The Limits of Growth and When Smaller is Better


For myriad reasons, the culture of the past two decades has been obsessed with growth. I am going to call this the growth era. In the growth era, it doesn’t so much matter what you are growing—your company, your audience, your income, your network, your muscles, or the size of your house—but just that you are growing. Growth is good, and it is an end in and of itself.

Perhaps it is time reconsider this convention. What if smaller is better?

In my coaching practice, very rarely do I help people get and feel better by adding more to their plates. Rather, improving performance and happiness almost always ends up being the result of subtracting. The same is true in many other realms. I’d rather have a close group of 10 friends than a million followers on Twitter. I’d rather have a newsletter that reaches 20K engaged people than write for a publication that is mailed to 400K, but filled with advertisements and other junk to support its size. (And I’ve rather have an intimate community of a few hundred people who really care than a newsletter of 20K! Check out ours here!) If I was running a grocery store, bookshop, or cafe I’d most definitely rather it be the single best store, shop, or cafe in the world than try to grow it into a chain with hundreds of locations. When my clients chase venture capital I always ask them if they are prepared for the pressure to grow at all costs. Sometimes they say yes, but sometimes they say no, and they maintain great little businesses and lifestyles.

No doubt, some of this is just my personality type. I love mastery. I love intimacy. I love going really deep on a few things versus broad on many. But I suspect many people with this personality type (at times, myself included) still get pulled into the allure of growth, size for the sake of size, and bigger always being better.

It’s not just personality driven. Researchers from the University of Virginia recently conducted a set of experiments where they examined how people tried to solve an array of diverse problems. For example, when an incoming university president solicited ideas for improvements, only 11 percent of the solutions involved getting rid of something. When study participants were asked to make patterns using colored squares, only 20 percent removed squares, even though adding them left them no better off. When asked to improve a travel itinerary, only 28 percent of the participants did so by streamlining the schedule and getting rid of places and events. When asked to improve their writing all but 17 percent of participants added words. Even when the researchers designed experiments in which subtracting clearly led to better outcomes, the vast majority of participants still tried to add stuff.

The title of this study, which was published in the prestigious journal Nature: “People Systematically Overlook Subtractive Changes.”

And therein lies my point. Smaller isn’t always better. But it certainly can be—and we tend to overlook this all the time. We cram our schedules with more, more, more. We chase growth at all costs, all the while stressing ourselves out and making ourselves miserable. On a global scale, our collective obsession with growth is literally scorching the earth. Next time you’re faced with a decision or problem, try to think equally as hard about what you can subtract as you do about what you can add.


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