[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than two million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the self-help for smart people podcast network.
In this episode, we look at the real strategy for producing breakthrough results, high-contribution and personally satisfying work. The last time somebody asked you how you were doing, did you answer with the word busy? Then this episode is for you.
We explore why smart capable people end up plateauing and failing. We examine the culture of busyness that has overtaken us, and examine how to avoid the traps of getting overwhelmed and focusing on the wrong things. We share strategies for determining what's important, eliminating the non-essential and making execution effortless with our guest, Greg McKeown.
I believe that stepping from learning into doing is the major problem facing ambitious smart people today. I'm on a mission to close the learning doing gap. My solution to this problem, something I've been cooking up for years is the biggest announcement in the history of the Science of Success. All I can say right now is that something is coming and it drops on our next episode on May 31st. If you've experienced the learning doing gap, you want to pencil in some free time on the 31st. More details are coming soon, so stay tuned on our e-mail list.
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In our previous episode, we discussed how to build self-control and self-esteem. We looked at what happens when you lose control, and how to develop the strategies so that you can feel calm and collected in tough situations. We discussed the importance of having an allegiance to reality, shared concrete strategies for building self-esteem, discuss the relationship between pain and fulfillment and shared a strategy for never getting angry again, with our guest Dr. David Lieberman. If you want to learn how to build real self-esteem, listen to that episode.
Now for the show.
[0:03:49.9] MB: Today, we have another awesome guest on the show, Greg McKeown. Greg is an international keynote speaker and the best-selling author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. He's spoken at events around the world, including South by Southwest, interviewing Al Gore at the World Economic Forum, where he served as a young global leader. Greg has worked with some of the largest and most well-known companies in the world and his work has been featured on Fox, NPR, NBC and much more.
Greg, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:04:18.1] GM: It's terrific to be with you, Matt. Thanks for having me.
[0:04:20.4] MB: Well, we're super excited to have you on the show. As I talked about the pre-show, I'm a tremendous fan of Essentialism, and I think it's such an important philosophy, so I can't wait to dig into it. I'd love to start out with how do smart capable people end up plateauing, or failing, or becoming stuck in their careers and lives?
[0:04:41.7] GM: Well, there's a simple patent that I’ve observed, first in organizations, but then also within the individuals inside of those organizations. It's this that in the early days, they have a series of circumstances that lead them to a point of clarity, where they're doing the right things for the right reasons, for the right at the right time and some of that select. Some of that is deliberate and intentional, but nevertheless they find a point of clarity.
That clarity is so compelling that leads to success. Success breeds options and opportunities, which in turn paradoxically undermines the things that led to success, because it can lead to what Jim Collins has called the undisciplined pursuit of more. In this way, you can actually have a situation where success becomes a catalyst for failure. This is the problem, and the antidote to it is the discipline pursuit of less, or to give another term for this, essentialism.
That's really what I took the time to study and write and bring together in a way I hope is useful, because what we have to do is become successful at success. It's not enough to simply become successful in the first place. Success itself must be managed if people wish to break through to the next level in their lives, or of course, in organizations too.
[0:06:04.5] MB: I think it's such a powerful insight, and one that I've definitely seen in my own life as you become more and more successful, you continue to see opportunities popping up and all of these different things. How do we start to move down that path of the disciplined pursuit of less?
[0:06:19.3] GM: I think that there are really three things that must be done in a continual way, a disciplined pursuit in fact. We have to create space to explore what is essential. We need to develop the skills to gracefully, courageously and compassionately eliminate the non-essentials. Then we need to thirdly, build the routines and the systems to make execution as effortless as possible. That's a continual process; explore, eliminate and execute. Again, explore, eliminate and execute.
It's not one more thing and it's not something you check off and say, “Okay, I'm done with that, move on to the next subject.” To my reading anyway, it's the very work of life, certainly the very work of success, quite literally. The challenge is that the forces of success are such that they tend to leave us off that cycle. We tend to lead us to having too little time to consider what is essential.
We become reactive to all the many good things that are happening, but they're still just the good things. We can become full and cluttered in such a way that there's no longer room for us to evaluate what things we're doing. Where this gets especially complicated now is that it's not just individuals that are going through this paradox of success, it's not just individual organizations you happen to be working in a startup, that's starting to experience a lot of growth and connection in the marketplace. No, it's society and culture at large.
I still maintain a good problem to have, but it is in fact a problem. A society at large is now in a position where it has so many vast options opportunities. It is a literally an exponential increase of options and opportunities for everybody, almost everybody, and even in developing countries. We're all now culturally in a position where our old responses are necessary, but insufficient to this challenge.
People listening to this can test it quickly. They can simply ask themselves whether they ever find themselves being stretched too thin at work, or at home, or beyond. Do they ever feel busy, but not productive? Do they ever feel that sensation of their life being hijacked by other people's agenda, or other disruptions through social media, through news updates and so on? If they say yes to any of those, then they are experiencing exactly the phenomenon that we're talking about.
Now given that environment, this cultural environment could be doubled down upon if you happen to be working in a successful enterprise, could be doubled down upon further, if you yourself been breaking through to the next level at various points in your life up to this point. If that's the circumstance, then you have to act upon your life, you have to act upon what is going on in these deliberate ways. Now I'm going back to the beginning of this answer, which is you have to act on your life to explore what is essential. You must schedule back, put time on the calendar for that.
Just eliminate non-essentials. Meaning, not just eliminating the time wasters, it's not a bad place to begin, but also some of the really good things in your life, some of the good opportunities, because you can't actually do everything. You might be able to do anything, but not everything. You have to act upon your life by creating routines and systems that support what you've identified is being highly important. That's the work. That's the work of again, thinking of a phrase, to become an essentialist. That's what I think is necessary now because of the level of challenge that we've entered.
[0:10:10.8] MB: I want to dig into, I think that's a great point and I want to explore this idea of pursuing, or eliminating opportunities that are good, or exciting, but maybe not just right, or amazing. Before we dig into that, I want to come back to this idea of the current cultural climate around pursuing opportunities and success. I feel like there's so much social pressure right now to constantly be saying yes, to constantly be pleasing people. How do we combat that?
[0:10:41.5] GM: Well, I think first thing to do is to appreciate the size of the change, which I still maintain for all that we have lived through it, we have underestimated the fundamental change to use Peter Drucker's term in the human condition. That the expansion of choices has not been incremental, it hasn't been a 10% increase in options and opportunities. It's not even a 100%. Think how dramatic that would be.
Think if you went back into let’s say 1800, United States 1800s and you were to take somebody almost certainly working in agriculture. Completely consumed with the natural processes and there’s a lot of work to be done, don't get me wrong in such an environment. If you could just take that day, we think about the absence of disruption that a person would have experienced. Now they've got lots going on, but I mean, the work to be done is largely known at the beginning of the day.
Something is unexpected, things are going to come up. If somebody wants to disrupt you, they must come and find you in person. They can send a letter, okay this is it now. Tey can send you a letter or they can physically be there. This is the only disruption that's coming to you. The flow of information would be compared to now so slow.
Now imagine if you were to instantly in a second, nano second, snap your fingers and produce for them the number of opportunities and information updates and platform of communication that we're experiencing now, and you did it instantly. Well, what would happen to that person, to that family? I mean, what level of shock are you going to produce for them? Try to explain to them the number of options they have. They want to buy new seed for their agriculture and you go, “Okay, well there's literally a million different things that you can do from a million different places. There’s just so many options.”
The shock would be in my view, tremendous. The implication of going through that story for a moment is that we have got to shift more deliberately than we're thinking we need to. We must become far, far more selective in what we go after. You can think about this on a continuum. You can say, “Okay, 1 to a 100, things that are 1 out of a 100 important are not important.” These are complete trivia.
It may be worse than trivia. I mean, these things are taken away from things that are even basically important. They're doing you damage, there they're destroying your discernment, their addictive behaviors in one form or another. They're highly unimportant, non-essential. The other extreme, you've got a 100%. I mean, these things are vital. These things would matter. If you didn't do them, they would they would affect everything for the rest of your lives. They might affect intergenerationally what happens in your relationships, in your into general relation with family. Well, these things will matter for a hundred years.
Okay, now you've got this continuum now. The challenge is that, this follows a bell curve pattern, where the majority of the ideas, options, opportunities, activities that we could explore are in the center. This is 50%, 60%, 70% out of a 100%. These are good things. You can make a case for them, every item you think well, that's a good thing that's useful. You might even call it a worthy cause, a worthy pursuit.
The nature of the challenge is that you cannot possibly do them all. You can't even possibly do a fraction, not even 5% of the things that [inaudible 0:14:21.5]. Not even 1%. You have to make choices, and here's where it gets difficult is if that doesn't sound difficult enough, is that my experience with this is that there is enough work to be done, 90% to a 100% on the scale. There is enough work there to fill the rest of our lifetime.
The implication of that is that any time that I am and almost every day I am participating in activities that are less than 90% out of a 100%, then I am taking something away from my essentialist life. I'm trading off something more important for something less important. It creates this tension, which I think is a healthy tension that we can't just pick up an opportunity, an idea and say, let's look at this of ours. Is it a valuable thing? Is it a good thing? Is it an interesting thing? Those are good questions, but they're insufficient.
We have to ask instead, is this the very best use of me? Is this highly important? Is this the most important thing that I can be doing right? To train ourselves, to think like this, so that at least we pause to figure out whether in fact this is what we should be doing, at least we pause again, to explore is this viable? We might still say, well for other reasons, I'm just going to do it. We might say, well it's important to this other person and they're quite important to me. It’s still too expensive in unintended consequences for me to suddenly not do this, but nevertheless we're pausing and thinking about. Otherwise, our lives can be consumed with a trivial many, instead of consumed with the vital few.
[0:16:05.0] MB: For somebody who's listening, who thinks to themselves, “I can have it all. I can do all this stuff. I can execute on all these different projects and priorities and multitask and achieve all these things,” either a listener who thinks that, or even someone who's listening who has something like that in their lives, how do you, or how would you break through to them, or communicate that message to them that that's just not possible?
[0:16:28.0] GM: Well, I think that one answer is that this is really what I was gathering and trying to articulate in my book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less was deliberately to try and gather evidence of the problem and also the antidote, so that people could start to see what is hidden in plain sight. This is one of the main reasons that I wrote it was to shine a light on this, to amplify this voice in our lives, because non-essentialism is a pre-existing voice. This is the default setting for our lives right now.
Most people that are choosing the non-essentialist lifestyle and strategy have never done that deliberately. They haven't said, “What I want to do is double down on doing everything that's good, and max that out, so that I can't even see or discern the vital few.” I don't think people are choosing like that. It's a default choice, a default setting. They just were born in this environment. We weren't born in pre-industrial age era. We were born in this environment. This is so normal and as mnemonic animals, as copiers, humans, copiers, we just watch what other people do and we just got on with it. We just did what they did.
Maybe it happened different. Maybe we moved into an organization, which is going well, what people doing. Yeah, we didn't for very long saying what really matters. What's the most important work I could be doing right now? No, we just said, “Well, what is everyone else doing? Everyone else is busy, everyone else is running around, everybody else is just responding to an e-mail, everyone's reacting.”
I think there's a default assumption that they must be doing that very deliberately. That is a strategic choice they've made. Of course, if I want to move up in the organization, if I were to get ahead in my career, I ought to do whatever else is doing. This is a do what other people are doing strategy. This is the norm and we're unaware of the full price of doing that, because everybody's doing it, and because we're in what I would describe a busyness bubble.
In all busyness bubbles, for a time, it looks the strategy that people are pursuing is working in the short-term, results take time to show. Just like in the real estate bubble, for a time it looks well the people who are buying five houses with no money down, those are the ones getting the advantage. How about I do the same thing? We double down on a strategy, that's actually fundamentally bad, fundamentally false, non-essentialism, which is the undisciplined pursuit of more.
This idea that if I can shove it all into my schedule, fit it all and I can have it all. Has only one inconvenient element to it and that is based on a lie, it's based on false assumptions. It's just, actually the research doesn't support it at all. This is non-scientific position. This is non-credible, this is a fact free position, but it has been sold to us and it’s been sold to incessantly and has become a factor of our culture, to the extent that people are living this way as I've said in a default way.
I think the first thing to do is to in a sense, it's the name non-essentialism and to shine a light on it. To ask ourselves, is it producing the reward it promises? Is it producing, is non-essentialism, this pursuit of trying to do everything for everybody without really thinking about it, is that strategy producing breakthrough results, high contribution, personally satisfying and great contribution to others and really highly meaningful relationship with the people that matter most? Is it producing that?
If it's producing that, if non-essentialism is producing that for you, for the person listening, then I said continuing it. Forget everything I'm saying. If it produces what it's promising, then keep going. In fact, I might even say a little tongue-in-cheek here, to double down on it. Sleep less, don't sleep at all in fact. Do everything that everyone's doing, do everything that you see people are doing on social media, do it all, double down on the strategy, see if it continues to produce what is promised.
What I think people will find, I think there's a few in fact, very few people that will argue this point. There's not much organ rejection of this, that non-essentialism does not give what it says it will give. Yes, because it's been sold, doesn't mean it's real. Just because it's continually sold, doesn't make it more real.
I was just talking to somebody just the other day, how are you – See, when I first came to America by the way, if you ask people how they're doing, what they said is good, or great, fine. It took longer certainly in the last 10 years when you ask people how they're doing, now they say busy. Hate it, busy. There's all in fact, this all flavors of busy, “Oh, I'm busy, busy. Great, but busy. I'm super, super, super busy, but I’m super great.” There’s all flavors of this.
This woman I was speaking to, she said, “Greg, I'm so busy I’ve slept an average four hours a night for the last two weeks. That’s how busy I am.” She's smiling. Why is she's smiling? I think that she was boasting, that's what I think. She didn't say it, but I think she was saying, “Greg, I hate to break it to you. I'm just a little more important than you are. I slept on average only four hours, because I'm under such great command.” Is it?
That's culture speaking. That her believing risk is an evidence itself of success, you both because busyness is a value, in the busyness bubble, busyness is a value. It’s become a value. It doesn't mean it's real, but that's what people are buying into. It's an overvalued assets, just like the real estate was in the real estate bubble.
Let's look at the science behind it. Is it true? I mean, is it true that if you sleep less that you increase your productivity? Does one hour less sleep as she seems to be in part, equal one hour more productivity? I know of no great in scientific life in that, cultural life in that. I mean, if you sleep, we'd never say we would. We would never say this employer over here, absolutely marvelous. The way they are the way they make decisions drunk all the time. They’re drunk, it's marvelous. The quality of a decision-making, marvelous and inebriated like that.
We never say that thing. Yet, the science shows that we are physiologically and psychologically the same as when we're drunk when we're sleeping four hours a night, notwithstanding this total hero fallacy that if you're sleeping four hours a night, that's what it means. That's the Uber woman, that's the Superman. That is not to say that’s totally utterly non-scientific position. Eric Anderson, who of course was studied top performance. This is the same study that Malcolm Gladwell popularized in outliers calling it the 10,000 hour rule. The 10,000 hour rule was basically look, within this service simplification of the underlying research, but basically says that if you want to master something, you spend more hours doing it.
Approximately 10,000 hours to become a exceptional PNS, violinist, exceptional in a variety of areas. Now if you look back at the research as I have, say not Malcolm Gladwell's work on it, but the actual underlying research. What you find is that the second most highly correlated item to distinguish top performers from good performance, that is to say what is the second most difficult thing is the biggest single difference between good performance and highest performance is the number of hours of sleep they got.
Who would guess this? Who would select this? An environment where sleep is easy? Get up. You got to be productive. It's about how much you do, it’s how much you step in, it’s how much how busy you are. How many hours of sleep was the second highest correlated item? The highest performers were getting eight and a half hours sleep on average in every 24-hour period. That means they were sleeping more at night and more naps than their average performing counterparts, even the good performers.
As an exception, performance is correlated with sleep. That's just one illustration. Essentialism isn't about sleep. It's about discerning what matters. It means eliminating what doesn't, it means building a system to support those things. It's an illustration, because sleep is critical, vital for discernment. If you want to discern between the vital many and the trivial – the vital few and the trivial many, you go to sleep. It's not the only thing, it's not sufficient, but you've got to sleep, because then you start to be able to discern it. If you aren't sleeping, then they're not going to be sustainably top performers. They're just burning out their ability to prioritize in order for a short-term win in some instant increase in productivity for just a moment on some project and so on.
That's fine. Maybe you can do it for a couple of days like this, but it very quickly discernment goes down to the point that you'll be working on the wrong things. You make your list of all the things to do, you'll start working on them, but you're working on the wrong things. That's where essentialism really comes in, because it's not about doing more things. It's not about doing more things. It's doing more of the right things. That to me is what essentialism is and that's key to thriving a breaking through to the highest point of contribution in today's environment. It's all about your ability to discern what should be done at all, not just busily jumping into the work of doing.
[0:25:03.6] MB: Let's dig in. I think that was a great example. Sleep is obviously so important, we know for listeners who want to get into that more, we have an incredible interview with Dr. Matthew Walker is one of the world's top sleep experts, where we go super deep into sleep and strategies for in all kinds of stuff.
Before we dig into some of the strategies for determining what's essential and figuring that out, I really want to dig into how do we break out of this culture that says, “Oh, it's more important to be busy. Oh, I constantly want to be putting that front on,” and maybe a specific contextualization of this, is let's say we have a boss who constantly comes up with non-essential projects and distractions and wants you to constantly be focused on those and working on them?
[0:25:50.8] GM: Well, I think the first thing to do is to build your essentialist muscles in the things that you can control. Even though you gave me a perfectly reasonable situation, I still want to remind people to start where they – build a routine around the first power of your morning. That right now if you're reaching to your phone first, you're giving up a lot of power, not only to this hypothetical boss, but to many other things and influences in your life.
In this way, you can drip by drip give up power to other people, to the point that they really are dictating the prioritization of your whole life, not just of this particular interaction, or a series of requests that a boss might make projects that you think maybe aren't the most useful valuable way to spend your time and resources.
I think it's a non-trivial point to raise is that first, build habits and routines around the things you ought to be able to control. If you don't do that in an environment that we have right now, this spot scenario can be in charge of your whole life. I don't mean that – that's not even hypothetically. I was at a event a while ago and the executive in question was talking, taking questions, globally recognized CEO. They're talking about work-life balance.
They just said, “Oh, yeah. I just – I have not.” They said I spend – I just gave that up 20 years. I just decided I wouldn't see my family for 20 years. I mean, they are saying this. I thought it was a sense refreshing, because at least they're being real. Some of these, “Well, what about the people you work with?” They said “Oh, yeah. Everybody bleeds blue just like me.” They said, if I call my – if I take e-mail, not call. If I e-mail my assistant at 3 in the morning, they respond to me by 3:03.
Then said that, “Isn't that right?” They point to the back of the room, there’s about 50 person in the room and all heads turned. Who are they talking to? There are assistants right there. What is the assistant going to say? “Yes, that's what I. Yup, that's what –” We're all going, my goodness. Is this really happening? Is this being established as the norm in the organization that this person has so little control of their time and space that any time belongs to the institution?
This is why I'm saying, I think that the place to begin is where is reasonable and sensible and perfectly right for a person to have control, and start there, so that you build buffer into your life and protection. For an excellent analysis of exactly what I'm describing, here you can look at a book that I really like. It's come out recently, called Great Work, which is a study of 5,000 workers and trying to identify that the tactics and strategies that distinguish the top performers from the good performers. It’s good to great for individual employees.
He finds that the top performers, this is the principle, it’s very essential this principle and says that, first less than obsessed. They identify what fewer things to pursue and go big on, and then obsess over them, so they get them done well and superbly well. Then he also found that we didn't originally go out to study this, he also found that that strategy at work also bled over and resulted in better work-life balance.
This mindset, now these are my words now, the essentialist mindset, if you adopt it, if you implement it personally and professionally, both areas can win. This is the value proposition of essentialism, in fact. You can end up doing more important work at work and also have better boundaries and better work to be able to do work in your personal life, and to be more focused there as well. That's what this new research supports, that's what it shows.
Now all of that is context for the question you actually asked, and I don't want to miss the answer of it. The answer is in that scenario to begin a process in that there, in that moment, maybe all you can do in that moment is produce a tiny pores, depends how bad the situation is, depends how non-essential is the boss is, that non-essential the culture is that your team and your work and so on. At first, you might just be able to create a pause and just go, “Hey, listen. Of course, I'm happy to do whatever you'd like to ask, but can we just talk about this for just a second? Is this the most important project that we have, or can we just look at all the different projects you've asked me to do and let's just look at them and just prioritize them. Actually, I've already done that. Here's what I think it you would say with some various important things. Can we talk about this? Let’s validate this.”
Just a little more just to say is that the project that you just talked about is that more important than this item that's number one, number two that's on this list? Because I think I could do a superb job on number one and number two, but I don't think I can do a superb job of all these five, six, seven, whatever number projects. I just want to talk about that and let's understand what the best use of time and resources is.
I think that's in the short-term something that can be done. I've done that personally, specifically had that conversation. In my case, it went well. My file leader said, “Okay, the most important job is this. That's definitely the one I want you to focus on. Let me come back to you in a bit and we’ll organize this to make sure you have sufficient time for that.” I ended up having a full year focused on that single initiative, and it was very successful and it was simply wouldn't have been if I'd had to spare all my resources around across five different projects as it would have happened if I just reactively said yes.
I'm not advocating did you reactively say no to people, that you just without thinking about it start saying no to your boss, your boss's boss. No, this could be very career limiting move. I do think if you want to go from being an order taker, an overwhelmed order taker I might say, to a trusted advisor, then you have to pause, you have to pause in the conversation, and you need to be able to bring the reality of trade-offs and the reality of essentialism into the conversation. If you want to pause a little longer than that, if you're able to depending on the relationship, you might actually say, “Look, I've been reading this book. This Essentialism. Let's have the team read it,” because what will happen if you do that –
Well, this is based on the practical practitioner work of implementing these ideas in organizations is that the more people that are reading this together, it means that people start to, it’s almost wake up from this odd non-essential extreme, in which they believed, or at least pretended to believe that they could actually do everything.
Once you wake up from that, you go, “Oh, my goodness. Well, we're not having the right conversation, or we're not working on the right things. Let's work out together, put the right things on.” Suddenly, you can actually have a whole culture shift. It can be incredibly profitable for an institution, incredibly good for people's work-life balance as they actually create an essentialist culture, because they're able to have an essentialist conversation.
[0:32:33.7] MB: A corollary of that that I want to dig into, and I know something you've written and talked a lot about, it's a whole chapter in the book. This is something personally I struggle with, which is why I'm curious, how do we say no to people in a graceful way? Especially for somebody like me, I’m a people pleaser and I always want to say yes and go with the easy, short-term feeling of making somebody happy, or saying yes to their commitment. How do we build that muscle and that ability to say no, or how do we say no in the right way?
[0:33:05.7] GM: Well, the first thing I want to say, even though I definitely write about in the book graceful no’s and so on, is that I didn't write a book called noism. I've learned I have to emphasize that, because otherwise, it's just so emotionally charged for people the idea of saying no. It's almost the only thing they hear. “Oh, my goodness. I got to start donating everything. That's going to be so damaging. I'm so scared of doing that.” They either don't do it, or they do do it and then that causes a slight – can cause problems.
The key is to have conversations with people about what is essential. The key is to get the conversation being about that, what's the most important thing that we could be doing, so that that is what gives drive, gives courage and it also helps us to balance the compassion necessary to be able to say as often as possible together, well of course, if we do these things and that and can't be done. It's just there's not room for it, not resources for it. We want to do what we're doing and do it well.
As far as you can, the most graceful no is in fact saying yes to something more important. If you can do that together with somebody, then then in fact, the no doesn't feel like the emotion charge no that we often associate with a three-year-old saying no that their parent, the 13-year-old saying no as a teenager to their parent. These are quite unattractive social interactions, and that's our experience with no.
I think the best no is actually this yes that I'm describing yes to a bigger yes, yes do it more essential yes. I think the second thing to realize is that where we can help people cause? We do have an obligation to help people. We want to make a contribution. This isn't selfishism. This is contribution that we're trying to make a higher contribution. I do find in my own like to user from Adam Grant’s research. Adam is a friend of mine and his book Give and Take, I got my favorite ideas there and something that I share a commitment to is the idea of five-minute favors.
If you can do something within five minutes for somebody, it's good to do it, especially if it's something that you uniquely can do for somebody, that it's a particular help for them. What I would call maybe discipline giving, and essentialism is about a disciplined pursuit of what's essential. There's a place for disciplined generosity and discipline giving, but where his research and mine overlaps and supports each other is that if you have undisciplined giving, even undisciplined service, even for how tremendously positive I feel about service, I think that's our life should be serviced.
If it becomes undisciplined, reactive, if it becomes that then it can actually – it can in some cases do damage. If we're doing for people things that they really can do for themselves, it can, it can create scenarios, where we're actually breeding a problem, not solving it. I'm not helping people to become self-reliant as we ought to.
I think that the answer as I say is to find, to discuss together, to counsel together, in order to figure out what the essence should be and therefore, what the trade-off should be. I think that go beyond that, to say, “Okay, how can I give these five-minute favors? How can I help in a disciplined way?” Then of course, there are circumstances finally now where the answers needs to be no and should be no and can be no. I would love to do that. Thanks for thinking of me for various reasons, I won't be able to. Maybe next time.
You can say, especially where you have a lot of influence, a lot of control in the situation, “Oh, let me take a rain check about. I love to be about you, but not possible.” A friend of mine wondered, texted me and wondered whether I'd like to train together for a marathon. Thought about it and I responded, nope. Then it made him laugh and that was the end of that.
You don't have to do it, that's because it's a good thing. No way that my life – I would have been trading a lot more important things to just start training for that, given the other things I was already committed to. There are circumstance where simply a no is fine, especially if you've built the relationship over time, so it can sustain it. You want to be in relationships and to be in habits with people that are sustainable. Otherwise, you're already out. It's already over, just not yet.
In an unsustainable relationships of personally, or professionally are already over, in anything like the long run, by definition unsustainable. They cannot be perpetuated. You need to get to the place where they are healthy, that you can give and take, that you can say no, but they can say no. Otherwise, the relationship is already fraught with a fundamental weakness and the fault and the relationship will eventually undermine everything else in the relationships. I think this is why highly mature relationships, parents place courage and compassion in being able to negotiate the no, in a way that potentially can even build the relationship over time.
[0:37:37.0] MB: I think you raised a really, really critical point too, which is to me one of the cornerstones of understanding essentialism, is that it's not about being selfish. It's about commitment and it's about creating the biggest possible impact on creating results. The reality is and the research shows that the best possible way to create the biggest impact, create the most results is to focus on less and do a really good job of it.
[0:38:04.5] GM: Yeah, that's absolutely right. There's two ways of thinking about essentialism. One, too Maslow's hierarchy of needs; you can think about it as he originally might have suggested we do. The highest level of the pyramid, we’re all familiar with it, I'm sure the highest point was self-actualization. In certain times when people read essentialism, they read it from that lens. Okay this is about self-actualization. This is just about what is going to maximize my benefit in life, my pursuit in life, maybe even my first degree happiness in life.
Towards the end of Maslow’s life, he changed it, but not in time for the books that he’d already published the pyramid as he had written about it earlier on in his life. In the end he changed it, and it changed it to self-transcendence. That he believe there was a higher need than self-actualization. That's just exactly how I feel about essentialism, but if you read it from a self-actualization perspective, that I think it can deteriorate into a sense of well, this mess to me, it doesn't do too bad. I'm doing it and whatever the consequences are, let them be.
I think that it's a much wiser perspective to take. In fact, the one that I intended in writing it, that this is about your highest contribution. It's inherently self-transcendent. It's about saying what's more important than your own ego, own pride, own short-termism. That's the breeding ground for much of the non-essential activity of our lives, in fact. That we’re just trying to compete with our neighbors with our keeping up appearances, that this ego-driven activity is in fact totally non-essential, won't pass the test a 100 years from now, would be worth nothing at all, just total distraction from what actually mattered.
Might not be a 100 years, might be two weeks from now we'll notice that this wasn't important work. The whole lens of essentialism, I believe is self-transcending. A lot of that is in the, is in the eye of the beholder. The reader must decide how they're viewing what's on the page and if they're caught up in the idea of self-actualization, as I think a lot of people can and intentionally be in the peak performance culture. Then they'll read it in a certain way and apply it in a certain way.
I always want to emphasize this now that it's about difference-making. It's about how do you have the maximum impact for good. Now that's meaningful. One of the tests I just demonstrated a moment ago, but it's one I didn't write with Essentials, but I really believe I think there's a lot more work that could be done, what I think I will do it is around this hundred-year-frame that says, that breaks the paradigm that I think has many of us controlled.
The paradigm that has many of us controlled is what I now call birth until death thinking, sort of be that you’re thinking right, which is that we're saying even these questions we're talking about, even the idea of making a contribution if you think about it from birth until death, you're going, “Okay. What's the best use of me in my life?” Then it grows into what we think of as the most enlightened view, which is what's the legacy that I'm going to leave?
I think all of that is slaved to the same basic paradigm, even legacy thinking, I think still it's like stretches, but doesn't break the bounds of the birth until death thinking. Here's where birth until death thinking is such an inhibitor, it stops us from seeing our lives in anything like the right perspective.
It clouds and twists all other evaluations of our lives. As if we are the great story of humanity. It's me, it’s Greg McKeown. I'm at the center of the story. Like I'm at the center of the story, it's absurd. It's absurdism to believe that. I mean, a hundred years ago no one is thinking about me, hundred years from now no one will remember my name, my great-grandchildren won't remember my name.
I mean, if history is to be believed, because most people listening to this will not be able to even name the first and last names of all eight of their great-grandparents, won't even name them. If you can't remember the names, you don't know much about them. That's what it's going to be true for us, but that's not a depressing thought to me, because that's only depressing if you believe in birth until thinking, if you think that's the right claim.
I think if you want through, discerning really what's essential in this higher 90th percentile area. If you're trying to discern between things that are really good and things that are actually essential, then you say what will matter when I'm no longer in the picture? That's why a hundred years is such an important know that we won't be here, but our impact will still flow from us. The impact of doing, or not doing any number of things will be immense to us a hundred years from now.
The people come after it would still be impacted by this impact, will outlast memory. This is just a thought experiment, I suppose at this point, but it's an important one as people try to work out what really is essential, what's just good, what's non-essential? I recommend if you ask that question, that tests, a hundred-year question, what will really matter hundred years from now? If you do every 90 days you ask that question, in a personal quarterly off-site. You’re doing tremendous good in being able to actually transcend this self-actualization model.
You start to go, “Okay, it’s not about me. Therefore, what matters? Not what matters in my little world, not what matters in my part of the story. I'm just a little verse in the great narrative, intergenerational narrative I'm a part of.” It's a much humbler and more empowering perspective than to be subconsciously, but constantly consumed with the idea of how I fit in to the big story and it would be about me.
That's a very relieving place to get to. I think that this was a perspective as I say, goes beyond what I wrote in the book, helps to elevate the subject and helps to say, or maybe somebody listening is going, “Okay, yeah. This is a bit heavy. It’s a bit big for me. I just got to pay the bills and going to figure out the next thing.” It's not just a first-world problem to think like this. This is what we need to do to be able to not waste our lives.
Paradoxically, if you don't want to waste your life, you have to think about the world without your life being there. As you forget, as you turn down the volume of me in my story and I start to be able to discover actually a higher truer contribution, and I can start to eliminate more and more if I really am not and more and more what just doesn't even matter, and so that more and more of the real self can actually come forward. It's a paradox, because as you said, get rid of, you lose these scales of non-essential self.
You actually become your truest self. You’re no longer in the game of competition, in comparison, it just consumes us and uses up so much of our time and energy and resources. Just get to be in the business of contribution, making a difference. I think this is what Gandhi did in India. I think that he became an essentialist, because he became consumed with thinking about the other, what would happen in his country after him? He became the father of India without ever holding any political position, it’s extraordinary. How did he do it?
I was in South Africa where he lived for 23 years, where he was first beginning his civil rights work and he took on the South African government. It was successful. It took him a long time, but I was there speaking at an event and I went to the Phoenix settlement, where he lived for those 23 years. I was given a poem. I recall it was the only poem that he ever told, it's the only poem he ever wrote. Then account these words, think of these words, reducing oneself to zero.
Now that's what he did. That's what it was all about and he reduced himself to zero. What took his place? It wasn't a nihilistic point of view, it wasn't like nothing matters. It was that, is that a very few things matter. In his case, a singular purpose, singular purpose bring independence to the largest democracy in the world. That was what it was about.
Not about him. In fact, he was able to rid everything from his life. He eliminated all the stuff, all the clutter, physical clutter from his life, died with only 10 items to his name, and that's a really deliberate choice. He could have made a very different choice. He wanted to be so singularly focused on purpose, what it would really – was he built – what did he have to contribute, and he wasn't then have to be so consumed in himself anymore, his own story anymore. He's liberated from all that nonessential junk, reduced himself to zero, that he became consumed with purpose.
That takes so much humility, but what a gift humility can be. I mean, pride and ego says it’s not a friend. It just clouds a judgment, cloud that activity so deeply. When Gandhi died, the US Secretary of State, the same General Marshall, he said here's a man who said that – shown humility and simple truth is more powerful than empires. What a thing to say, quite a thing to say that that much power, that much contribution, that much impact comes from that source, humility and simple truth.
Think of it, compare that to the nonsense of self-actualization that says, it's all about the stuff, it's all about what you succeed and what you've gained, what you've won and what you've got, how you can demonstrate that. It's a totally different game. It's a completely different game and he was playing by those rules by the time that he died.
Einstein said of Gandhi, he said the generations to come will scarce, believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walk the promised earth. It’s just essentialism, just applied essentially until it consumed him. The endless disciplined pursuit, he called it my experiments with truth, but he might have called it my experiments with essentialism; the endless pursuit, the elimination of all the things that weren't actually adding to the purpose of his life.
It’s a story almost nobody knows about. I interviewed his grandson and told me about Aaron Gandhi, he said – Aaron was living in South Africa when Gandhi was his grandfather's back in India doing all this experimentation, taking on the British government in the way that he did, and was beaten up as teenager for being too black, because it was still in the middle of apartheid there. Then later by a different group, being too white.
You can really imagine how angry that would leave a youth and it left him really angry. His grandfather said to come and live with me. In the midst of all of this noise and you can see that this comes out of the perspective, it's not about me perspective, self-transcendence perspective, that he said come live with me. I'll make time for this. I got heads of state wanting a piece of me, but I can discern by this point, my life something meant for a long time, something's don't, and this is something that matters.
He went and lived with his grandfather. Aaron told me, he listened to me for an hour a day for a year and a half, is really – that is essentialism in practice right there. Be able to discern that, be able to sense this will matter 100 years from now, this will really matter. Well it's not been quite a hundred years yet, but tremendous part of Gandhi's legacy is it's being impacted by his grandson, who started the nonviolent Institute for – of Mahatma Gandhi. He's gone on to continue that legacy, the highest form of it. It may be more important than any of that, he just said, he said this whole life was transformed, changed by being listened to and affirmed in that way.
This is all just to say that we're not supposed to be Gandhi. That's not the point of bags. The story, that example, but what it looks like, what it can look like if we allow this to not be one more thing, not one more podcast we're listening to right now, not just one more, oh and I should remember that too, but we say this could become the trust of my life. I could actually change it a core to believe that the most important thing to do is to figure out what the most important thing is to do, and to do it.
That can become the core of our life to pursue what's essential and eliminate what's not. That's the idea. We could start in small ways, of course this is the only way to start any kind of change, small ways, but the mindset shift can happen, the heart set chip can change, so that we actually spend the totality of our life pursuing and executing on what matters most to us. Instead of thhe majority of our life reacting with a non-essential stuff, and only occasionally remembering that the most important stuff is not getting done.
That shift can happen, that shift can happen. I've seen it happen for people. I've seen it continually changing me. I'm off track still many, many, many times, every day, but I've seen the shift happened to me, and I've seen it happen for other people. The data is there and people have a choice to make. I don't think they’ll ever regret choosing to become an essentialist.
[0:49:47.0] MB: What a powerful example and in really showcases the – what can happen when you when you push this idea and take it to the extreme, the incredible impact that it can have. I'm curious and you touched on this a little bit, talking about the power of small wins and how that's really the only way to get started. For listeners who want to implement essentialism into their lives, what's a concrete way to get started, or to determine what is essential, their routines or strategies that they can implement to begin down this journey?
[0:50:18.0] GM: I developed a 21-day essentialism challenge that you can make available to. There's a download as part of this podcast, if you'd like. That really gives a series of very small change that people can start to make towards this end. I think among them is there’s beginning a very tiny, but daily reflection in a general – I have two grandfather's as all of us do, and one of them and he died, I was struck by how nothing, a very little at least seemed to leave behind of who he was. That I was surprised by how little I knew about him, even though I talked to him many times and taken the time I thought to know him. So much of it, once he died, I thought, my goodness I’m not even really sure I can tell you like his best friend were.
So much of that was just in his own mind, and I just took for granted. As soon as he's gone, he takes a limit. My other grandfather right before he passed away, I was thinking, reflecting on the same thing, but he gave me a copy of a journal that he'd been writing. He'd written this one or two sentences every two or three days for 50 years, one journal, one book. How much more I knew, how much more I could connect the dots, because of that.
That's something I would recommend people do to start to implement these different things we're saying, every day one sentence. Don't write five pages. In fact, for at least 90 days, you're not allowed to write more than one sentence, but you write every single day, no matter how late it is, no matter how early you get up the next morning, you write one sentence. At first, I don't even care what it is that you write. Over time, this will evolve, over time you might write what's the most important thing that I learned today. What's the most important memory, I think I'd like to have. Maybe you would write some days what's the most important decision I've made today.
Certainly you can use that tiny increment to add something more and more valuable, but at first just a habit over time. I mean, I decided to do this and I've been journaling for 20 years, now more. Over seven years ago, I decided I just no longer want to miss a single day. I haven’t since then. As far as I can recall, I haven't missed one day since then. Now I write a lot more and I've developed a whole process for whatever nice and whatever flag to use for planning as well, most days.
I have a whole process for what to do. The magic of pen and paper and having a reflection is my favorite tool, is my favorite technology. I think about the habit will open up a whole world of value to people, because of precisely what the journal can't do, as well as what it can do. This can’t distract you in the way that technology does and can. That's huge bonus in this environment. That's one thing I would really encourage people to do.
[0:52:54.7] MB: Where can listeners find you and your work online?
[0:52:59.9] GM: They can go to gregmckeown.com and they can find me on social media and so on, and just keep continuing this journey together.
[0:53:08.6] MB: Well, Greg. Thank you so much for coming on the show for sharing a powerful story about Gandhi, but also all of the lessons of essentialism. As I said, I really think it's a fundamentally important strategy and tool and something that I think about a lot and structure my days around. I'm so glad that we were able to have you on the show to share all this knowledge and wisdom.
[0:53:30.9] GM: Matt, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.
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