Being least subtractive

Andrew Gillott
Oct 14, 2015

A few weeks ago, someone sent me a link to a talk by Paul Reed Smith for TEDx MidAtlantic.

Paul Reed Smith is first and foremost a luthier and he talks animatedly about building beautiful guitars and how he aspires not to create an instrument that adds something to the playing of the musician, but one that takes away as little as possible. Every component of the guitars that Reed Smith uses is chosen for its Least Subtractive™ properties.

“6 in, 5.8 out…”

A little way in to his narrative, Paul tells us about a musician who changed the way he played when he found a ‘less subtractive’ guitar to those that he had owned before.

And that made me think that this musician had previously had to adapt his playing to an instrument that reduced his efforts; diminished the emotion he put in; left some nuance go unrewarded. “6 in, 5.8 out…”.

I have just returned from working with an inspiring group of coaches and athletes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They have created a unique environment in which athletes from nine combat sports train under the same roof, five days-a-week. The project caters for athletes aged 7–29 years old, often in the same room at the same time. What binds each and every athlete to each other are their stories: they live side-by-side in a community devastated by drugs, crime and gun violence.

This project is producing some world-class fighting talent. The coaches’ aspiration is to build what they understand to be a ‘high performance’ environment to house the precocious few. They readily acknowledge that it will take a great deal of money to build an exclusive new facility, replete with the equipment and services that we expect to see in much of Western Europe and around the world.

They already have athletes that display all the characteristics we might associate with ‘high performance’. Not least, a small boy who is 10 years old but looks much younger. Let’s call him Menino Pequeno. Menino Pequeno has been doing Judo at the project for two years. During warm-up, he moved quickly, deliberately, completing more reps than his peers. He rolled from one end of the gym to the other, left and right shoulder alternately; it’s harder on the left so he challenges himself to do just as many on the hard side. His movements were, crisp, full of energy, focussing on technique, composure, speed. When paired with a much larger boy who was there for the first time, Menino Pequeno coached him through every movement, grip and throw. He missed out his own turns to allow the new boy more time to practise. And he smiles a lot. Because he’s having fun.

At some point while I was there, I saw it clearly. Or rather, I heard it… “6 in, 5.8 out…”. I didn’t just recognise this phrase that surfaced my consciousness- I understood it.

They don’t need to Add. They already have something unique and wonderful, a community of athletes working hard together under a shadow that dims every one of their otherwise brilliant, fizzing lights.

They need to Take Away. Take away the things that take away. Do the simple things, well. Build the Least Subtractive™ environment they can.

Of course, this may in time also lead them to build something bigger and better. Sure, they may bring in extra equipment and who knows, perhaps they attract some specialist staff along the way to better support…everyone. In a Least Subtractive™ environment, nobody will have to worry about what and who is Talent. Or when or why, for that matter. Instead, although there may still be roadblocks on the streets of the favela, the path will be clear for everyone to get to where they want to get to. Together.