New York Times bestselling author, essentialist, and influencer Greg McKeown is, like his book, easily relatable, exceptionally thought provoking, and profoundly inspiring.
“I’m not convinced I wrote a great book,” says Greg. “But I am convinced there’s a great problem.”
The book (which is in fact quite great) is Essentialism. And the problem, as he defines it, is the “undisciplined pursuit of more”.
It’s a unique definition of a problem that is hardly unique at all. In today’s western culture, this problem — lack of focus, backward prioritization, and constant busyness — is nearly universal. Just about everyone can resonate with the feeling of being overworked and under-focused, with shifting priorities and a chaotic mind of unease. One moment, you have the wherewithal to process inputs, the next you’re buckling under a barrage of information, experiencing the drain of an inversely finite (and dwindling) supply of discipline. This feeling is not just increasingly experienced, it is increasingly experienced chronically. And societally. And unfortunately, the solution isn’t so easily agreed upon. Because the underlying question is not simply, “How can I be less busy?” but more profoundly, “How can I truly live a life that is focused on the right things?”
For a growing number of individuals, the answer is found through a philosophy and practice and movement, pioneered and named by Mr. McKeown as Essentialism.
Mr. Greg McKeown is, according to his Wikipedia entry, “a public speaker, leadership and business consultant, and an author”. As Wikipedia entries are meant to be, it’s an unbiased and even statement of factual truth. If you dug a bit deeper, browsing through his website, and even reading a chapter of his book, you’d know there was more to the story. But you might still consider Greg another self-help guru with something to sell. Which would be entirely missing what Mr. McKeown is all about.
Yes, the London-native has likely made a decent living with the success of his book, as well as the successive speaking engagements and consultations that follow. But what is most profound is the movement this man has started, and the thoughtful insights he presents on creating habitual rhythms (and habitual environments) that allow oneself to identify and then pursue that which is most essential. These ideas — discerning what is essential, as well as the execution of staying the course — are not new. But they are particularly relevant today. Greg names and exposes the problem with clarity. And he encourages us toward the solution with equal parts power and patience.
And I think what struck me the most from my conversation with Mr. McKeown was his wisdom. As he speaks, he sounds more like a spiritual leader than a business consultant or keynote speaker. Yes, there’s plenty to learn from his book, but hearing his story, hearing him speak of his children, and learning about the ways he’s grown in the last two years since publishing his book brought fresh energy to my understanding of Essentialism.
“While I was visiting the US,” says Greg, reflecting on where everything began, “I was chatting with someone who threw out this comment: ‘Look, if you do decide to stay in America, you should join us on this consultation committed for instructional design work.’”
It’s a rather innocuous comment. But it proved to be a significant one. The idea that Greg didn’t have to do what he was currently doing suddenly felt possible. He could do something different. “I left his office, and I remember taking a piece of paper from the secretary and sitting in the foyer of this highrise building, brainstorming for 20 minutes this corollary question: ‘What would you do if you could do anything?’ No limit thinking. And when I was finished, what I was struck by was not what was on the list, but what was not on the list. And law school was not on the list.”
And this was a problem. Because Greg was, at the time, very much in law school.
“It occurred to me I ought to call my parents,” he continues. “My mother answered, fortunately, and listened for a while, and said, ‘I think you ought to talk to your dad’. He listened. And, because all Englishmen quote Shakespeare over tea and crumpets in the morning, he quotes Hamlet and says ‘To thine own self, be true.’ Do what is right. Let the consequence follow.”
Greg pauses and laughs. “Honestly, I don’t know that he had actually said that to me, really. He might have said ‘keep your options open and go to law school’. But my life was already changed following that 20-minute exercise. I quit law school and never went back.”
What Greg pursued in its place was something he had written on the paper during that exercise: writing and teaching. And the focus of his writing was the attempt to answer a business question. He wondered why is was that otherwise successful people and companies regularly didn’t break through to the next level. He explained it with an analogy of challenging me to a foot race and my winning by 50 yards. Then running the race again, me starting 50 yards ahead, and winning the next race 100 yards ahead. And so on.
And then he presents the problem. “It’s perfectly sensible that you should keep winning. If you keep winning, you should keep winning after that. But when you look at the data, when you look at the examples, what you find is that this isn’t what happens. And that is fascinating. What seems to happen is that success does not always breed success. Success can actually become a catalyst for failure. Because it can lead to the undisciplined pursuit of more. The book, of course, is an answer to that question. If the problem is the undisciplined pursuit of more, then the answer is the disciplined pursuit of less, but better.”
That phrase, ‘Less, but better’, often credited to German designer Dieter Rams, has been used widely amongst designers and anti-consumerists. But now, it’s being embraced through a much wider lens across all aspects of life, particularly by those inspired to join the movement Greg has helped begin. The interpretations are many, but Greg’s own way of working through it is one of my favorites. Our dialogue was deep. His insight rich. And after our conversation, I couldn’t help but think we’d all be better off if we could live life the way McKeown proposes.
He believes that we can.
What is the cultural problem that essentialism answers?
“This is a cultural phenomenon. Of course, we experience it individually: the overworked and underused life. We feel like our day is constantly hijacked by someone else’s agenda. This is a personal experience but it’s also a collective challenge. And that’s why, universally, people are having this collective experience. It’s important to understand the problem in that way. Because otherwise we understate the problem.”
“We’re in a busyness bubble. There are all the hallmarks of any other bubble. This bubble of more is the same sort of irrational exuberance we saw in the real estate bubble, the same ‘everyone is doing it, so I have to catch up’. Everyone all the time is celebrating their complaints with back-door bragging, which means it’s come to be seen as a valuable thing. It has the perception of value. So you want to out-do people in busyness. In the real estate bubble, the over valued asset was real estate. At least there was inherent value in the physical object that became over valued. In the busyness bubble, the over valued asset, busyness, has exactly no inherent value. There’s value in productivity and momentum and progress, but inherent busyness has no value. If I just sleep less and hang out more on Twitter, is there more value there? No.”
“Lest we get depressed about all of this, there is a counter-revolution and movement happening. Where people are really seeking out solutions. Feeling the pain of it and wanting it. I’m lucky with the book. I’m not convinced I wrote a great book, I’m convinced there’s a great problem. People found there’s relevance. It has the power of relevancy. People want a different path. And people are choosing it. And while it’s true that people continue to snap on this culture, they can also sense that they want to be on the other side. They want to be an essentialist. So the questions is ‘how’. ‘How can I do this?’”
Is essentialism a handful of tactics or a fundamental philosophy? Or is it a spiritual paradigm?
“I do not think of essentialism as a religion. I’m not anti-religion at all. I’m pro-religion. But essentialism isn’t. But you can find the evidence and principles and deep spiritual practices of essentialism in all of the major world religions. All of them. If you think about the founders of all the world religions, they were all essentialists. Buddha left his life as a priest in order to find enlightenment. Muhammad lived his life with nothing. Moses left his life as a prince to go out into the desert. John the Baptist owned nothing and was singularly focused on his ministry. Jesus of Nazareth, the same. I could go on. Gandhi, while not a religious figure, was certainly a spiritual leader. As the father of India, he was an ascetic, owning five to ten items to his name. The fact is that the founders of these great schools of thought with religious impact in the world — as the most influential people in history — they’re all essentialists. Is this coincidental? No. It’s not. They eschewed a whole set of non-essential nonsense.”
“Here’s what essentialism isn’t. It’s not one more thing. In fact, it would be an irony if that’s how we thought of it. It’s a different way of thinking about everything. And doing everything. A lens. The biggest discovery people have is really the discovery on non-essentialism. The naming of it.”
What is an unexpected but very essential practice?
“I was just reading my journal from a few years ago. I haven’t missed a day in the last five or six years. I’ve hardly missed a day in the last decade. And I was struck by how the most important entries by a pretty huge margin are the interactions that I write about when I’m playing with my children. I’ve written some in quite a lot of detail. They are precious and valuable to me. To hear them again. To read about them. To be able to share those with my children. That play is so much richer than even a great success at work. They are immensely different.”
You argue that play can (and should) be applied in business? How?
“I do think there is a particular kind of play that deserves to be in even the fastest and most driven companies. Think back to Steve Jobs’ routine during his most productive decade. Every day he went to have design and conversational play with Jony Ive. He created space for innovative play every single day. Every day. I think that’s so important. If you want to grow something new and do something breakthrough, you have got to play. But not trivialized play. Not goofing off. I’m not anti-goofing off, but I do draw a distinction. Hanging out on ESPN and Twitter — that’s counterfeit play — real play is to lose oneself in an activity that is inherently creative and inherently expansive. Think about how sedentary social media play is. And surfing the internet. Animals play. They wrestle. When I play with my kids, I’m wrestling. When I play in business, it’s engaging. It’s challenging. You can monitor the brain. The brain is on fire during real play. You can monitor when people are watching tv or on social media. The brain is not on fire. Yes, there’s a place for it — there are high-quality forms of entertainment, I’m not anti all of that — but there is an over-reliance on it and a pretense that it is the same as play. And we’re losing out on the magic of real play.”
“This is how we have to think about play. It’s inherently purposeful. It’s not real play if it’s not engaged. It’s something else. It’s being bored. It’s being entertained. There’s a big different between being entertained and engaging.”
How does intuition factor into essentialism?
“Intuition plays an enormous role in essentialism. The highest priority of all is the ability to prioritize. Nurturing and following intuition and conscience is the priority. One must come back to this regularly. My routine every morning is to read the scriptures, in order to be in wisdom literature, in order to be centered. To be attuned is the very essence of essentialism, because it helps me navigate everything else. Martin Luther is credited as saying, ‘I have so much to do today, I must spend another 1/2 hour on my knees.’”
“It’s the idea of the trim tab. On massive ships, you have a huge rudder. The rudder, in fact, is so large you can’t move it directly. You have to have a small rudder to move the large rudder. And the small rudder is the trim tab. This learning to listen to and follow the voice of intuition is the trim tab of our lives. That is the mechanism by which we can prioritize what is important and then navigate that as the day proceeds. I have years of experience, so it’s not as though you go to zero every day, but it is amazing the speed at which I’ll move into motion-sickness if I’m not centered. If you remove this intuition from essentialism, it becomes something else I didn’t write about. The primary thing it turns into is ‘no-ism’. Because it just becomes simply ‘doing less’. I’ve had people tell me all the things they’re saying ‘no’ to. And it feels to me they’ve just said ‘no’ to service, love, caring, contribution, and ‘yes’ to all sorts of more self-centered things. And they’re often cutting off essential things for unessential things. So this cannot be missed.”
“I’m continuing on the movement. I’m seeking to more deeply understand and impact the world with essentialism. There are significant things I’ve learned in the last two years that have taught me and broken open my own understanding of what is essential. So there is more to be written. In time.”