Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014)

I recently finished Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.  Upon finishing the final words I couldn’t help but think, “If only I could live like that!”

At its core, Essentialism is about you and me discovering how to make the highest contribution to the world around us. Although seemingly simple McKeown points out that, “For the first time, the preponderance of choice has overwhelmed our ability to manage it.  We have lost our ability to filter what is important and what isn’t. Psychologists call this “decision fatigue”: the more choices we are forced to make, the more the quality of our decisions deteriorates.”

It’s this diminished decision quality about how to spend our time that’s causing us to fall short of our very best.  Our life’s calling. 

Embracing McKeown’s call to Essentialism is akin us living like salmon, swimming upstream against a nearly overwhelming current, stopping at nothing to accomplish our instinctive and singular purpose.  Leaving a legacy during our short season on earth.

Not to be confused with busyness McKeown points out that, “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

In his book Greg unpacks the core mindset of an Essentialist which acknowledges 3 realities: (1) we have individual choice, (2) there’s an unprecedented prevalence of noise around us, and (3) me must accept the reality of trade offs if we are to gain clarity and focus.

For me, Essentialism solidified that while what holds us back is sometimes a matter of what we do…it’s often a function of what we don’t do.  Distracted by the menial I often don’t…

  • Escape enough…to discern the essential
  • Look beyond the noise enough…to distinguish the fascinating from the mundane
  • Play enough…to explore the wonders before me
  • Sleep enough…to protect my greatest asset – my very self
  • Select stringently enough…to attentively labor on what my maker wants for me vs what the world would have for me

To be sure, Greg’s book alone won’t transform you.  However, Greg structured Essentialism to render it a powerful resource.  Specifically, it’s divided into 4 parts: (1) the essence of Essentialism, (2) the discernment of what matters, (3) strategies for eliminating the non-essential, and (4) tips for executing.  For me, the first two parts served to convict me deeply, while the latter offered tools to facilitate progress.

In perhaps his most sobering passage, Greg states that, “The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and very few things are exceptionally valuable.  As John Maxwell has written, ‘You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.'”  Although seemingly fatalistic, Essentialism resonated precisely because I’ve often thought what Greg articulates about life’s unimportance.  That’s the current I often find impeding my progress.  Like a salmon migrating to my ordained destination…I’m swimming furiously against a current of meaninglessness in a river of irrelevance.

McKeown has much to say, but it’s his provocative questions that are most convicting.  In his “Advanced Search Criteria” Greg suggests if we want to practice Essentialism, we have to ask (and answer) 3 pivotal questions:

  1. What am I deeply passionate about?
  2. What taps my talent?
  3. What meets a significant need in the world?

Much to McKeown’s point, I don’t escape, look, play, sleep or select enough to have wrestled these questions to the ground.

McKeown drives home the point that if we accept that much of life is unimportant – and internalize the principles of Essentialism – we can discern more, thereby enabling us to do less.  And in doing less, we’ll dedicate ourselves to that extraordinary thing buried deep within us.  McKeown calls this our “Essential Intent.”  And pinpointing our Essential Intent serves as, “The decision that eliminates 1,000 later decisions” – ultimately allowing us to maximize the impact of our lives.

If you’ve already figured this out, congratulations.  But if you’re still seeking clarity for your life…Essentialism is an essential read.

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