Essentialism

A little health update to start. I passed out last Friday. I was rushing to get out of bed, get the kids to school, and get to work. I woke up feeling awful- I knew I had a high temperature and my throat felt like sandpaper, but I wanted to get moving in a hurry. I went to the bathroom to get the day started and began to take my temperature. That’s when I passed out.

When I came to, Paige was telling me to move. I had passed out in a perfect sitting position (no falling injury) and was blocking the door. She got me a cold washcloth and ordered me back to bed, wisely. I would not be taking the kids to school or going to work.

Paige and I were both fearing a Christmas at the hospital and potentially cancelling a lot of holiday plans. And even worse portents.

I ended up at the Cancer Center later that day. They got me on an IV with fluids. The labs didn’t say much so they gave me some more steroids (through the IV) and a prescription for an antiboitic. Those IV fluids were freezing! I spent the rest of the day recovering and resting. I was ordered to return Sunday morning for more lab work to ensure that I was okay.

Fortunately, I woke up feeling very good Saturday. When I started to get out of bed, Paige wisely advised me, “Sit straight up in bed for 2 minutes before you stand up.” I did, and everything went fine. I was evening driving Saturday, which surprised both of us. We were driving to lunch, per our usual Saturday routine, and I mentioned, “Oh, look. I’m driving.” “Oh yeah, you are. Good thing you’re feeling better.”

My labs Sunday came back with good results. I’m not sure what is was, maybe something viral. It wasn’t the flu. But it was a strange way to slide into the week of Christmas.

Thankfully, as long as things keep going smoothly, I’ll be spending it close to family.


In a way it’s fitting that I’m writing about this book, Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Instead of focusing on my health and well-being (something critical, essential) I was chasing down a daily routine and checklist (non-essential).

I came by this book sometime last year, before my surgery, diagnosis, and treatment. But it’s really stuck with me. The book speaks for itself, and if you’re not grabbed by the excerpt I’m posting then move on, I suppose. But one thing McKeown does emphasize as important to essentialism is something highly underrated in our adult culture and society, creative play.

This can take different forms for everybody. In Stillness is the Key, Ryan Holiday talks about Winston Churchill being a “mediocre painter and a worse bricklayer”, but those leisure activities helped restore his energy and give much needed respite in the most tumultuous times of his political career. It helps explain why ambitious people have (unrelated) hobbies. It supports McKeown’s assertion that creative play is critical to essentialism.

For me, it’s video games. I like to get lost in them. But I don’t get carried away, and being a father doesn’t allow me. I also am a big LEGO enthuiast. I believe that a $50 LEGO set put together by an adult in solitude can perhaps be the most inexpensive form of therapy available. I’m also known to get a bit too into coloring sheets or painting pottery at kids’ parties sometimes. I think someday I’ll graduate from video games into gardening. Maybe.

Once I was talking about video games with a friend (who also plays) and someone in our group exclaimed, “I don’t have time for games!” Well, if it’s not games then I hope it’s some form of creative play like painting or bricklaying.

I think I’ve made my case for creative play. Let’s get to that excerpt from Essentialism. The figure mentioned in the excerpt is at the end of the passage.

“Chapter 1

The Essentialist

The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.

–Lin Yutang

Sam Elliot1 is a capable executive in Silicon Valley who found himself stretched too thin after his company was acquired by a larger, bureaucratic business.

1 Name has been changed.

He was in earnest about being a good citizen in his new role so he said yes to many requests without really thinking about it. But as a result he would spend the whole day rushing from one meeting and conference call to another trying to please everyone and get it all done. His stress went up as the quality of his work went down. It was like he was majoring in minor activities and as a result, his work became unsatisfying for him and frustrating for the people he was trying so hard to please.

In the midst of his frustration the company came to him and offered him an early retirement package. But he was in his early 50s and had no interest in completely retiring. He thought briefly about starting a consulting company doing what he was already doing. He even thought of selling his services back to his employer as a consultant. But none of these options seemed that appealing. So he went to speak with a mentor who gave him surprising advice: “Stay, but do what you would as a consultant and nothing else. And don’t tell anyone.” In other words, his mentor was advising him to do only those things that he deemed essential–and ignore everything else that was asked of him.

The executive followed the advice! He made a daily commitment towards cutting out the red tape. He began saying no.

He was tentative at first. He would evaluate requests based on the timid criteria, “Can I actually fulfill this request, given the time and resources I have?” If the answer was no then he would refuse the request. He was pleasantly surprised to find that while people would at first look a little disappointed, they seemed to respect his honesty.

Encouraged by his small wins he pushed back a bit more. Now when a request would come in he would pause and evaluate the request against a tougher criteria: “Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?”

If he couldn’t answer a definitive yes, then he would refuse the request. And once again to his delight, while his colleagues might initially seem disappointed, they soon began respecting him more for his refusal, not less.

Emboldened, he began to apply this selective criteria to everything, not just direct requests. In his past life he would always volunteer for presentations or assignments that came up last minute; now he found a way to not sign up for them. He used to be one of the first to jump in on an e‑mail trail, but now he just stepped back and let others jump in. He stopped attending conference calls that he only had a couple of minutes of interest in. He stopped sitting in on the weekly update call because he didn’t need the information. He stopped attending meetings on his calendar if he didn’t have a direct contribution to make. He explained to me, “Just because I was invited didn’t seem a good enough reason to attend.”

It felt self-indulgent at first. But by being selective he bought himself space, and in that space he found creative freedom. He could concentrate his efforts one project at a time. He could plan thoroughly. He could anticipate roadblocks and start to remove obstacles. Instead of spinning his wheels trying to get everything done, he could get the right things done. His newfound commitment to doing only the things that were truly important–and eliminating everything else–restored the quality of his work. Instead of making just a millimeter of progress in a million directions he began to generate tremendous momentum towards accomplishing the things that were truly vital.

He continued this for several months. He immediately found that he not only got more of his day back at work, in the evenings he got even more time back at home. He said, “I got back my family life! I can go home at a decent time.” Now instead of being a slave to his phone he shuts it down. He goes to the gym. He goes out to eat with his wife.

To his great surprise, there were no negative repercussions to his experiment. His manager didn’t chastise him. His colleagues didn’t resent him. Quite the opposite; because he was left only with projects that were meaningful to him and actually valuable to the company, they began to respect and value his work more than ever. His work became fulfilling again. His performance ratings went up. He ended up with one of the largest bonuses of his career!

In this example is the basic value proposition of Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.

What about you? How many times have you reacted to a request by saying yes without really thinking about it? How many times have you resented committing to do something and wondered, “Why did I sign up for this?” How often do you say yes simply to please? Or to avoid trouble? Or because “yes” had just become your default response?

Now let me ask you this: Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin? Have you ever felt both overworked and underutilized? Have you ever found yourself majoring in minor activities? Do you ever feel busy but not productive? Like you’re always in motion, but never getting anywhere?

If you answered yes to any of these, the way out is the way of the Essentialist.

The Way of the Essentialist

Dieter Rams was the lead designer at Braun for many years. He is driven by the idea that almost everything is noise. He believes very few things are essential. His job is to filter through that noise until he gets to the essence. For example, as a young twenty-four-year-old at the company he was asked to collaborate on a record player. The norm at the time was to cover the turntable in a solid wooden lid or even to incorporate the player into a piece of living room furniture. Instead, he and his team removed the clutter and designed a player with a clear plastic cover on the top and nothing more. It was the first time such a design had been used, and it was so revolutionary people worried it might bankrupt the company because nobody would buy it. It took courage, as it always does, to eliminate the nonessential. By the sixties this aesthetic started to gain traction. In time it became the design every other record player followed.

Dieter’s design criteria can be summarized by a characteristically succinct principle, captured in just three German words: Weniger aber besser. The English translation is: Less but better. A more fitting definition of Essentialism would be hard to come by.

The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better. It doesn’t mean occasionally giving a nod to the principle. It means pursuing it in a disciplined way.

The way of the Essentialist isn’t about setting New Year’s resolutions to say “no” more, or about pruning your in-box, or about mastering some new strategy in time management. It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities in in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference–learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential.

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. 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.

The difference between the way of the Essentialist and the way of the Nonessentialist can be seen in figure 1 above. In both images the same amount of effort is exerted. In the image on the left, the energy is divided into many different activities. The result is that we have the unfulfilling experience of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions. In the image on the right, the energy is given to fewer activities. The result is that by investing in fewer things we have the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most. The way of the Essentialist rejects the idea that we can fit it all in. Instead it requires us to grapple with real trade-offs and make tough decisions. In many cases we can learn to make one-time decisions that make a thousand future decisions so we don’t exhaust ourselves asking the same questions again and again.

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

The way of the Essentialist is the path to being in control of our own choices. It is a path to new levels of success and meaning. It is the path on which we enjoy the journey, not just the destination. Despite all these benefits, however, there are too many forces conspiring to keep us from applying the disciplined pursuit of less but better, which may be why so many end up on the misdirected path of the Nonessentialist.

The Way of the Nonessentialist

On a bright, winter day in California I visited my wife, Anna, in the hospital. Even in the hospital Anna was radiant. But I also knew she was exhausted. It was the day after our precious daughter was born, healthy and happy at 7 pounds, 3 ounces.1

Yet what should have been one of the happiest, most serene days of my life was actually filled with tension. Even as my beautiful new baby lay in my wife’s tired arms, I was on the phone and on e‑mail with work, and I was feeling pressure to go to a client meeting. My colleague had written, “Friday between 1–2 would be a bad time to have a baby because I need you to come be at this meeting with X.” It was now Friday and though I was pretty certain (or at least I hoped) the e‑mail had been written in jest, I still felt pressure to attend.

Instinctively, I knew what to do. It was clearly a time to be there for my wife and newborn child. So when asked whether I planned to attend the meeting, I said with all the conviction I could muster . . .

“Yes.”

To my shame, while my wife lay in the hospital with our hours-old baby, I went to the meeting. Afterward, my colleague said, “The client will respect you for making the decision to be here.” But the look on the clients’ faces did not evince respect. Instead, they mirrored how I felt. What was I doing there? I had said “yes” simply to please, and in doing so I had hurt my family, my integrity, and even the client relationship.

As it turned out, exactly nothing came of the client meeting. But even if it had, surely I would have made a fool’s bargain. In trying to keep everyone happy I had sacrificed what mattered most.

On reflection I discovered this important lesson:

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

That experience gave me renewed interest–read, inexhaustible obsession–in understanding why otherwise intelligent people make the choices they make in their personal and professional lives. “Why is it,” I wonder, “that we have so much more ability inside of us than we often choose to utilize?” And “How can we make the choices that allow us to tap into more of the potential inside ourselves, and in people everywhere?”

My mission to shed light on these questions had already led me to quit law school in England and travel, eventually, to California to do my graduate work at Stanford. It had led me to spend more than two years collaborating on a book, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. And it went on to inspire me to start a strategy and leadership company in Silicon Valley, where I now work with some of the most capable people in some of the most interesting companies in the world, helping to set them on the path of the Essentialist.

In my work I have seen people all over the world who are consumed and overwhelmed by the pressures all around them. I have coached “successful” people in the quiet pain of trying desperately to do everything, perfectly, now. I have seen people trapped by controlling managers and unaware that they do not “have to” do all the thankless busywork they are asked to do. And I have worked tirelessly to understand why so many bright, smart, capable individuals remain snared in the death grip of the nonessential.

What I have found has surprised me.

I worked with one particularly driven executive who got into technology at a young age and loved it. He was quickly rewarded for his knowledge and passion with more and more opportunities. Eager to build on his success, he continued to read as much as he could and pursue all he could with gusto and enthusiasm. By the time I met him he was hyperactive, trying to learn it all and do it all. He seemed to find a new obsession every day, sometimes every hour. And in the process, he lost his ability to discern the vital few from the trivial many. Everything was important. As a result he was stretched thinner and thinner. He was making a millimeter of progress in a million directions. He was overworked and under-utilized. That’s when I sketched out for him the image on the left of figure 1.

He stared at it for the longest time in uncharacteristic silence. Then he said, with more than a hint of emotion, “That is the story of my life!” Then I sketched the image on the right. “What would happen if we could figure out the one thing you could do that would make the highest contribution?” I asked him. He responded sincerely: “That is the question.”

1. A version of this story was published in a blog post I wrote for Harvard Business Review called “If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will,” June 28, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/06/how-to-say-no-to-a-controlling/.”

I listened to the audiobook version of the book. It’s read by the author, which I always appreciate. My wife owns the print version which looks very accessible and has more points of emphasis than some of the narration. There is a heartbreaking anecdote at the end of this book at drills in the importance of focusing on the essential. And I know for me it’s not just a nice thing-to-do. Essentialism is my life.


Author: johncatoe

Recovering from brain surgery. Dealing with metastatic melanoma. Hoping to build some community and maybe help people out in someway.

One thought on “Essentialism”

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