Staff Picks

Greg McKeown's Essentialism

May 14, 2014


Greg McKeown has a stomach-sinking story to tell near the beginning of his new book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, about the day after his daughter was born. Fortunately, the little lady was okay, "healthy and happy at 7 pounds, 3 ounces. " But not everything was well with Daddy.

Greg McKeown has a stomach-sinking story to tell near the beginning of his new book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, about the day after his daughter was born. Fortunately, the little lady was okay, "healthy and happy at 7 pounds, 3 ounces." But not everything was well with Daddy.

[W]hat should have been one of the happiest, most serene days of my life was actually filled with tension. Even as my beautiful new baby lay in my wife's tired arms, I was on the phone and on e-mail with work, and I was feeling pressure to go to a client meeting. My colleague had written "Friday between 1-2 would be a bad time to have a baby because I need you to come be at his meeting with X." It was now Friday and [...] Instinctively, I knew what to do. It was clearly time to be there for my wife and newborn child. So when asked whether I planned to attend the meeting, I said with all the conviction I could muster...


To my shame, while my wife lay in the hospital with our hours-old baby, I went to a meeting. Afterward, my colleague said "The client will respect you for making the decision to be here." But the look on the clients' faces did not evince respect. Instead, they mirrored how I felt. What was I doing there? I had said "yes" simply to please, and in doing so I had hurt my family, my integrity, and even the client relationship.

As it turned out, exactly nothing came of the client meeting.

This experience led him to the discovery of an important, life-changing lesson:

If you don't
prioritize your life,
someone else will.

And that lesson is the base of this book. Everything else is built upon it.

It's a lesson that led him out of the organization he was working in and back to school for graduate work at Stanford. It led to his work with Liz Wiseman on the brilliant 2010 leadership book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, and it led to him starting his own strategy and leadership company. And, luckily for us, it led to him writing this new book, because it was while doing his consulting work that he realized that most of his clients were also letting other people and outside forces set priorities for them. And this led him to another breakthrough realization, that "the pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure."

The failure doesn't always become personal as it did with McKeown, but that actually makes it more nefarious, harder to spot, and address. Staying "busy" at work can blind us to the fact that we stopped making purposeful and deliberate choices on "what we're busy about" long ago. And that makes us less effective than we otherwise could be.

This is nothing new. Great business minds like Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, and Stephen Covey have been warning us of "the undisciplined pursuit of more" for some time now, and counseling that the power to say "no" makes us more effective. McKeown references these minds and their ideas, brings those lessons up to date, and gives them the a much-needed full length treatment perfectly suited for our times. In Mckeown's own words:

There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: "I have to," "It's all important," and "I can do both." Like mythological sirens, there assumptions are as dangerous as the are seductive. They draw us in and drown us in shallow waters.

To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: "I choose to," "Only a few things really matter," and "I can do anything but not everything." These simple truths awaken us from our nonessential stupor. They free us to pursue what really matters.

Especially with the always-on nature of the modern workplace and the endless stream of pings and updates from the devices we carry with us, we are almost all stretching ourselves increasingly thin. And we are stretching ourselves thin on trivialities instead of stretching out with those things that really matter, those things that would enable us to contribute the most to our organizations, our loved ones, and our own well-being. As a result, most of us are "overworked and underutilized." McKeown (like Robert Osborne at Turner Classic Movies) wants us to get down to the essentials.

To help us do that, McKeown breaks his book into four parts: Part I: Essence explores the question "What is the core mind-set of an Esentialist?" Part II: Explore asks (and answers) "How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?" Part III: Eliminate teaches us "How [we can] cut out the trivial many." And Part IV: Execute examines "How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?" And he does this all in a breezy style with brilliant, succinct takeaway quotes like "Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize." and "If it isn't a clear yes, then it's a clear no." It is a beautifully designed book, too, with the quotes I just referenced pulled out in larger text for effect and emphasis, and many of the ideas illustrated in the same style as the cover image, which makes it easy on the eyes, helps crystallize the most important lessons, and allows us to consider the ideas spatially rather than just abstractly.

Greg McKeown has clearly been able to find what is most important and essential in his life, and to focus in on those things to be his best self. This book is not only evidence of and testament to that fact, it will help you do the same.

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