in the wake of delays, daydreams and even absent-minded thinking.

Einstein came up with the theory of relativity not from focused thoughts in a lab, but after staring at Switzerland's famous Bern clock tower. Rowling, while waiting four hours for a delayed train, envisioned her protagonist, Harry Potter, as a "scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy" who would become a powerful wizard.

Indeed, some of our best story and cartoon ideas have come in absent-minded exchanges of ideas between colleagues at the dining table, rather than scheduled meetings in a conference room. In my own case, many a story idea emerged in the wee hours or during weekend strolls.

Such insights and bursts of creativity, May says, arrive when you least expect them. When you "tune out to zone in," you may solve a problem you've been stuck on for a long time. Marcus Raichle, a Washington University neurologist, says the brain is most active during rest.

Busy just being busy

May quotes management expert John Hunter as saying: "Everyone agrees taking time to think is wise...Managers will say they value it, but they cram schedules so full that they can't really spend time thinking. Result: people are busy just being busy."

"We need to know how to purposefully do nothing," says the author, who opens his book with a quote from Lao Tzu (about BC 571 BC to 471): To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day. (wei xue ri yi, wei dao ri sun)

Online addition carries you away from reality. Working overtime weakens your creativity. They are excess things that are undesirable and need to be subtracted.

But how about excess things that are desirable, say music?

I love music, but when I sat deep in Wudang Mountain on a starry night last month, it dawned on me that music was an excess in the bosom of Mother Nature. Lao Tzu said: The greatest voice cannot be easily heard.

Six Laws of Subtraction:

Law 1: What is not present is often more powerful than what is present.

Law 2: The simplest rules create the most effective experience.

Law 3: Limiting information engages the imagination.

Law 4: Use intelligent constraints to cultivate creativity.

Law 5: "Break" is the most important part of "breakthrough."

Law 6: Doing nothing is often better than doing something.


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