Is Essentialism Essential?

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown

It’s official. I am hanging up my superhero cape.

The essentialism lightbulb is that successful people do fewer things better. I’m not talking about success in terms of wealth or fame, I’m talking about it in terms of whatever your goals are in life. The aha moment for me came when I realized that, at work, you can be the “superhero who says yes to everything and gets shit done” (me) or you can be the “inspiring leader who makes this happen” (not so much me) but I can’t think of anyone who I’ve seen be both. My revelation is that being a superhero is actually a CLM* not to mention that it robs other people of their own chance to do heroic things. With that in mind, I want to pick 3 or 4 things to do really well, and inspire other people to take on the rest. A lofty goal, and luckily Essentialism offers a few tips on how to make this happen.

First, I need to start being present in the moment and doing a better job of listening to the edges of conversations with my coworkers (and everyone else in my life, frankly). Being present means no longer pretending I can multi-task (I can’t). Listening better means paying attention to the things that aren’t being said as much as the things that are, asking more questions, and offering less advice. And mostly, not just biding my time until it’s my turn to talk. This is a skill I need to practice, so my first challenge/goal is to come up with a strategy for practicing. I may just set up random 30 min meetings or coffee dates with various coworkers just to ask them to tell me about their work. During this time, I can only ask questions or make noncommittal listening comments such as “mm hmm” or “tell me more about that” or “I think what I hear you say is …”

Here are several additional tips and tools that lurk within the pages of essentialism. All of these are applicable to me.

  1. Slow down and stop trying to do it all.
  2. Take a look at what assignments can I eliminate at work.
  3. I should book 25% of my time to just focused on key projects. This is two hours per day. Make it happen!
  4. Listen better and stop fixing things.
  5. Get more sleep. You’re not a loser if you go to bed at 10.
  6. There is no try. Do, or do not.
  7. We overvalue things if we already own them. Try asking “how much would I pay to own this if it wasn’t already mine”?
  8. Always increase your estimates of time/effort by 50%. The coffee shop is not just 10 mins away!
  9. The things I enjoy in my spare time are writing, reading, puzzles, movies.

Don’t misunderstand, this book isn’t perfect. The book club discussion raised a few interesting points about it’s weaknesses. As with most self-help books, the author is writing from a place of privilege – not everyone has the luxury of being able to say no to things, particularly if they work in a low-end job and have a family to support. McKeown also loves to pull examples out of the air and attribute the positives to behaviours consistent with his approach, in the flagrant display of confirmation bias common to many self-help book authors. (“Look! Steve Jobs was incredibly successful and he lived his life like a true essentialist! Ergo, essentialism works!”) The key, as always, is to take what resonates with you and simply discard the rest. Perfect essentialism.

Rating: It’s probably worth owning a copy, if you are okay with writing in the margins.

*Career Limiting Move
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One Response to Is Essentialism Essential?

  1. E. Sentialist says:

    Great review Risa!
    Did you write in my margins? Ha ha
    My favorite advice was to make a “don’t” list, of things you won’t do anymore.