In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew E. May

by Oliver Ho

14 September 2009


In Pursuit of Elegance... and A Higher Profit Margin

cover art

In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing

Matthew E. May

(Broadway Business)
US: May 2009

The first verse of the Tao Te Ching begins:

The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao

Being one of the most translated books in the world, there are many variations on those words (this example comes from Stephen Mitchell). Different translators make different emphases and interpretations, but one of the common aspects of those opening words is that they seem to warn against taking any definition as gospel.

It seems to be saying that the subject (the Tao) is above language, and no words could accurately describe it. If someone tries to tell you what the Tao is (the text seems to say), that person doesn’t have it right. It’s a sort of ancient Chinese bullshit detector.

Matthew E. May makes reference to the Tao Te Ching in the prologue to his book, In Pursuit of Elegance. He cites verse 11, which attempts to describe the power of emptiness. For example, it says that a person may shape clay into a pot, but it’s the empty space inside that’s most useful. May uses a translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, and their version of the verse ends this way:

Therefore profit comes from what is there,
Usefulness from what is not there.

Here it becomes useful to compare two other translations in order to highlight a key aspect of May’s book. In Arthur Waley’s translation, the words become, “Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.”

And in Stephen Mitchell’s translation, they are:

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

The word that seems to jump out in the translation May uses is “profit”. His book seems to be aimed squarely as people looking for ideas to help their organizations and ultimately, the bottom line.

Bookstores are filled with similar business self-help titles such as, The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking, or the myriad interpretations of The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings as managerial guidebooks. There’s nothing inherently wrong about that. If eastern-tinged pop-philosophy will help someone make a better widget, or improve the life of people working in a factory, or contribute towards boosting the economy, all the better.

Imagine a book that synthesizes ideas about the concept of elegance, which people tend to feel but find hard to articulate. Similar to the Tao, it’s a concept that can be applied to a person’s life overall. it can be a philosophy and an approach to living. It can also have practical applications in fields of art and science. Sure, and business, too. It would be a slim volume, elegant even, and it would masterfully blend its insights and examples in thought-provoking and poetic ways.

This isn’t that book. However, at its best, it does seem to approach style of exploration by writers such as Margaret Visser, Umberto Eco, Diane Ackerman, or Lewis Hyde. In those moments, May’s analyses manage to create a sort of pop-cultural epiphany. When he moves from a discussion of the fractal nature of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, to a busy intersection in Holland that succeeds without the use of traffic lights, to a poem by Samuel Beckett, the play of ideas is fascinating.

May is an able writer, with a clear style, an ability to articulate his ideas, and he has a sense of humour. There are certainly enough strong moments to carry a reader through the book.

Where it falls short is in its direction towards a business audience, rather than a general one, an emphasis on business over beauty. Again: nothing wrong with that, but it significantly alters the tone of the book from a scholarly one to a business-oriented one.

“Savvy innovators understand that what isn’t there can often trump what is, and are executing subtractive strategies: artfully pairing back their offerings, leaving out the right things by design in order to fully engage the recipient. Those that don’t understand how to aim for elegance will be left behind,” he writes in the promotional material accompanying the book.”

The language there is revelatory: “executing strategies”, “pairing back offerings”, “engage the recipient”. A former “hired gun” consultant at Toyota, May also includes several examples of how the car company utilised elegant ideas (by his definition) successfully. His previous book, The Elegant Solution, explored similar territory, and he has parlayed his succes with this theme into lectures, as well.

In his prologue (by the way, why a highfalutin “prologue”, and not a common “introduction”?), May states: “My goal is not to reduce the concept of elegance to a stepwise prescription.” Chapter one goes on to reduce the concept of elegance into four alliteratively-pleasing elements, inspired by a similar definition by noted computer science professor and programmer Donald Knuth: symmetry, seduction, subtraction and sustainability.

  • “Symmetry helps us solve problems of structure, order, and aesthetics.”
  • “Seduction addresses the problem of creative engagement. it captivates any attention and activates any imagination.”
  • “Subtraction helps us solves the problem of economy. Doing less, conserving, doesn’t come naturally.”
  • “Sustainability…implies a process that is both repeatable and lasting.”

Subsequent chapters examine each of those concepts, mainly through examples and case studies. He ends the book with a discussion of elegance and neuroscience, illustrated mainly by a description of his treatments at a “neurofeedback centre” in Los Angeles, his attempt to discover “how certain notable people have achieved ingeniously elegant solutions.”

Interesting as his conclusions are (and forgiving the unfortunate insight: “It would seem that we all have some Jackson Pollock in us.” Ew.), these and the book overall bring to mind two other famous sections from the Tao Te Ching (these are Stephen Mitchell’s translation):

Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
  - verse 71

Those who know don’t talk.
Those who talk don’t know.
  - verse 56

Among other things, these verses seem to speak to the value of acknowledging ignorance and remaining humble. They also resonate with the opening lines, and reinforce the notion that there are concepts and ideas that are ineffable. This is not to say that they can’t or shouldn’t be written about. Humility and a sense of mystery seem to be key elements of that sort of exploration, and the books doesn’t seem to place as much emphasis on those. Perhaps the temptation to create (and market) the “next great idea” is too great.

May is a talented writer, with an interesting sense of synthesis and ability to find connections across various fields, from pop culture to fine arts, science to sports. In reducing the concept of elegance, transforming it into a tool for better business strategy, the book doesn’t quite live up to its subject.

In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing


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//Mixed media