Essentialism: Unlocking Success with Greg McKeown
Greg McKeown is the founder and CEO of THIS Inc., a leadership and strategy design agency based in Silicon Valley. McKeown’s book, Essentialism, focuses on the importance of decluttering your life in order to find success and fulfillment in the things that matter most. His book transforms the “more is better” mindset that pervades our culture into a focused, goal-oriented approach that ultimately brings more fulfillment and success
Q: AS THESE IDEAS OF YOURS HAVE GONE OUT INTO THE WORLD, WHAT ARE SOME THINGS YOU'VE LEARNED OR SURPRISES YOU'VE ENCOUNTERED SINCE THE BOOK'S RELEASE IN 2014?
This theme is even more relevant and more prevalent than I realized when I wrote the book. People everywhere, in every industry, every age group, whether it's in schools, whether it's sports programs, whether it's businesses, government, everybody feels some of the following:
They feel busy but not necessarily productive, they feel stretched too thin at work
and at home, and they feel that their day is constantly being hijacked by other people's agendas for them, by updates, by tweets, by news flashes that are
constantly entering their inbox and their desktop and their phone.
This is an idea whose time has come, and that's what to me is amazing; it's in our culture, it's non-essentialism. There's so many things all the time. This is true across the board and that's something I didn't understand as well as I do now. Inside organizations, people feel trapped between two cultures in their minds. They think that they either have to create a sort of yes culture where it's, "No idea is a bad idea. We wanna encourage everything." It's like they have to say the polite yes to everything, or on the other hand they think, "Well, I have to create a cold culture where we're gonna be rigid, we're gonna be focused, we're gonna be dominant." And it's like there is a false dichotomy at these extremes. If I say the same thing on a simpler level, it's that an individual feels that they are trapped between either the polite yes or the rude no and they don't yet have the skills to create that rich middle ground.
What happens is that people plateau in their progress and they just become average, actually. They become a bit like everyone else and that should be expected because that's what they're doing; they're doing a bit of what everyone is doing. If you wanna be distinctive, you've got to choose which things to go big on and which things to go small on. That's the essence of all breakthrough strategy is to go big on something that other people are going small on, and go small on something that other people are going big on. It's to be distinctive and different and you can't just be random about it, you've got to understand which things really matter to you. You've got to get your own understanding of that and not just see what other people are doing and then just try and copy it from the outside. When people do that, when they copy from the outside, what they're really doing is acting without understanding. It's a sort of reactivity and so they don't really know why they're doing it.
Q: WHEN YOU ARE IN A LEADERSHIP POSITION AND YOU HAVE THE ABILITY TO CREATE A CULTURE, SO TO SPEAK, HOW DO YOU BEGIN TO SHIFT THE MENTALITY FROM A FEELING OF BEING TRAPPED TOWARDS BUILDING AN ESSENTIALIST CULTURE?
What we're trying to do is engage in a negotiation around what is essential and what's not essential. And that we want a culture that allows that robust conversation to take place where we're encouraging new ideas. Where we're innovating, but we're not just gonna allow innovation to mean that we're always running wild. Essentialism isn't about saying no to everything without really thinking about it. The answer isn't just to do less.
Essentialism is a culture where people are working to discover what's really important now. "What's essential?" And that becomes the authority of the organization, of the culture.
Instead of it being about the leader, it's about what matters. The phrase, "What's important now?" Has a nice acronym. It's WIN: What's Important Now? Did they do it from the other extreme, "Look, we just want everybody... Anything goes?" No. They had a disciplined pursuit of less but better. They encouraged people to focus on the right things.”
Q:DO YOU SEE PEOPLE GETTING HUNG UP ON THAT EARLY STEP IN THE PROCESS OF, " WOW, I LOVE THIS WHOLE THING AND WE'RE GONNA BE ESSENTIALISTS... BUT WAIT, WHAT DO We STAND FOR? WHAT'S ACTUALLY ESSENTIAL?" WHAT DO YOU SAY TO SOMEONE AT THAT PHASE??
Well, that's the first of three principles about how to become an essentialist. The first is to create space to explore what is essential. The second is to develop skills to eliminate what's not essential. And the third is to create systems that reinforce what really matters. These aren't extras––creating space to figure out what is essential is the work itself. That's the hardest single part of being an essentialist. As Steven Covey once explained, as soon as you find out what your burning yes is, then it's much easier to start. There's no good just going, "Well, we're going to simplify everything." What does that mean? Simplification means unity around purpose. That's what it is. So you've got to get back to purpose and what the real aspiration is. How do you do that? It's about asking the question, not dictating the answer. You don't have to be a dictator. In fact, you're not an essentialist if you're a dictator for sure because you won't get the essential answers and insights. You've got to build a culture where people can talk and be open and wrestle things out and then enthusiastically pursue an intent together, a unified intent to do something special. But in the process, you're gonna be trading off so much low-value activity that everyone's taking for granted what you have to do in order to do something that's unusual and special. It's getting rid of the busy work, and instead you have purposeful work.
One thing you can do is to hold a personal quarterly offsite in which you ask questions like, "Well, what have we been doing... What's working right now? Why does that matter to us? What are the deeper whys?" So you're celebrating your successes but you're also getting a bit deeper into the why of what you're doing. And therefore, "What would we want to do over the next 90 days?" Every 90 days you're reviewing and evaluating what's gone right and why? You study success. I think this is such an important idea.
Essentialism grows out of the problem of success.
What people think is that success will beget success and sometimes that is true, but what often happens is that success begets a lack of focus, which undermines success, so we have to learn how to become successful at success. That's what essentialism is about. You can learn a lot more from success than you can from failure if you study success, but often that isn't what happens.
So I recommend that every 90 days you're personally doing this. Then you can do it, of course, as a team, but personally you're holding a full day and you're just studying, "What went right? Why did that matter to me? And therefore what are the top one or two goals for the next 90 days?" I work really hard to have a single, essential intent for my life, personal life and then a single, essential intent for my professional life, every quarter.
Q: THE STUDY OF SUCCESS IS HUGE IN THE SPORTS CULTURE AND COMPLETELY APPLICABLE TO OUR AUDIENCE. WITH THIS IDEA OF HOW SUCCESS BRINGS ALL THESE NEW PROBLEMS, WHAT HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE BEEN WHEN YOU SAY THAT TO SOMEONE? IS IT AN INSTANT EPIPHANY OR DO YOU GET PUSHBACK?
I think that once you name it, once you say, "Look, non-essentialism has been sold to you," we have been conned into believing that this is the way to break through to success. We have been conned into being taught the answer is always to do both, to do it all. So if any of your competitors are doing a thing, you ought to do it. And if you do everything, then you're going to be successful. But that isn't what happens. What happens is that people get overloaded. See, this is part of why essentialism is so relevant. It’s that we just keep adding and adding and doing what we've done before and doing what you've seen other coaches do and just trying to kind of fit it all in without real understanding about why. That's why when we study success we have to say, "Well, what's going right, and why does that matter to us? What's it really about for us?" We have to study it deeply so that we get our own point of view about how it should be done going forward.