Thomas Edison, the driving force behind such innovations as the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb, and the motion picture camera, was also creative when it came to hiring new employees. As part of the screening process, he would invite the candidate to lunch and order soup for the table. If the candidate added salt to the soup before testing it, Edison had his answer.
Pre-seasoners, he reasoned, did not belong in his laboratory because they relied on knee-jerk assumptions and mindless habits, behaviors antithetical to innovation. Edison only hired those who tasted the soup before adding salt. For Edison, reliance on evidence at the lunch table was a litmus test for curiosity in the real world.
While one can debate the utility of the soup test in the hiring process as an indicator of an open mind, it is worth taking a closer look at other behaviors many of us perform without thinking.
These unconscious pairings could undoubtedly benefit from some conscious uncoupling. Another mindless tendency is the impulse to add something whenever we want to make a change. A study from the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science found that we rarely look at a situation, object, or idea that needs improving and think to remove something as a solution. This is known as subtraction neglect.
We add meetings to solve problems at work, we add homework to improve academic performance, we add an ingredient to perfect a recipe, we add apps to boost efficiency, we add products to enhance our skin. Rarely do we consider how transformative the alternative—removing an element—could be. It's only when encouraged to consider deletion that we brainstorm more creatively.
A more is more mindset is certainly apparent in the world of medicine. If a patient presents with a new symptom, the doctor typically prescribes a medication or recommends a lifestyle change. Perhaps subtraction neglect partially explains why so many people end up with tackle boxes of pills. Alas, the result of additive change is full medicine cabinets, closets, schedules, and landfills.
"Additive ideas come to mind quickly and easily, but subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort," explained associate professor Benjamin Converse, coauthor of the study. "Because people are often moving fast and working with the first ideas that come to mind, they end up accepting additive solutions without considering subtraction at all."
Before adding salt to your soup or adding yet another task to your to-do list, gather evidence, ask questions, and consider your options.
Bottom line: Consciously uncoupling unconscious tendencies can be liberating.