Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less – Greg McKeown

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, Paperback |  Barnes & Noble®

Greg McKeown keeps his message extremely simple. He just wants us to say “no”. Whether it be to an obstinate boss, a nagging relative, or to a friend who takes us for granted in perpetuity, we are always held to ransom by the affirmative word “Yes.” This, according to McKeown, is one of the unfortunate attributes of a “Non-Essentialist.” In his compelling book, “Essentialism”, McKeown attempts to instill a change in his readers that would transform them from non-Essentialists to Essentialists. Reduced to its simplest essence, essentialism means “less but better.” Concentrating on a bare minimum of tasks with unwavering focus, invariably results in the garnering of maximum benefits. For example, as the author illustrates, Vitsoe, the furniture making company offers furniture designed exclusively by the designer Dieter Rams. Vitsoe offers just three products: the 606 Universal Shelving System, the 620 Chair Programme, and the 621 Side Table. In fact the 606 Universal Shelving System finds a place in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while the 620 Chair Programme finds a pride of place in collections of both the V&A and the Design Museum. Vitsoe’ s hiring policy is also equally focused and concentrated. A candidate needs to undergo a most rigorous recruitment policy before she is deemed fit to be part of the Vitsoe workforce.

Salient Features of Essentialism

McKeown exhorts his readers to consciously create “space” in their lives to “escape.” In a digitally connected world where the flow of information is 24/7, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year, separating the professional from the personal is next to impossible. However, essentialism mandates a deliberate creation of space which over time becomes indicative of a default behaviour. Clayton Christensen the best selling author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, strictly informed his employer when asked to work over a weekend, that while Saturdays were for his family, Sundays were exclusively meant for God.

Routine is not the enemy of Innovation

Taking recourse to various empirical research findings, McKeown emphasizes the importance of adhering to a set routine. The key to achieving essentialism is to set small incremental, achievable goals and tirelessly working on them every day. Michael Phelps, multiple Olympic gold medalist and possibly the greatest swimmer in the history of the sport adheres to a fixed routine which he follows uncompromisingly every single day. An essentialist thus sticks to a self-instituted routine which is invariably not broken unless and until forced by unavoidable exigencies.

A rested mind is a recharged mind

In his bestselling book ‘Why We Sleep’, sleep expert Matthew Walker proposes a causal link between sleep-deprivation and depression, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. According to Walker sleeping less than seven hours on a consistent basis constitutes inadequate sleep. McKeown subscribes to this view wholeheartedly and even argues that Science postulates increase in creativity following a short nap. An essentialist thus, ensures that she is never sleep deprived while a non-essentialist dangerously crams unearthly hours toiling away in utter futility.

Distinguish the Trivial Many from the Vital Few

In a globalized world characterized by frenetic economic activity, we lead a life that is itself a never ending to-do list. Like a gazillion bits of post-it notes smeared all around us, we are perennially sucked into a quagmire from which extricating ourselves is a Herculean endeavour. McKeown articulates that an essentialist disentangles from this imbroglio by making conscious choices. A closet characterised by  accumulated clutter creates myriad confusion for its owner while a sparse but carefully selected closet represents well thought out priorities. The CEO of LinkedIn Jeff Weiner, schedules two hours of blank space on his calendar every day.

Elimination Works, Addition Sucks

McKeown with the example of the failure of the Concorde jet brings home to bear the fallacy of continuation. Even when it was leaking like a sieve in terms of profits, the Governments of Britain and France continued to pump inordinate sums of money on the Concorde operations, in a vain attempt to justify its existence. Both the Governments unwittingly had fallen prey to what in psychology is commonly known as the ‘endowment effect.’ In fact as McKeown writes, “psychologist and Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman discovered that students on campus trying to sell a coffee cup they owned had a tendency to value it at least 100% more ($5.25 versus $2.25), than those who were simply trying to sell a cup.”

The 90 Percent Rule

This Rule simply asserts that “if it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.” When faced with a decision conundrum, all the essentialist does is think about the single most important criterion for a decision, giving such a decision a score between 0 and 100. If it’s any lower than 90 percent, the essentialist then automatically changes the rating to 0 and simply rejects it. This assists significantly in avoiding getting caught in the indecision trap triggered by ratings of 60s or 70s. In order to expedite the process of making the 90% rule a habit, McKeown urges his readers to apply certain selective criteria to the choices facing them:

  • Jot down the potential opportunity;
  • Introspect on three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “satisfy” in order to pass muster; and
  • List down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to comply with for it to be

Saying No is not just an option

Personally, the biggest takeaway of McKeown’s book for me has been the elaboration of a myriad ways in which one can refuse to do something which one perceives to be genuinely inessential. While a firm and polite “no” may resolve ambiguity, a strong refusal also comes with its own set of difficulties. Interpersonal relationships might be impacted, and associations impaired on account of a downright refusal. To paraphrase Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of Netflix, “Entrepreneurs succeed when they say ‘yes’ to the right project, at the right time, in the right way. To accomplish this, they have to be good at saying ‘no’ to all their other ideas.”  McKeown encourages his readers to pause for a while before saying an abrupt no. That pause enables one to gather one’s thoughts, evaluate the relevant tradeoffs before offering a concrete, polite and yet firm refusal to a proposition, demand, or request placed before her.

Essentialism is a vigorous and rousing read that bolsters its suggestions with solid empirical evidence and dollops of common sense.

One thought on “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less – Greg McKeown

  1. This is using “essentialism” in an entirely novel way. Heretofore the term has referred to a doctrine of substantialism where there is an underlying substance, which “qualities” adhere to like notes on a bulletin board, the underlie assumption of all Western Philosophy since Socrates. It insists that the primary philosophical question is “What things ARE?” as opposed to existentialist’s “What do things DO”. The essentialists have been taking it on the chin since Nietzsche. Only recently has there been an attempt by the essesntialist’s to fight back in the form of Neo-essentialists, such as Jordan Peterson. Dude needs to come up with a different term, otherwise massive confusion will ensue, because he does not seem to be arguing for a return essentialism as it is generally understood.

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