Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you feel like you’re always busy but not productive? Do you feel like your time is constantly being hijacked by other people’s agendas?
If you can answer yes to any of those questions, today’s episode is for you. I talk to business consultant Greg McKeown about his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. In it, Greg argues that by doing less we can actually not only be more productive, but, more importantly, get more of the right things done in life.
We begin our conversation talking about the differences between an essentialist and a non-essentialist, and why essentialists look at every decision with a 100-year view. Greg then shares how you can apply essentialist principles to your work so that you can convince your boss that maybe some of the stuff you’re working on isn’t that important. We then discuss why taking time for play, sleeping, or doing absolutely nothing can sometimes be the most productive thing you can do. Greg then shares tips on how to say no to people without feeling like a jerk and why adding buffer to your life is an important part of being an essentialist.
This podcast is filled with both brass tacks advice and deep insights about living a flourishing life. You’re going to want to take notes.
- How Greg learned the importance of essentialism
- What it means to be an essentialist
- Why people think that everything thrown their way is important and essential
- The very interesting history of the word “priority”
- The three phases of our society becoming non-essentialist
- How constant busyness is a actually a sign of learned helplessness
- How success can hinder further success
- Why Google hasn’t had a fraction of the success with other products as with search
- Cultivating the essentialist mindset
- How to figure out what’s important and what isn’t
- How looking 100 years back and 100 years forward can shape your perspective
- How to tell your boss that you have too many meetings
- Overcoming the fear of saying no
- What an “essential intent” is compared to mission and vision statements
- Brad Pitt’s essential intent
- Why trade-offs are great for your business and life
- Emergent vs deliberate strategies
- What is “buffer” and why is it important to an essentialist life
- The seemingly non-essential activities — playing, exploring, resting — that are actually essential
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Get More Done With the Rule of 3
- The Eisenhower Decision Matrix: Distinguishing Between the Urgent and Important
- Avoiding Learned Helplessness
- How to Firmly Say No Without Being a Jerk
- How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins
- Stephen Covey’s “Big Rocks” metaphor
- Visions Over Goals
- Podcast: The Importance of Play
- My 8-Week Microadventure Challenge
Thanks to Essentialism I’ve made some big changes in my priorities and how I plan my day, and I know you’ll get something out of it too.
Connect With Greg McKeown
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you feel like you’re always busy, but you’re not productive? Do you feel like your time is constantly being hijacked by other people’s agendas? If you can answer yes to any of those questions, I’m sure all of us can, today’s episode is for you. I talked to business consultant, Greg McKeown, about his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. In it, Greg argues that by doing less, we can actually not only be more productive, but more importantly, get more of the right things done in life.
We begin our conversation talking about the difference between essentialists and non-essentialists, and why essentialists look at every decision with a 100-year view. Greg then shares how you can apply essentialist principles to your work so that you can convince your boss that maybe some of that stuff you’re working on that he thinks is important but isn’t actually important, how you can ditch that stuff and actually work on things that are important. We then discuss why taking time for play, sleeping, or doing absolutely nothing can sometimes be the most productive thing you can do. Then Greg shares some tips on how to say no to people without feeling like a jerk, and why adding buffer to your life is an important part of being an essentialist. This podcast is filled with both brass tax advice and deep insights about living a flourishing life. You’re going to want to take notes. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/essentialist. All right, Greg McKeown, welcome to the show.
Greg McKeown: It’s so nice to be with you.
Brett McKay: You wrote a book. It’s provided a lot of food for thought, and it has given me some focus in my life. It’s called Essentialism, and it’s all about figuring out what’s the most important things in life and focusing only on those things to be more effective in your work or in your life. We’re going to get into deeper what essentialism is. I’m curious, did you have a personal experience where you were trying to do a whole bunch of different things all at the same time, but you were doing them all poorly that led you down this path of exploring essentialism?
Greg McKeown: I had an experience that left a mark on me where I received an email from my manager at the time that said, “Friday would be a very bad time for your wife to have a baby,” and Friday was in fact the day that we were in the hospital, my daughter had been born middle of the night the night before. Instead of being focused on that clearly important essential moment, I felt torn. I can do both. The right answer was to try and do both. Could I be at the meeting that I’d been asked to attend, or should I stay where I was and stay focused? I’m torn about both. To my shame, I went to the meeting. Afterwards, actually I remember being told, “Oh, the client will respect you for the choice you just made.” I’m not sure that they did respect the choice I’d made. The look on their face just did not evince that sort of confidence, and yet even if they had, surely I’d made a fool’s bargain.
It was from that that I learned a simple lesson, which is if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. This coalesced many, many years of thinking in the strategy world, working with Silicon Valley companies. I suddenly saw the connection to these two efforts, a phenomenon I’d seen in business and how it might be applied to individuals.
Brett McKay: Okay. I think we’ve all had experiences like that where there’s two choices, you try to do both, and you do both poorly, and it doesn’t work out great. Let’s dig into deeper about what is an essentialist, the difference between an essentialist and a non-essentialist, a big picture overview of those two types of approaches.
Greg McKeown: First, let’s start with a non-essentialist. A non-essentialist is someone who instead of just at one time like I’m describing, “Okay, let’s do both,” has that basic logic deep inside of them, so deep that I think they don’t even know it’s there. It’s dominant assumption. It’s just invisible to them because it’s so ubiquitous. The idea really is, look, I have to do everything because it’s all important. It’s all equally important, so I just have to do it. If I do it all, somehow that will lead to breakthrough success. That’s basically the logic of a non-essentialist. It’s all important, so I have to do it all. If I can do it all, then I’ll get it all, I’ll get these results, these breakthroughs. A lot of people today are involved in, consumed in that. What it leads to is not what it promises. What it leads to is people who are stretched too thin at work or at home, it leads to people feeling busy but not productive, and this cultural norm where really everyone’s life is being hijacked by other people’s agenda all the time. That’s the result of the non-essentialist mindset.
The essentialist is radically different to the culture of our times but really only in the simplest and most sensible ways. They’re not really radical. They’re just facing some reality. Some things are really, really important, and most stuff isn’t. I therefore need to make trade-offs and figure out what is essential and what isn’t, and just pursue the things that are essential, eliminate what’s not.
Brett McKay: Okay. Here’s a question I have. This assumption that people have that they can do everything because everything’s equally important, where does that assumption come from because when you look at it from a big picture view, take a step back, you’re like, “That’s crazy talk,” yet we still have that assumption.
Greg McKeown: It’s the right question. Where does it come from? Did it just come from you, from me? Did we choose it deliberately, consciously, or is there something more broadly at play? It’s the latter. It’s very important because it explains the phenomenon, which is that it’s not just one or two people, it’s not just you and me, it’s not just a few other people. It’s just almost everybody everywhere. It doesn’t matter what industry I’m in, it’s not a matter of what level of seniority. It’s just people everywhere are feeling this. It’s in the zeitgeist. Tracing its history is helpful for context so that we can then address it because we can’t really consciously change what we have not correctly diagnosed.
Let’s really back up a long way. Let’s go back to 1400s. That’s important because it’s pre-Industrial Revolution, and it is clearly a very different era. This is when the word priority came into the English language, and it was singular. Priority, what did it mean. The very first thing, the prior thing. It stayed singular for the next 500 years. For half a millennium, people weren’t pluralizing this term. It became pluralized in the 1900s as people are grappling with efficiency systems of factories, and that produced tremendous breakthroughs but they were lessons that applied to machines that didn’t apply to humans. One of them was this sense of prioritization. Now people start talking about priorities, but what does it even mean? Can you have very, very many, very first, before all other things things? It is truly a madness, and I think it’s hard to define in any sensible way what the word priorities really means. That’s phase one.
Phase two was in the post-Second World War where as people came back from this cataclysmic discombobulating experience, they didn’t recombobulate, meaning we didn’t as an international community or culture mourn the loss, create some space, figure out what matters most, figure out how to rebuild things. No, we went for the quick fix. Instead of more community, we went for buying stuff. There was a very deliberate strategy. This wasn’t just happenstance. There were people sitting in departments, sitting in Washington DC, trying to institute what I’ve called the panem strategy. Panem comes from the Latin. It’s circus and bread. It was all about almost literally turning consumerism into a religion, and how can we keep people on this cadence of having to watch television where they’re going to learn what stuff they have to buy to be happy, what everybody’s going to do, and then buying that stuff, having to work harder in order to get those new televisions to see that stuff. It was this immense cycle and spiral. It wasn’t possible until you had the groundwork of the Industrial Revolution, the mindset that came with that, but it built upon it and accelerated it.
Then phase three, the third era of non-essentialism, is in the last 10 years, and we’ve all been witness to that. It’s as we’ve gone from being connected to hyperconnected. As social media and smartphones have come together in an unholy alliance, we’ve gone from information overload to opinion overload. All of this is cultural context for now. It’s really important we understand that, otherwise we can’t do anything about it. I just want to pause on that because it’s always a little bit disheartening and depressing to hear that, how developed this has been and how consuming.
What I want to say is that none of these things are of themselves inherently bad. Some of the assumptions are just false, so those are bad, but the tools that we have can be utilized by non-essentialists or essentialists. The thing is to change the mindset. These new technologies, the smartphones, the social media, these things make great servants, just poor masters. That’s where we have to be. We have to step into a new role where we become much more designful, thoughtful, create space to reflect on what we want to do with the tools that we have, or they will simply run us. It won’t just be me making this really bad choice sitting in the hospital, but it will be all of us making micro trade-offs we never really meant to because these things are acting on us rather than us acting on them.
Brett McKay: Right. You talk about this in the book, all this bombardment of information, choices that we get, it does create a sense of learned helplessness. You talk about learned helplessness in the book, and we’ve discussed it on the website and the podcast, where people just, they give up. They don’t think they can control their lives. As you said earlier, they allow other people to set the agenda in their life.
Greg McKeown: The twist on learned helplessness in the book that I stand by is that normally learned helplessness, in fact it’s inherently described as you stop acting. It’s the dog that won’t move because they think there’s no point. It creates an inaction in people. I found that there’s another kind of helplessness, which is constantly moving. It’s constant activity. I have to do everything. There’s nothing I can do. There’s no way out of this. It might be okay for other people but not for me. I’ve got all these people acting on me. I’ve got my boss. I’ve got my managers. I’ve got all the different people in the community. It just leads people to think they have to live as a non-essentialist, and there is no other choice. It’s a hyperlearning, helplessness.
Brett McKay: Right. One of the insidious things about this non-essentialist approach is, like you said earlier, people, they try to do everything all at once because they think if they do, then success will come. But when that success comes, it just opens up more choices, more “opportunities,” where you have to repeat the cycle all over again.
Greg McKeown: Okay. Let’s talk about that a little bit because a process I found that companies in Silicon Valley followed was instructed both at the business strategy level but also on the self-leadership strategy level. The phenomenon is this, that I noticed that Silicon Valley companies had a few people at the beginning in their early days focused on just the right problem at just the right time. This led to success. With success came options and opportunities. With options and opportunities, there was a risk. That sounded like the right problem to have, but the risk was that it would undermine the very things that led to success in the first place. If all those new options and opportunities led to what Jim Collins, the researcher, has called the undisciplined pursuit of more, and it’s that undisciplined pursuit of more that we ought to be wary of.
In companies, this is where suddenly they have the resources, so they go on a hiring spree, and they’re hiring too fast, and they’re hiring too thoughtlessly. They’re throwing people at problems, but suddenly they’re undermining the culture that led to their success. Everyone’s got all these good ideas and they’re coming to the table, but there’s more ideas than there is discipline inside the company. You end up starting to spread the culture, and the focus, resources of the company too thin. What is the result of all of this? Does trying to do all of it actually help you break through to the next level of success? It does not. What it does, predictably and really with rare exceptions, it leads to a plateauing of progress and even the slow death of the company.
I just wanted to draw a distinction there, which is that when you’re focused, it leads to success, but success itself is another one of these poor masters. If we let success lead us, if we take the natural instinctive next steps that success and the options of success would guide us towards, we’re already off the path, and we’ll get pulled way, way off. This is the theory that explains how these juggernaut success companies, these once unstoppable firms have become completely just these immensely difficult companies to run or think through. It was success that was the thing. The question is, both at the organizational level or the personal level, how do we become successful at success? That is where essentialism comes in. I would argue that non-essentialism literally simply does not produce success. It’s just correlated with success because you see it at the same time as success is present, but it never generates success.
Brett McKay: Right. This is a question maybe we can get to later. There are some companies, I’m thinking Google or Amazon, who they started off with a core competency, but they somehow have been able to expand into other areas that are somewhat related, and they’ve been able to do it deftly. I’m thinking Google, they started off with search, and then they introduced Gmail, and they introduced maps. What is it that Google’s doing, for example, that allows them to explore these new options yet still maintain their ability to be successful in the one thing that they’re good at?
Greg McKeown: Where does Google’s primary profit margin and center still lie?
Brett McKay: Search ads.
Greg McKeown: By small margin, massive margin?
Brett McKay: It’s massive, I believe.
Greg McKeown: Massive margin. It’s the thing that makes money for them still. That’s it, still. Here we are 20 years on, many moonshots later, and still their primary income comes from a certain place. Now, I’m not trying to hit Google. I suppose we’d all like to fail like Google. It is staggering to me and should grab our attention that … You mentioned these add-ons, which have been well integrated, but they’re extensions of exactly the same product. Their search maps, it’s search. The purchase of YouTube, I talked to the CEO at the time when they just purchased YouTube and talking about that. He said, “Look, YouTube is lucky that there’s half a dozen or a dozen companies that we could’ve picked. We ended up picking YouTube. We had to pick somebody.”
They’re picking things to put into their search engines so people don’t go anywhere else. I give them high marks for having kept, and protected, and developed that thing. There’s no doubt, right? Bing came searching after them, excuse the pun, Yahoo’s been fighting also still for that same space over the time, and many others. They’ve done a great job in doing that. Where they have largely failed is to produce a second big thing. They’ve had all this money, this tremendous economic machine. Very rare in companies to have that much cash on hand. They have, I believe, desired to do something important and significant with it, but what does it all amount to? What happened to Google Glass? What has happened still with the driverless cars? I’m not saying that it is all done with driverless cars, but when you say, “We’re going to do Google Glass, and we’re going to do Fiber, and we’re going to do driverless cars, and, and, and,” when you go that broadly and you keep investing in them, why do you keep investing in them? Because you can.
If you’ve got billions and billions that you want to spend, and you want to do these big things, and you’ve got these great desires, there’s nothing wrong with the desire to make an impact in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with having loads of money in the bank with which to do things. These are the problems people want to have. But an insufficiently selective criteria and approach will undermine the chance to break through to the next level. Have they broken through to the next level? Have they got the second search, the massive revenue generating, world impacting service or product? No. I will maintain the answer to that is no.
Maybe they say, “We don’t want that. Maybe we’re happy to use our energies just to help spark new ideas and so on. We’ll be the NASA of the business world, and we’ll just keep on spending money that isn’t for a single mission.” Just think of the language that they’re using even on these big, exciting on the face of them, bombastic, and bold, and visionary efforts, the moonshot. Yes, but how many moonshots can you have? If NASA had had five different moonshots, if they had a moonshot plus a moonshot, if they’re trying to do all these massive things, they won’t get there. It’s no surprise at all to watch Google Glass go down. I was just waiting for that. Of course that’s going to happen. No surprise to see Google, I suddenly can’t remember, Fiber, Google Fiber be paused because you can’t go massive on everything. It’s not really that surprising.
The car is out. We all see the car is a huge opportunity that any company that can crack the code on, it is a massive, massive … Driverless cars are clearly a huge opportunity. Tesla’s obviously positioning themselves for it. Apple is putting resources into it. Google’s putting resources into it. What have we seen yet in terms of profitability coming out of Google on that? Zero, right? It’s a completely unprofitable center still. Of course, there may be more time. What I’m trying to illustrate here is that I think that this phenomenon, Google with all its money and resources cannot escape the foundational principle, which is that you can either do a whole bunch of things averagely well, or you can do a few things superbly well given the same set of resources. If you do a few things superbly well, you are more likely to break through to the next level.
I love the Google example. I love riffing on that because it helps to make the point, even if you have that many resources, you can’t do it all. You can’t break through in everything. How much more so for your and I and to everyone who’s listening, in our own lives with the finite time resources, energy resources, financial resources that we have to be selective and thoughtful about which things really will take us to the next level of contribution.
Brett McKay: We’ll talk about how you figure that out, but I’m curious, if the underlying assumption of a non-essentialist is, “I can do it all. I don’t have to make trade-offs,” what’s the assumption that the essentialist takes towards life? Is it just the opposite?
Greg McKeown: It says this. It begins with this idea that a few things are incredibly valuable, a few things, and most stuff is noise. To use a metaphor, it’s like waking up having believed that life was analogous to a coal mine in which my job is to get as much of this out as possible. This is just a quantity game. To wake up and suddenly go, “Oh, I’ve never been in a coal mine. My whole life, it’s been a diamond mine.” It’s not a quantity game in the same sense. It’s all about finding, thoughtfully, carefully finding those massively valuable things that are in here, hidden. I need to find them carefully and thoughtfully. Now that’s a very different process. You’d approach it really differently. I think that this is the beginning place of becoming an essentialist. In fact, once somebody really believes that, once they have unlearned non-essentialist mindset, which is the harder part, and then absorbed and taken in the essentialist mindset that there are few things truly valuable, a lot of the rest of it becomes spontaneous and intuitive because you suddenly just see the world differently.
It’s like taking off a bad pair of glasses. It’s like we’ve been wearing a pair of glasses that make it all seem like it’s about equal value and suddenly going, “Oh my goodness, most of this stuff is just literally rubbish. Most of this stuff is worth nothing.” Honest to goodness, how much time do we spend doing things of almost zero value? It might be fine to check ESPN, follow a team. There’s a space for this, for sure there is, but is it worth the kind of time people put into it? Isn’t there a diminishing returns where somebody just keeps checking it and checking it, the latest score from the latest teams, and all of the different team, and all the teams in the playoffs, and constantly going back and forth between all of it, and it’s hours and hours? What does it all add up to? What does it all equal? 100 years from now, will it matter? No, of course it won’t matter. It won’t matter 100 days from now, but it won’t matter 100 years from now. This is the test. You can test it in this way. That’s now onto another riff. I’ll pause.
Brett McKay: Right. I think figuring out what’s essential and non-essential, the example you just gave, ESPN, surfing the web, people like that, yeah, of course, that’s not essential. If I cut more of that, my life will be better. The really hard things are the things that you do in work or in life that seem important, right? It seems like it’s doing something, but it really isn’t. How do you figure that out? How do you figure out these activities you take part in whether at work or in your personal life that you’ve done forever because you feel like you’ve had to do it, but they don’t actually provide any value?
Greg McKeown: I think that it’s perspective, isn’t it, that when you’re saying, “Well ESPN is obvious,” it’s because you have a perspective that makes that obvious. There are some people it’s not obvious to. It hasn’t even occurred to them. Why has it occurred to you? You have a perspective that says, “Well, I just get that these things, my family, my service, church service, these things matter more than spinning and surfing on the internet,” because there’s a perspective you’ve got. What we can do, where we can go is to push that perspective out further.
As one example, I used to think that it was really pretty bold perspective to think about my life from birth to death. I’d have people even work with me when I co-created a class at the B-School at Stanford. That was what we had, birth to death thinking. We’d take them on this huge journey, this huge narrative of where were you when you were born, and what did you do next, and where are you now over all these years, and where do you want to be? That’s a very broad perspective and far longer term thinking than really anybody in the class had really done. They might have paid a little lip service to it occasionally. I realized later, and I didn’t realize it fast enough to change it there, but my perspective was far too narrow even then, far too short-term, that I was guilty of a very self-centered perspective, which is that my life basically can be judged within the period of my life. Why is that the case? Why would that be true? That’s just because that’s the period I’m here.
I realized that what I needed to do was push people’s thinking back to, let’s say, their great grandparents, so parents, grandparents, great grandparents, the full spectrum back, and start to get an intergenerational narrative, a 100-year vision because from today it’s 100 years before us, and a 100 years ahead of us. That is a much more powerful lens. What I learned in the process was that most people really can’t tell me anything about who their great grandparents even were, what they did, how they thought, what choices they made, what trade-offs they made, nothing. There’s this massive blind spot for each of us. Most of us are shaped by people we know nothing about whatsoever. Most of us, the language we speak, the country we live in, the attitudes we have, there’s deep assumptions and expectations, and all of this shaped by people, ways of communicating, all sorts, and we don’t even know about them. It makes us blind to the massive ways we’ve been impacting the world and how we’re unintentionally affecting all these things.
You go way, way back. You start to create the narrative, the decisions that they made. You start to discern which decisions great grandparents made, grandparents made, parents made, which decisions still impact me now? Which things have lasted 100 years? Which things do I care about? Which things have had a big positive effect? Which things have had a big negative effect, so that we can start to discern what really matters. Not what mattered temporarily, what mattered in a big way that lasted all these years. Then we go forward, extrapolating from that 100 years in the future. It’s a very important number because none of us are going to be here 100 years from now.
It’s very important that we break that perspective of, “Well, on my deathbed, what will people say about me?” Who cares? We’ve got to go beyond that. We’ve got to say, “What about your great-grandchildren?” or if we have no children, just other people that we influence generations ahead. What will they care about? What will have impacted them? What will make a difference? I put it to you that that perspective will reveal the difference between the merely good things and the very few truly essential ones. That’s the way I think to approach this.
Brett McKay: I love that, that perspective, adding that perspective. Here’s the challenge. Let’s say you do this. I think it’s, for people’s personal lives, they can figure that out. Okay, family, definitely important. There’s these obligations or responsibilities in church, or my community, or whatever, obviously important. Let’s say on your work level, if you’re working for an employer, and you do this analysis and you decide these meetings that I have to go to once a week, they’re not important in that grand scheme of things. How do you tell your boss, “I don’t think these meetings are essential.” Do you tell your boss that? If so, how do you do so in a way where you can get them onboard with that?
Greg McKeown: I don’t think that the way to think about negotiating with your boss is to simply say, “Well, no.” I didn’t write a book called Noism. I do think it’s often or maybe even always reasonable to have a conversation. I remember one time I was being given a new assignment from my direct leader. He’d already given me probably four fairly major project to work on, and here was the next one. All of the projects were interesting to me, they were all good, and he obviously thought they were all valuable. When he brought in this additional one, in the past I would’ve said, “Well, okay. He wants it doing,” and we’d do it. There would’ve been no pause, no consideration, not even a thought of a negotiation because we just want to move forward. My desire to move forward wasn’t any less, but I realized how this nonsense of non-essentialism, you can’t just do everything, all not and all equally well.
What I said to him was, “Look, I’m very happy to do that. Do you want me to do five things averagely well, or do you want me to do one or maybe two of these things really superbly well and just go all out on it?” It didn’t take him more than half a moment to respond to that. He said, “Oh, we’ll find somebody else to do this fifth project. In fact, of all these projects, there’s one that is a clear winner for me.” He said what it was. I agreed with it completely. I thought that was the priority project. The other things ended up being removed, and I focused on that for the next year. As a result of that, made a serious impact on the thing that he and I had identified as the most important things.
That’s more in range of what I think is realistic and what is appropriate. Of course, it might not always work in that picture perfect way I just described, but what I’m inviting people to do is to bring the reality into the conversation, to not pretend that we simply can do everything perfectly well. We all, I think, do know perfectly well that that isn’t true. If you can bring that into the conversation, you’re not saying no, you’re not being impertinent. You’re dealing with reality. I think there are appropriate ways to do that.
Brett McKay: Right. Don’t be afraid to start the conversation at least.
Greg McKeown: I think that’s right. I think essentialism and non-essentialism are conversations. I think that’s the beginning of any culture change is to be able to have the language. I think it can be very advantageous to have not just you, for example, read Essentialism and know about it but to have your boss read it, have everybody on the team read it so that this language here doesn’t mean you suddenly say no to everything and everyone without thinking about it. That’s a thoughtless approach. You can start to have the conversation, and we ought to do that because non-essentialism is so unsustainable and so silly.
Brett McKay: This leads nicely to the next question. The book isn’t called Noism, but to live an essentialist life, you have to say no to things. I think for a lot of people, they’re afraid to say no because they don’t want to let people down, they’re afraid that it might cost them their job or their standing in their job. How do you overcome that fear of saying no so you can focus on what’s important? Is the approach instead of thinking, “I have to say no,” have it rather, “Let me have a conversation with you about this first.”
Greg McKeown: The first stage to developing the leadership competency of elimination, of saying no, the first stage is to learn to pause. It can be the tiniest pause. Somebody says, “Oh, hey, can you do this?” and you just go, “Oh, let me think about that,” and that’s it. You might still say yes, but you develop the ability to pause and realize, “Oh, this is a new thing. This is another thing.” Maybe then you start to learn one question, you ask one question. Normally you just said yes without thinking about it, without clarification. You pause, you ask a question. Eventually in that space, you find new skills can be layered in.
I do think it’s a full leadership competency. The ability to say no, the ability to negotiate, the ability to eliminate non-essentials is its own competency. It has to be developed. I’ve come to understand that better since the book was published than I did before. I used to think people have the skills already developed, and all they need is a new mindset. That can be true for people, but it’s often not true. It’s often the case that people believe that they can only really have two options. One is the polite yes, and the second is the rude no. They think those are the only two choices. As a result, because they don’t want to be that sort of person, they end up saying the polite yes all the time. The questions is how to discover the middle space.
I think it’s important don’t jump all the way to close to the rude no at first. You stay over at the polite yes, but what about a polite pause? What about a polite, “Hey, can we talk about this a little more?” What about asking the question, “Look, can we just talk about what we think is the most important thing to be done? What are the two or three things that will really move the needle this quarter, this week, this year?” Slowly, as you develop the ability to negotiate non-essentials, you will find stronger muscles are being formed so that eventually I think there is a way that people can evolve all the way to, “Oh, can you do this?” “Well, actually, no, I don’t think I can do it,” but by that point, there’s a developed set of skills, and trust, and relationship that has been formed.
You don’t want to go from being polite yes on the one hand and then hugely shift because you’ve heard this idea or you read the book, Essentialism, and now you go all overkill on the other side. You’ve got to take it step by step. Think about this as a continuum from the polite yes, step by step over until you’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work, and you develop this skill.
Brett McKay: Part of navigating that skillset is you have to know what is important, what is truly essential. You talk about in your book this idea of the essential intent. When I read it, it sounded like a mission statement that people hear and they roll their eyes, but it’s not. How is essential intent different from say a corporate mission statement or even a personal mission statement?
Greg McKeown: First of all, the idea of a vision and mission statement in their original idea was perfectly positive, good, and I’m in favor of it. The reason people roll their eyes is not because vision and mission statements aren’t good ideas. It’s because they’ve seen them almost universally badly executed. What does that mean? Example, I remember actually at business school being given an assignment. There was about 70 in the class or something, and each of us has been given an assignment to find a vision or mission statement in a non-profit organization, bring it to class, read it out. Each of us bring one or two of them. We do that. As we’re going through these statement, the room just really starts laughing at these statements. There’s a six-person organization, and their mission statement is to end world hunger, which is a perfectly inspiring idea other than it’s so disconnected to the reality of the organization, no one believes in it. It sounds inspirational, but actually it isn’t. It melts on contact. It’s not real, and people can feel that, so it’s not really inspirational in the end.
I remember as we continued going through this, somebody put their hand up and they said, “Well, I’ve got Brad Pitt’s vision statement from his non-profit.” By this point, everyone’s laughing. “Brad Pitt, what he’s going to have to say?” Then he read it out, and this was the vision statement. This was the purpose statement was, “We’re going to build 250 storm-resistant homes in the Eighth Circuit of New Orleans that are also sustainable by this state.” When they read it, it seemed to take the oxygen out of the room. It was almost an irreverent movement as people realized, “Oh, that is what a clear intent looks like, sounds like.” They will know when they’re done. They might well choose a new intent. That doesn’t have to be the end. You don’t have to put yourself out of existence necessarily, but you know when it’s done. It stood in such contrast to these other kinds of vision and mission statements, these incomprehensible, general vision and mission statements. No one knows what they really mean.
What people have experienced with these kinds of things is it lacks clarity, which is ironic because that’s the whole point of them is to produce clarity, to produce direction and purpose. Most of them, and I really do mean most, certainly my experience is almost universally, that these kinds of statements are not fit for purpose. They don’t enable people to make trade-offs in their day to day work. An essential intent, in some ways if I’m honest, they’re just really good vision mission statements. They just work because you’ve gone all the way from this generalized statement to something of clarity. A lot of people say, even CEOs and executives I work with when I talk to them about this, at first they’ll say, “Well, look, I think we’re pretty clear, Greg, about what we’re trying to do.” I always want to say, “Well, yeah, as a person who wears glasses, the difference between pretty clear and really clear is really different.”
That’s what we’re talking about here. An essential intent is what you really are trying to do, the concrete and inspirational, but especially the concrete objective, the priority, the thing you’re really about. When people have them, you know you have it because basically it’s one decision that’s made a thousand decisions. You can keep coming back to that again and again until it’s achieved, and you can look at 10 different options, 20 different options and start to evaluate which of these options is most like to bring us forward and accelerate us towards this intent. You can actually use it in making decisions and making trade-offs. That’s how you know you’ve arrived. That’s how you know you’ve achieved it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I like that idea that you know when you’re forced to make a trade-off. If I do this, will this help me move forward on that intent? No. Okay, that’s a trade-off.
Greg McKeown: Exactly, and of course trade-offs are the essence of strategy. If you’re not making trade-offs, you don’t have a strategy. If you’re not consciously making it, then you don’t have a conscious strategy. What we’ve learned is that you do need two kinds of strategy in your life or in your business. One is emergent strategy, and that’s the one I think we tend to default to. That’s where you see the response of your boss today, you see what’s going on, and you respond to it in hopefully an intelligent way in the moment. That’s emergent strategy, a learning by doing, by being aware and conscious of what’s going on around you. That’s type one. Type two is deliberate strategy. That’s where essential intent comes in. You say, “Look, longer term, what are we really trying to do?” Of course, we’ve talked already about this 100-year vision. It doesn’t have to be as hugely long-term as that to begin. You say, “We’ve decided the thing we really want to achieve by x date.” Could be a year, could be 10 years, could of course be longer. That starts to inform each day, each moment, so that you’re not just doing emergent strategy.
You don’t want just to be focused on essential intent and not to focus on what’s going on around you because then you could be massively out of touch with the realities of the people you’re trying to serve. I’ve made that mistake before in my own leadership where I say, “Okay, this is the goal,” and then you start to not pay attention to the things that would be educating you as to how approach this or where it’s not really working and where to adjust. You need both. You need focus as both the verb, which is this adaptation we’re talking about, this emergent strategy, and you need focus as a noun, this intent, this single thing that you’re really working towards. It’s this balance between the two, this dynamic equilibrium between those two that helps you to be relevant now and also making trade-offs towards something that really matters down the road.
Brett McKay: Another idea you talk about that you think is vital in order to live an essentialist life is this idea of buffer. What is buffer, and why is that important to leading an essentialist life?
Greg McKeown: I was trying to teach my children the idea of buffer and its importance, and we ended up creating a game where we were driving from point A to point B. To drive in maybe the normal way or maybe the way I normally drove meant that you got a bit too close to the people in front of you, meaning you had to slow down suddenly, and then you’d accelerate quickly. You didn’t quite see the red light was coming, so you had to slow down again. It’s a very choppy experience because there’s always unexpected things to come. To drive with buffer meant, okay, can we go from point A to point B never stopping the car at all? How would you do that? It’s a smoother journey. It’s a smoother way of going from point A to point B. The way you do it is that you create more space between you and the car in front of you. Instead of it being a few yards behind them, you might go back 20 yards, 30 yards. That means that you have the space to adapt to the unexpected thing in front of you. That’s a physical example of buffer.
Why it matters so much in our lives, in our businesses, in the work environments, across the board is because the one thing we can expect is the unexpected. We might not know what the unexpected thing will be, I suppose by definition we don’t, we can be sure they will come. If you try and pack your day, your life, your commitment level to the completely fullest degree on the basis that I can get these things done if everything works perfectly, then we can be sure, we can guarantee that isn’t how it’s going to work. Something unexpected is going to come up. Somebody’s going to drop the ball. Some technical glitch will occur. These things always come up. By putting butter in our schedule, there’s a variety of ways of doing this.
I remember the CEO of LinkedIn told me that he puts in two hours of buffer in his schedule every day. He divides it into half an hour segments. Nothing’s planned. No meeting can be scheduled, no appointments, no anything because he just knows that unexpected things will come up. Maybe he needs a bit of time, he’ll catch up on some email because he’s got the buffer to do it. Maybe someone will step into his office who has an urgent situation or something that’s vital. Maybe he’ll just sit and use that time to pause, breathe, reflect. That’s buffer in action. It’s key to executing on what really matters most. Yeah, that’s buffer, that’s why it matters.
Brett McKay: I think that idea where we try to cram in as much, that’s the problem of overoptimizing. We think we’re being really efficient, we think we’re being clever, but then it ends up biting us in the butt. The better way to optimize is underoptimize. Don’t use all of your time.
Greg McKeown: Yeah, it’s absolutely true. What I’ve learned actually just in my own life and recently is that you might have to work very hard at this. You might have to paradoxically in a sense get busier than you even are right now for a while in order to achieve this. That’s okay because you might have to … Let me give you an example. I look at my life and I say, “Okay, look, I want to be an essentialist. I feel like I’m halfway towards revolution. I’ve made a significant number of changes, and they’re important, but I want to go further. I want a certain kind of life.”
In fact, let me just share this with you. I was doing an interview, a conversation or what not similar to this a few months ago, six months, eight months maybe. The person I was talking to started speaking about where they live. They live on land, and it’s land that their great grandparents bought. There’s this area on his property that’s the house that these ancestors to live in. He says, “I’ll go there sometimes because there’s no WiFi there. There’s nothing there.” He says, “I’ll spend time there.” He said, “When I’m there, I’m amazed to think, to imagine what the life was for the people who lived there.” He said, “They would work. They’d get up at dawn, they’d go and plow the fields, work outside, physical labor together as a family. Then once it was done for the day, they would come home.”
Of course, there was no technology. They would have this hearth experience, meaning literally by the hearth. For the remainder of the day and fully into the evening until they went to sleep, they would sit by the fire, read, talk to each other, laugh, and they’d eat together. Everything was done by this hearth. Everything was done in this very quiet and centered place. Let’s just riff on this for a second. Something I learned recently which amazed me is that the word focus, the root word of focus is hearth. The word focus, when it was first being used, meant not just focus on a thing, it meant the focus that is only possible when you’re with your family by the hearth. That’s where the light is, that’s where the warmth is, that’s where the family is. That is what focus meant. I think that’s quite profound insight.
When I was having this conversation and he was explaining some of this to me, I had this deep connection of I’m only halfway there, and I need to do something about this. I need to actually create a different environment. I’ve probably gone as far as I think I can go in the environment I’m in. Everything we do has interrelated purposes, and so this is not the only reason I was doing this, but I found myself pursuing a different life and saying, “Where can I have a different life?” In that process, and for some other reasons as well, moved to a different environment. Where were we looking? We were looking for a different kind of location, and the place we found is so quiet and so still. It’s still got this great community, but it’s high in privacy, high in community. Compared to before, it’s so much space.
It took a lot of work to go from point A to point B. Really I felt sometimes a bit of a charlatan essentialist because it was just so much work, but it was in pursuit of this single intent to make this change, to choose this different life. We’re in it now, and it’s just been so profound to have set a goal like that, to really set an intent to get to a place that’s less, less noise, less disruption, more privacy, ironically more community. Could these places exist? It might take a lot of work to get there, but then you’re there. In today’s environment, you have to really work on that. Anyway, that’s something that’s very live for me, very real for me, and I think has relevance for the people listening to this conversation.
Brett McKay: I love that. I thought what was interesting was a counterintuitive idea you put out there. In order to live an essentialist life, you might end up doing things that seem unessential to most people like exploring, or just playing, or sleeping, or not doing anything. I think when most people hear that they think, “Well, that’s a waste of time. You could be using that time to doing those essential things.” Why are activities like that so important to living as an essentialist?
Greg McKeown: They’re not important if you believe that going 24/7, if it’s working for you, then it’s not important. Don’t worry about all of this. If that is creating joy, if that’s creating meaningful relationships, if that’s creating mental wellness health and thriving success personally and professionally, if non-essentialism is producing those things for you, then you just forget everything we’re talking about here because it’s all working. On the basis that actually non-essentialism doesn’t work for people, that it creates so much stress, that it creates so much business without productivity, that it actually helps people to plateau in their progress, suddenly you think, “Well, maybe the way I’ve been doing it isn’t the right way to be doing it. Maybe there’s a different thing.”
Suddenly some of those different things will feel like slow motion at first, will feel so different, like getting off a conveyor belt. All of a sudden you’re like, “Whoa, it’s a little discombobulating.” Then you say, “Well, this is real life playing with my children, just playing with them, going somewhere to go swim with the children.” Go to the beach. Just be with them. Laugh with them. Stop thinking that that is the distraction. That’s the real work of life. That is life. I suggested to somebody one time, I said, “Sometimes in life, the best thing to do is nothing,” and they could not comprehend that idea. Literally they just looked at me like I was crazy and then started to explain, “You don’t really mean nothing, do you? You couldn’t really mean that. It must be some other thing you mean.” I kept on saying, “No, I don’t mean something else. I mean that sometimes the healthiest thing you could do is to sit there, and the goal is just nothing for just a little while, to be bored, to let yourself be in that space.”
You’ll find quickly that this in fact is a way for much better personal health, that this is a way to much higher levels of happiness. Strangely, I think what people will find, especially if you go back to the 100-year vision, they’ll find that these are the things that actually last. This is the level of the non-essentialist con is that it literally has conned us into believing that the stuff that doesn’t matter at all is what matters, and the stuff that really matters doesn’t matter at all. I don’t know if I said that right. Maybe I just got that wrong, but you get the idea that it’s completely reversed what is important and what’s not important.
I was reading my journal not so long ago, and I read back a few years. I was reviewing a few years back. I was looking at my entries, and I was struck by how many of the items I’d written didn’t matter even this three, five years later, just didn’t matter to me. The entries about when I had played with my children, when I had just had some space and relaxed and been in the present, when I wrote about those things, those things mattered significantly even this three to five years later. That’s what we’re going for. It’s a different way of living, and it is revolutionary. It is different to what the people around us will be doing. What will be revealed in that difference is simply a less but better life. That’s the core argument value proposition of essentialism.
Brett McKay: I love that. Greg, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your book and your work?
Greg McKeown: The website is a place that we do add things from time to time with the new adventures that we’re going on. That’s just gregmckeown.com. The latest adventure, the big thing that’s been happening that’s interesting is we’ve teamed up with Steve Harvey after he read Essentialism and found it life-changing. We’ve been working with people in his audience and going to their home, and evaluating their life and making adjustments. Funny you mentioned buffer. One of the people that worked with me specifically mentioned on that. You can go to the website and watch some of those segments and episodes and join in this growing adventure and growing movement.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Greg McKeown, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Greg McKeown: Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Greg McKeown. He’s the author of the book, Essentialism. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at gregmckeown.com. McKeown is spelled M-C-K-E-O-W-N .com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/essentialist where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the show and have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Really helps out a lot. Thank you to everyone who has given us reviews. We really appreciate that. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.