My interview with Greg McKeown, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, produced poignant questions that warrant an accompanying question guide. I believe lasting transformation can occur when we internalize these issues and principles.
Greg delivered so much succinct and dense insights during our interview that I chose to break the conversation into two parts. [Download the Transformation Q&A guide from my interview here.] I hope that you will earnestly consider the implications of these questions in your work, life and, relationships.
Direct download of this interview with Greg McKeown here.
What is Essentialism?
“Essentialism is not one more thing-It’s about a whole new way of doing everything. Doing less, but better, in every area of our lives.”
“We forget that we don’t have to do
what we’ve done in the past.”
The benefits of Essentialism
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
Questions and considerations from my interview with Greg McKeown
- Where do you feel stretched too thin? Specifically?
- Do you feel busy, but not efficient and productive?
- Is your schedule always being hijacked by other people?
- Last minute assignments
- Changing priorities
- Emergency projects
- Unscheduled travel “I need you in Boston tomorrow”
- When do you say YES due to social pressure?
- To people
- To projects at work
- Social engagements
- Obligations you’ve done for years
- How has success increased your choices and thus diluted your contribution? (Airbnb story)
- If you chose one-highest priority for 90 days, what would it be?
- Where in your life have you bought into the advertised promise of “If you can do it all-you-can have it all.”
- Essentialists explore more options but commit to less-Resulting in more breakthroughs. (Tesla story) Where are you exploring?
- You don’t have to do what you are doing. But are you living in the fullness of this reality? Where in your life are you doing what you’ve always done, feel obligated to do, but it isn’t what you ultimately want?
- What keeps you busy-occupies your time-but distracts you from actually accomplishing your goals?
- Where have you fallen into the undisciplined pursuit of more?
- Where are you compromising your priorities to accommodate a non-essentialist in your life?
- The word “discipline” for some can feel like a diet that never ends or a race without a finish line. Starting today, what is one thing you can choose to engage differently
- Begin a five minute morning routine
- Write down one item of gratitude
- Drive a different route home
- First principle thinking: What do we know for sure and then we design from there. What change do you seek that can be addressed first by defining what is known facts are certain?
- How are you choices and commitments outpacing your available resources?
Aaron McHugh:Friends. Welcome to work life play. I'm your host, Aaron McHugh. I'm here to help you find work. You love. Learn to play live. Adventurously become curious and live your life with joy and purpose. Ready, set, go.
Friends. Welcome to another episode of work life play today. My guest is Greg McKeown. He is the author of the New York times bestselling book, essentialism. The disciplined pursuit of less. I am a hard core advocate of essentialism. I think I've probably listened to it on my audible account four or five times now through, and really when you break it down, what I love most is asking the question, what is your highest value contribution? What are you here to do? What is the difference that you're here to make in your work and your life and your relationships and what is distracting you from doing that? And one of the things that we find in our modern culture is that there's an advertised. You can have it all, but only if you do it all mantra and Greg through his research, both personally, as well as through his profession of spending time consulting some of the top companies in Silicon Valley, what he found was this uniformed theme of this idea that actually less but better is the way to win.
So what I've done for this interview is I've actually broken it into two parts, part one that I'll have here in this episode. And then I'll subsequently release part two and Greg and I's conversation is so dense and so good and so much succinct insight and wisdom that what I decided to go ahead and do was actually break out his questions. At the end of this episode, I wrote a little what I'll call a ‘transformation guide' that will be included in the show notes also that you can download and use. And basically the reason I mentioned it as a transformation guide versus just like a question guide is that at the end of the day, I really believe that lasting transformation can occur when we internalize issues and these principles and these questions and get at the real heart of how's it going for us and essentialism, as they say in the cover of the book here, it's not one more thing.
It's about a whole new way of doing everything doing less but better in every area of our lives. That is a tremendous challenge. So I wanted to wait and release this episode in the new year, because I think universally people begin to ponder and question and wonder, Hey, how's it going for me? How did last year go? How did I want this year to go? I really believe that the way to live forward in a much more empowering way with much better results involves this principle of essentialism is honing in on exactly what our value contribution can be, should be must be. And then becoming relentless about how shrewd, how strategic, how crafty we can become in architecting our life in such a way that we can produce the highest level of results, achievement, engagement, satisfaction, happiness, joy, contentment, and all of those things.
It's a pretty big offer in a book, but I can say for my own life that as I adopt these principles and actually transform the way I make decisions, essentialism has become a powerful tool for me in a powerful way of life. Hope you enjoy. Please stay tuned at the end of this episode. And I'll walk you through this transformation guide and list out all of these questions for you to consider. So if you're sitting in the car and you can listen along, or if you're pulled over and you want to sit down at your desk, download the transformation guide as part of the episode, show notes, you can. All right, good luck. This is good for you. Keep going.
Greg McKeown, welcome to the work-life play podcast. Thanks man for doing this.
Greg McKeown:And it's my pleasure to be with you.
Aaron McHugh:Did you realize that every time an American speaks with a British person like yourself, the IQ in the room goes up?
Greg McKeown:The perceived IQ goes up and it's my one saving grace. My wife tells me if I ever lose it, she's going to lose me. Yeah. I've got to keep this up.
Aaron McHugh:Definitely. So I worked with some friends and it was a UK company and one of the guys, his opener was always, that is when he would come to here to the States to meet with customers. He would just say, I've been told that when an Englishman speaks in the room, the IQ points go up. So I would agree. So I already feel smarter from talking with you so essentialism. I'm a big advocate. I've probably been through now, the book, I want to say four, maybe to five times and on audio.
I'm a runner, so I spent a lot of time out and, and I'm a marinater. So I go back and marinate in ideas and things. And just when I need reminders on my list, do a chapter at a time or whole sittings, but yeah, I've really enjoyed it. So one of the questions I wanted to start with was for you have this disciplined pursuit of less, and that the story is that this book was written for people who feel like they've lost all power. Why don't you start there with, what does that actually mean to be an essentiallist? And what does it mean in terms of solving this core root issue of having lost power? What does that mean to you?
Greg McKeown:The insight that drove me to really focus and right essentialism was both observations. I was making professionally combined with an observation that that happened personally. So on the professional side, I was working with Silicon Valley companies where I noticed a predictable pattern that they would be focused on just the right few things in the early days of the company, and that would lead to success. But with success came such an increase of options and opportunities that it often led to what Jim Collins has called the undisciplined pursuit of more. And so I learned this counter-intuitive idea, which is that success can become a catalyst for failure because you're no longer doing the things that led to success in the first place. Success has become, as Bill Gates puts it, a poor teacher. So that was kind of this one observation.
And I found that really fascinating because almost everything that's been written about success is about how to become successful. And almost none of it has been written about what to do once you are successful. And yet that is the situation. That's very many people and companies find themselves in, if you're not careful, this leads to plateauing and your progress, and you can even start to fail all together, but that's on the professional side.
So while I'm sort of making some of these observations and grappling with some of these these ideas on the personal side I remember receiving an email from my boss at the time. It said, look, Friday would be very bad time for your wife to have a baby, because I need you to be at this client meeting. And maybe they were joking. You know, the story really isn’t about them or this email, other than I felt torn, I felt like I got to keep everybody happy. And so I was falling into the undisciplined pursuit of more, I was suddenly going, okay, well, the only way to keep everyone happy is to do it all.
And so, Thursday night’s when our daughter was born in the middle of the night. So Friday morning, we're in the hospital still. And everybody's well, but I'm feeling how do I do both? And so to my shame, I went to the meeting and afterwards I remember my boss said, look, the client will respect you for the choice you just made. And, and maybe they did, but I'm not sure that they did what I am sure about is that I made a fool's bargain and learned a simple idea. If you don't prioritize your life, someone else will.
That was really how those two ideas came together. It was this observation, this was happening at the organizational level with these companies that I was working with and observing. And then also, I suddenly see what it's also true on the personal level. It's true for me. How is it possible what's going on that otherwise successful people make decisions that actually undermine the things that led to success in the first place. This to me became a crucial question and something that I then dug into, researched, and wrote about.
Aaron McHugh:So 2014 was when essentialism was released. When, when was that story that you just mentioned in those two stories that became fused together, kind of the basis, base premise of the book?
Greg McKeown:To protect the the, the innocent, I never share exactly when it happened.
Aaron McHugh:Okay. So years ago?
Greg McKeown:It was long enough ago that I feel like I have had a lot of chance to look at the context of, of what happened, you know, and for me personally, what it was about was this drip loss, giving up to say, losses to imply it's beyond your control, but the giving up of the control around things that belonged inherently to me, people listening to this can ask themselves these questions. Have you ever felt, you know, stretched too thin at work and at home? Have you ever felt busy but not productive? Have you ever felt the other people's agenda was hijacking yours? You know, this is almost universally yes these days.
And so the question is why, why are we choosing to allocate resources in the way that we are, that we would be experiencing life? The way that we are. And one of the answers that I come to in this is just that, that we really have been calmed that we, there really is a, a basic idea that's been promulgated, sold, which is, look, if you can do it all, then you can keep everyone happy. If you can do it all, then you can have it all.
Aaron McHugh:Yeah. You can be happy and you can keep everyone else happy. Right. That's the duality of the false promise.
Greg McKeown:Well yes, I think that's right. But I also think it's just this relationship between everything and everyone that if you can shove it all in, if you can fit it all in, if you can say yes to everyone, if you could work long enough hours, if you could, then, then, then you're going to have the life you want and the relationships you want. Yeah. So it's this idea. It's, it's an all for all. If you can do it all, then you can have it all. But actually it turns out that, that isn't, there's a few really false assumptions in that that get, get glossed over in the magazines or the advertising and the way people talk and in social media. And so on, the, the impression is that that is true, but the underneath it, first of all, can you do it all? Well, of course not, not even half by, by what factor does our do the number of things we would like to do or feel obligated to do out pace, the amount of time and resources we have, you know, it's not like, Oh, if I had just a couple more hours, I think I could do everything that I feel responsible to do.
Aaron McHugh:But I think the temptation of that it is, is true and real. And one of the things I listened to interview you did a blue with NPR, you talked about basically the social pressure to do everything. And that you talked about basically bursting this bubble of busy-ness and this kind of fighting the nonsense of just saying, this is insane. What we're attempting to do here. What I'm curious about is as you had these interactions and encounters, you had this front row chair to the Silicon Valley companies and working with clients and business, as well as then these very personal experiences, yourself understanding these and kind of distilling them down.
I'm curious for you to get to the place of actually naming it, being about becoming an essentialist and that then shaping this structure of what does it mean to actually become an essentialist and from the shedding to the buffering, to all these different chapters in the book that you go through, I guess one of the things I've been fascinated by is like how many years of refinement and trialing on an experimentation did that take to be able to distill it down to now this kind of universal?
Greg McKeown:Yeah. I love that question. Every, every story has multiple chapters and an early chapter in the story that we're discussing today is, you know, I don't know. Now it's probably 18 years ago coming up on 19 when I was staring at a piece of paper in my hands with all these scribbles, all these answers to the question, what would you do if you could do anything with your life? And what I noticed when I looked at the piece of paper was not what was on the list. I noticed what was missing law school, wasn't on the list. That was, that was missing because I was at the time at law school. All right. So it became this, this question. I was I was visiting a friend Jake white, who had been taking me around to visit different people. And one of the people that I visited with just said in passing, I was in America at the time and at law school in England they said in passing, look, if you do decide, stay in America, then you should you know, you should join us on this committee to con consultation committee to discuss.
And that question has the assumption. You don't have to do what you're doing. And that was very, it was such a liberating gift that moment. I'm sure they don't recall saying that to me. And they certainly won't know that it led to what it led to, but I suddenly said I don't have to do law school. So just the basics of permission in that totally flabbergasting idea, it was a launch of as feel logical permission. We, we understand that conceptually and theoretically, we don't have to do what we're doing, but emotionally we don't feel it. And if you don't feel emotionally, then in fact, in any, in any practical sense, you do not have permission. Obviously you can do things to try and understand and remember that you have that permission, but we forget that we have this ability to choose. We forget that we don't have to do what we've been doing in the past.
That there's a different frame. And so that was sort of the beginning of the end for me. You know, I I called the 15 digit number back to England, talk to my mother. She said you know, yeah, that's this and provides you that. I think you better talk to dad. You know, here I am. I'm just going to quit law school. This is the, this is the context. And he comes on the phone and he listens for while she's not entirely like him. And then he says he listened to actually, it becomes quite Churchillian about as you know what we've always told you that, you know, parents that typically, what do you think, Aaron? What do you think that he thinks that he always told me?
Aaron McHugh:What does he think? Am I guessing?
Aaron McHugh:He probably said, Hey, what do you want with your life?
Greg McKeown:Yeah, no. What he said all the time to me was go to law school.
Aaron McHugh:Okay. So this was the drum beat that he was beating was go to law school, go to the law school.
Greg McKeown:Well, he did. He said, what do you used to say to me was, you know, if you go to law school, you'll keep your options open. Which of course is a true statement. Absolutely true. But it's implied that that's what you want is to keep your options open, which again, of course we want options. If we have no options, we rarely in trouble, but, but actually I didn't need to keep my options open because even prior to law school, I knew I wanted to teach you. Right. And that's exactly what I wanted to do in this conversation. And post it. I that's what was deepest in me. But somehow despite that I put in, pulled into what I would describe as a parallel path. And we remember from our early grade school experience, the parallel path is two lines that never meet. And so they can be very close, but they're actually not the same.
They're not, they're never going to connect. That's just what I was experiencing this discovery with, with law school. And so that actually, he, he pulls out the right light. He because all Englishman quote, Shakespeare over and tea and crumpets. He pulls out this line straight from Hamlet. He said that today, note to self be true. That's the advice he gave me on that go, dad. You'd never said it to me before. Despite believing that that's what he said to me. And so I quit law school to pursue a series of questions that I was fascinated by. And so this is sort of the earlier Genesis for these ideas.
In fact, one of the questions I'll get to the question in a second, but, but you said you were a runner and now if you and I were to have a race and you won which competence you would and you won significantly, you know, maybe by 50 yards. And then we raced again the same race and you get to have the 50 yard advantage just started, you know, that you, that you ended the first race with, right? So you, you begin 50 yards ahead and you win a second time again by an additional 50 yards. So now you are a hundred yards ahead. We raced the third time. You know, if we race that third time, what is the approximate percentage chance you're going to win the third race?
Aaron McHugh:A hundred percent.
Greg McKeown:That's a little rude. It's not rude. Is it? No, it's perfectly reasonable. It's sensible. So here's, here's one of the questions that the grew out of writing on that piece of paper that day that I've been pursuing is why is it that otherwise successful people and companies don't break through to the next level? Because as I little example, with running suggests of course, people that are winning companies that are winning should keep on winning. They have all the advantages of winning. Yes, they get, they get the, they have the recognition, the momentum, they have the revenue, they have the customer satisfaction, they have the loyalty, they have to switching costs and we could go on. And yet when you look at companies, so this is the context for me observing these Silicon Valley companies and other companies as well. You just go, well, why don't they carry on?
Aaron McHugh:Yeah, why are they not continuing to win.
Greg McKeown:They don't continue to win. They ought to continue to win. And so that's, that's quite important context, actually quite important question. And you know, and, and, and timing all these years before that suddenly fast forward, I'm working with these companies. I noticed this pattern is very simple pattern that we just described. Now we'll give it a name. The success paradox what's getting in the way of their continued success is success. That that is exactly the challenge.
Aaron McHugh:All the choices associated with that, right? Because at first, when it bootstraps four guys three gals and a couple of computers since boxes of pizza, they know exactly what to do. It's the vital few cause that's the only thing that they do. But when it's 600 people and 600 million in revenue a year, and all of that goes with that, then all of a sudden the, the options choice is so infinite that it's, it is to their demise. As you, as you state really well in the book,
Greg McKeown:That's exactly what happens and what can happen. I remember having a really interesting one-on-one chat with the CEO of Airbnb and I'm talking to Brian and he said to me, listen, let me just tell you something. He said, my number one concern for Airbnb, is its success. That is my number one concern is we can do so many different things, right? Because of all the factors we just described. I mean, think of the revenue, think of that. They could do it. They want it. If they want to go into self-driving cars where they can do self-driving cars, they can do anything, pick anything from here, pick anything from here in any direction they can invest. They could there's no. And that is it. That is, that sounds like the right problem to have, I suppose it is.
But it's still a problem. Even if it's what we'd call like a first world problem, it's still a problem what to do. So he, and then she had shared this little story with me. So it just gives such illustration to this success paradox. But he said, he said in the early days, when they were first working at the company, they actually were all over the place. I talked to an investor about this who, who the founders of Airbnb met with, but at the time that they met with them, so they passed on investing in them. So of course at one level they think, Oh, we made a mistake. And on the other hand, you know, when I pointed, when I said that to them, they said we care. But when they met with us, they were talking like, Hey, we have this cereal company idea. We'd like to sell cereal.
Aaron McHugh:As in like like breakfast cereal?
Greg McKeown:Breakfast cereal. Yeah. In fact it's even worse than you think. What their idea was, according to the investors I'm talking to, it's not for his first band back there, they're talking about their experience. Their pitch was we're going to go to the Republican national convention and the democratic national convention. And we're going to have blue cereal and red cereal available at each of those. That was one of their ideas.
Okay. So in, in the midst of what is clearly your exploration brainstorming these very fast cycles of, well, what if we did this and what if we did that, which is fine, right? They're exploring you finally said, okay. If we really wanted to even be able to survive as a business, we have got to get focused. We've got to make a choice about what we want to do. And this is where they came up with the idea, right? We're going to, what if we rented out space in our own apartment to sleep on air beds? Which just to be honest, doesn't sound especially really that much smarter than the cereal idea. Probably not at first. Yeah.
Aaron McHugh:Inflatable mattresses in our own place while we're home.
Greg McKeown:And sleep in our own apartment and rent out a space. And of course, as the story goes on, it it's fantastic. But they stumble across the idea. Fine. I mean, randomness comes essentially and it's figuring out what's essential is, is an explorative process. You can explore many, many things, but eventually you still have to pick one thing as they did. And this is what they did. They, they had an investor conference coming up 90 days. They had 90 days before the investor conference. And they're like, okay, we have to demonstrate that this idea, this air mattress idea can be profitable within the next 90 days. And they called it ramen profitable. As in ramen noodles, ramen noodles profitable. If we eat ramen noodles three times a day, all three of us co-founders we will demonstrate that this has made money within 90 days. He said, 90 days they put up on members, they put up exactly what the child had to look like. Exactly what the goal was there. One goal, one focus for 90 days. He said it is to this day, the most productive 90 days in Airbnb's history,
Aaron McHugh:Which basically just undergirds the story of essentialism is the discipline pursuit of less.
Greg McKeown:It is exactly the point. They, when they were small, yes, they're exploring. But then they would, that breakthrough happened when they got focused on the one thing they thought was most promising, a single goal, cut, everything that's out, make that happen. This was the key breakthrough in Airbnb’s story. Without that focus period, there is no Airbnb today, as we know it.
Aaron McHugh:Yeah. There's a Republican national convention with, with purple, blue and red cereal.
Greg McKeown:Maybe they could do that. They could do the purple at the independent one as well. So he sent out. So at the time he's telling me this whole story, he had sent out an email to everyone at Airbnb saying exactly this really saying to almost contradictory, but we'll just call it a paradox items for the whole year. He said, look, it's about narrowing. The focus. We cannot do as many things as people are trying to do. We just, it's not possible. So that's the first thing I want everyone to think about. And the second thing is breakthroughs. What is the breakthrough idea we can pursue? So at first that sounds contradictory, but it's not at all because it's exactly the essentialist tension essentially is isn't about just doing one thing that that's an oversimplification, for sure. It is. It's about doing what is essential. And so that requires two, it's a duality skill where you have to be great at focused the noun and you have to be great to focus the verb.
You have to figure out yes, okay. Onto all the things, what are we going to do? What are we setting our sights on? Let's have an essential intent that's clear that we're going to go to a single goal or a few. It's just a few that we're going off to. And then the second thing is how do we constantly adjust so that we're focusing all the time and, and that's, that's the ongoing work. That's why it's a disciplined pursuit. Why it isn't just a single thing or such a goal or a single event. It's an ongoing process of eliminate exploration and elimination. It's a constant process. And the best companies in the world are doing those two things constantly doing this. This is this is Tesla. This is we could riff on Tesla, but let's expand. Let's explore. Let's brainstorm. How could we do it? How, how would we make this breakthrough innovation? And then note, let's eliminate almost all of those ideas because those aren't working. Let's go after the few.
Aaron McHugh:So explore, eliminate, refine, explore, eliminate refine. It's just ongoing iterative.
Greg McKeown:Yes. It's the language for the book is explore, eliminate, execute. But it's the same idea as you just described. Yeah. You must expand. And this is one of the paradox is most people don't capture when even after they read the centralism is even though, you know, almost a third of the book is about explore. They still don't quite capture the ideas. I'm sure it's on me and how I wrote it, but that essentially just explore more of the non-essential that's less clear, and this is how that is true. They explore more because they commit to less. So they're not trying to go big on everything trying to explore quickly and broadly in a very particular way of thinking, we can get into that too, because it's illustrated so well by Elon Musk and his team. And this is beyond whatever's in the book, but this is key to breakthrough innovation.
Aaron McHugh:So what strikes me also, Greg, is, as you talk about this exploration breakthroughs, this 90 day window at Airbnb, which is on history, their most productive highest return of 90 days in their existence. This other piece that strikes me that I'd love to hear you say more about is the bravery required to eliminate, to be able to actually get to the brave courageous act, to say no to shrink focus. And I feel like that what I've in my experience where I've seen this play out is it appears to me, especially in business and then the people within the business that are supporting the mission of the business, that there's this underlying fear that if I don't try everything, or if, as Airbnb now has this infinite amount of success to go off and do whatever they might choose, it's this fear of like missing out or picking wrong, or so I'd like to hear more about what you've experienced in, in that switch to get to the place of bravery, courage, to take the plunge.
Greg McKeown:First observation about that. It's just that I didn't set out to write a book about courage, but I did find it sort of peeking behind the subject. So I found that to be an essential, it does require courage. It requires a balance of courage and compassion in CRI. It requires, I think, compared to most, most of us an increase in both because you have to, you have, have the courage to pursue your own, that the clarity that has come to you, even when that is not what other people are doing, in fact almost certainly will be what other people are not doing. Right? If you, if we live in a non-essential busy-ness bubble, if that's the dominant culture and you're in, essentially, she will almost certainly be choosing things differently, allocating resources differently than what everyone else is doing. So that inherently requires social courage because you're, you're choosing internal clarity over social pressure.
So that, that creates a tension, but it also increase, it also requires an increased compassion because you have to then navigate that world. Absolutely. It's no good to simply be a joke. You know, that's what we might call Steve jobs, one dot O right? I mean it, and it works so well, right. He gets fired from his own company. So that's, that's clearly not working very well high level of internal clarity, but it's not working. He's not understanding his own customer. Well, enough is not his, his empathy isn't sufficient. His compassion is not sufficient to balance out his clarity. So it's not even that. Although I think it is fair to say that he probably wasn't especially compassionate in those early days. It isn't sufficient to simply say that that's like a cop out in my view. I think it's that his clarity was so strong, so intense, so intense, so strong that it, it just overpowered the level of compassion and empathy that he had.
So, in the end it still had an unintended impact on the people around him, but it's not because, Oh, well, he's just a jerk. That’s too simplistic of an analysis. So now, and then talk about some place to give analysis is, is almost a whole of what was covered in the media about Steve jobs returned to Apple, because what seemed to happen in my view is that the old story about him right. Died hard. Is that so, so people, well, the joke returns is the, is the unspoken context. Let's see how this goes, the jokes back. And and he's a, and he's doing all this stuff at Apple and he did, Oh, but it's working, Oh, I guess jerks. It works, I guess, I guess you can't be a jerk. Right. But what is completely missing? And I think pretty missing in in Isaacson's otherwise I felt, you know, very well-written biography is this period of transformation. Most people don't seem to even remember that Steve was gone for a decade. Like he wasn't gone for like a year or two and then, Oh, he's back. I mean, he's gone 10 years.
Aaron McHugh:Yeah. It’s a long, long time, especially in the life cycle of a company.
Greg McKeown:Yes. But even in any of our careers, I mean 10 years, I mean, that's, that's a lot can happen to a person that 10 years. And, and as it turns out a lot happened to him, what happened to Steve? Two main things happen to him. He he got married and had a family that's going to change you years and years of being in that experience. And, and, and having those relationships, both the safety from that, but also the vulnerability of it. There's all of that going on. Yeah. And secondly, he's, he has 10 years of working, collaborating with Pixar, watching how they approached it from a completely opposite direction, right. They, they w where he was just about clarity, they had collaborative systems. And in everything they're doing is, is, is, is collaborative decision-making processes. By the time he returns back to Apple, he is in fact, a different leader. He has become an essentialist by the time he's come back.
Aaron McHugh:And what you're suggesting is become the kind of person who could wield that level of intense clarity.
Greg McKeown:Exactly so. Now, did he do it perfectly? Of course not, but we're not, we're not talking about perfection, but he had developed new understanding of the kind of team he had to build, how to build a tremendous essentialist team. What was the level of talent he was able to bring? So suddenly his ability to think less but better, this, this selectivity process was applied, not just to, I've got a task. It's like, I want to build something with that level of understanding. I'm going to build something that really is extraordinary. And so he's on record, as having said, you know, when asked, what was your most important innovation? Is it, do you know this, you know, the answer to this, he didn't say iPod or iPad or iPhone or so on, or the Mac, the Mac dish too, right? He said, Apple was his favorite innovation.
And that exactly illustrates the difference in thinking he had, as he returned to Apple, as he recognized, I have to use all this insight that I've gained over the last 10 years. And I've got to actually build a system that works, and that became the focus. And so it's this courage and compassion. It's the combination of both what became manifest in, in building an institution. So how do you select talent as an essentialist? You want the very best people that you want to build it.
So it works together and is thoughtful. You don't just rush to what to what guy Kawasaki once called in Apple's first version he called it the I'm suddenly forgetting the term the bozo explosion. That's not an especially kind way of putting it. And it's not that an agent version is actually a Bowser. It's that the whole system is like circus life. You're just, Oh, let's just really bring in the clowns. It's bringing these people. And those people that's added extra people because we got the money and we've got, and we got to move fast because everything's going to be fast. It's all going to throw it all in this. And that's what look, whatever else is doing.
Aaron McHugh:Yeah. Everybody else is throwing people at it. So we should do that too.
Greg McKeown:They're moving so fast. The competitive thing, it brings out the non-essentialist absolutely more, more brutally. Yeah. Because people are, people are freaked out. And so this is when you ask your question, the fear, the fear of missing out. Yes. It a fact, whole strategy, whole culture. It's a whole way of making decisions. In fact, I will put to you that there's really sort of three, some ways too, but three ways of thinking about decisions, one is, well, what have we done in the past? So you just keep doing what you've done in the past. This is sort of tradition based decision-making well, what did we do last year? What did we do last year for Christmas? Where did we last year for this? What did we do for that? What we asked you last time on a product launch, what it's all about past, right?
That's one way of making decisions. And of course, this is the way to continue getting the same results that you've had in the past. Right? Let's keep doing what we've done in the past. Yep. That's one. Well, two is what's everyone else doing? These are too, by the way, who forms a fear of missing out? If you thinking about the past, that's the fear of missing out on what you've done in the past. So that's one thing, what we did in the past too, is what are other people doing? Well, everyone else has, no one else is going into the least policies. What else is running these things? Everyone else is putting up these lines, but I was just doing this. So fear of missing out fear of being different, we're going to do what other people are doing. And my observation is that that is really what drives many CEOs, many leaders inside of organizations and many individuals they're just looking left and right.
What's everyone else doing, I guess I'll do that. And the social media age, of course, this creates problems because you can't do even a a tiny percentage of what everyone else is doing, but you watch on, on, on, on social media. So, so that form of decision-making causes a lot of stress in this context, in our current culture. What's the third alternative. Yeah, go ahead. The third option is what do I want? Here's what I think the third option is. Yes. I like that third option is it's great. What do I want? But I, but I, I, I've learned something recently that I especially like, and this comes back to men, wanted to riff on it before with with Elon Musk, I kept on asking myself, how is it, how is it that the Tesla or space X and so on, we can go on, is able to have such jumps, like leapfrog innovation, you know, the, the, the, the Tesla, isn't just, isn't just fast into the acceleration is just grade.
It is acceleration is significantly better than anything else in the market, but it's not just that. It's also the safest car on the road that that's very unusual to see such double innovation. How did they do it? What are they doing that they're just smarter than everyone? No, I don't think so. They do hire really great people. Yes. But other companies are trying to hire great people know that there's a certain kind of thinking and, and it's it's taken, but this is Elon Musk talking about this. He calls it first principle thinking. First principle thinking has its roots thousands years ago in, in early philosophy where first principle thinking has, it has a slightly different definition, but it's kind of still the same idea, what he means by it in engineering terms is that instead of what did we do in the past, or what is everyone else doing instead of that model of decision making you go back to, what do we know for sure?
And you design from there, this is a mindset shift, a really significant, important, essentialist approach. Not, not whatever else is doing, not FOMO taking over. What do we know for sure. So when they're building the battery, instead of just saying, well, everyone else just says, well, the problem is the batteries, batteries are too expensive. That's why you can't build affordable. Battery powered cars is because it's so expensive instead of accepting that as well. That's what everyone says. That's what everyone else believes. It's whenever it was doing, they go back to, what do we know for sure about batteries? So you break it down into more and more incremental parts until you get to like the essence, the essential stuff. We really know clearly what, you know, clearly is that a battery is made up of these different components. Each component can be purchased at this price.
So if you can buy the components at the basic essential level, then you can build batteries at significantly reduced cost than what everyone else that's trying to do is building is buying the math. And that's how they were able to figure out a battery that was actually affordable and actually be able to create it. That's the first principle thinking on display. It's why suddenly can breakthrough in innovation. And I think it's true at the individual level too. You've got to every so often, maybe pretty often indeed, instead of saying, well, what are we going to do? Based on last year, whatever it was was doing, you'd say, what do we know for sure, what are we really sure about that we, that we can build on? And we will design from there and the amount that can be done because you're building on something real, you're building on truth, you're building it on something stable, a stable foundation. You can build faster, higher, better, differently than what everyone else around you is doing. And and, and it takes, as we said before, courage and compassion to do that.
Aaron McHugh:Okay. Friends. So do you understand why I wanted to break this up? So that was so power packed, so insightful, so succinct. And the way I view it as Greg is highly qualified to inform us about what you've seen. He's spoken all over the world. Now his book is translated into many, many languages. He has consulted with some of the top companies met with some of the top CEOs like the story he made or told us today about Airbnb. So from my view, just absolutely transformationally, foundationally, phenomenal advice. So if the discipline pursuit of less can provide for us, I would call a better strategy for living. Then I think it's worth taking a little time considering what some of these questions were.
So what I've done here is broken out a lot of the questions that we talked about during yep. That I think as for you, the listener, as you're listening along, be really easy for you to listening and kind of cruise right past you and kind of nod your head at I'm like, Oh yeah, that makes sense. I should think about that, but actually finding time and space to, so I think is oftentimes the challenge. So my goal is here on work-life play is to help you live more purposefully, which means you're going to have to take some time to give this. So let me walk you through these questions and about these ideas, the big ideas that came out of this interview. And like I mentioned, you can pick these up at aaronmchugh.com and you can pull these as part of the show notes under essentialism. So essentialism is not one more thing. It's about a whole new way of doing everything about doing less but better and in every area of our lives.
So our challenge is we forget that we don't have to do what we've always done in the past. And I just call that our hamster wheel, we get stuck on the wheel. The benefit of incense realism is that don't prioritize your life. Alice will. So the benefit is we get to prioritize our life. We get to determine what is important to us.
So the questions I want to walk you through, and I've numbered these, I think it's one through 14 here, and I'll cruise you through, read them out loud to you. So just in case you don't have time or access to the show notes, you can just keep listening on an airplane or in the car or on a run wherever you are.
So, number one, where do you feel stretched too thin and be specific about that? Where in your life are you just, you know, a mile wide and a millimeter?
Number two, do you feel busy, but not efficient and productive? I would say that's a lot of us.
Number three, is your schedule always being hijacked by other people? And I filled in some blanks here to give you some starters. So think of what work as a lot of it. I find this to play out is last minute, it's inbound emails. Oh, I got to have this by tomorrow at nine changing priorities, emergency projects, unscheduled travel in quotes. I need to see you in Boston tomorrow, which I've had a lot of those.
Number four, when do you say yes, due to social pressure? I think the holidays is a really good time to evaluate this. When do you say yes, due to social pressure because of people to projects at work to social engagements or just obligated things you've done for years? Oh yeah. I've always volunteered for that organization. I think it's really important to look at where you invest your yes and where you're obligated or you, so you feel, you you've told yourself the story that you don't have a choice, but you have to do it. I think anytime we use that catchphrase, I have to, we should pause for a second and just wonder the possibility is that entirely true.
Number five, how has success increased your choices and thus diluted your contribution? So in the interview you heard Greg talk about meeting with the CEO of Airbnb. The very powerful story about how the success paradox as he terms it, that actually with success increases choices for us, which makes it more challenging for us with our priorities, because all of a sudden our success can fuel a lot more options than we had before when we were very focused on the vital few.
Number six, if you choose one highest priority for the next 90 days, what would it be again, great story. He told about Airbnb and their ramen noodle campaign, as long as they were ramen noodle profitable, baby, we can do this.
Number seven, where in your life have you bought into the advertised promise of if you can do it all, you can have it all. I think that is a really, really, really profound question. The world that we live in advertises, you can have it all. If you do it all, you can have all the money, all the relationship, all the intimacy, all the health, all the wealth, all the fun, all the vacations, all the great work, all the great everything. Only if you attempt to do it all. And the truth is in our modern age, the choices have increased for us exponentially. And one of the quotes that Greg uses in the book is from Peter Drucker, kind of famous business author. And he talked about one of the first times in our society that as our choices increase in our freedom increases. So does the necessity of us learning to manage ourselves.
And I think some of what this comes down to at Greg highlights in this book is about how ineffective we are at managing ourselves. And so if we don't prioritize our life, someone else will.
Number eight, essentially explore more options, but commit to less resulting in breakthroughs. And he tells the story of Tesla. So my question to you is where are you exploring? Where are you doing rapid prototyping? Where are you curious? Because we talked about was that essentialists actually explore more, essentially investigate more, but result in saying ‘no’ more frequently.
Number nine, you don't have to do what you're doing, but are you living in the fullness of this reality as he mentioned that many of us believe it at a head level? Oh yeah, of course I don't have to do what I don't want to do. But when it actually intersects our life, our choices, our behaviors are our heart in this.
Where in your life are you doing what you've always done? You feel obligated to stuck in, but it isn't ultimately what you want to be doing is a perfect time of year to really take a hard look at cleaning out your inbox. What, what emails are you subscribed to? That's just noise in your life. What kid or church or community or social responsibility are you signed up for that just isn't life-giving, it's not doing it for you. And it used to be, it used to be fine, but it's not anymore. And although you tell yourself, we tell ourselves that, of course, well, I could choose. I quit anytime, but we don't. We just keep hands on the plow. And it goes into an a later question. He asks about diluting our actual contribution by being too busy.
Number 10 here, what keeps you busy occupies your time, but distracts you from actually accomplishing your goals.
Number 11, wherever you fallen into the and disciplined pursuit of more quick story. I had a interaction this last year that I really scratch my head over at first until I had a time to kind of let it settle in a really amazing conversation, really amazing person. I had this conversation with, excuse me, very, very impressed. By this person's fortitude and grit. I mean, they're just amazing. And one of the things that she mentioned was if you feel like your plate is too full, then it's important that you get a bigger plate because you can always do more. And I would say that this, this person I had the conversation with it was actually kind of superhuman. So probably it's probably actually more true for them than most, for most of us non superhero, non super humans. I would say that it's actually not true that when we just pile on the undisciplined pursuit of more, because yes, feels like the right thing to do. It's actually to our demise because the things we're actually here to do that we're best at our unique value contribution. The vital few, we don't actually accomplish near as well as if we would take the road less traveled as the essentialist.
Number 12, where are you compromising your priorities to accommodate a non-essentialist in your life? And I think this is really key. So often for us, we might deem what's important to us. And we might actually attempt to exercise our choice, our empowerment for architecting our life in such a way. But we interact with people in our lives, at work, in our relationships, in our community and our neighborhood, whatever it may be that are fundamentally, they are not essentialists. They do attempt to do everything with their hair on fire, always and trying well, bless them. That's great if they could pull that off.
But the challenge for us is it often can intrude our space and our schedule and our choices and our priorities. So I think it's important to just note who are the people that we're in relationship with that are fundamentally non-essentialist. Greg does a great job talking about that in the book is when you work for a company that is led by, or your boss is, or your coworkers are or volunteer gig, you've been working on. And when the work with people that are non-essentialist that attempt to do everything and not less but better, but more, but crummier well, then that makes that's a challenge for us.
Number 13, the word discipline for some can feel like a diet that never ends or race without a finish line. So my point in this is that starting today in a new year, what is the one thing, the tiny little incremental step that the toes, your toes, that you could point in a new direction, you could choose to engage a slightly differently. And I'm going to give you a couple examples of what these might be. Maybe it's beginning a five minute morning routine. I'm a big believer in morning routines that may be as simple as grabbing a cup of coffee or a tea, or a diet Coke. If that's your jam and sitting in a chair for five minutes before you get in the shower, before you turn on the radio, before you turn on the TV, before you drive the kids to school, just something to center yourself in the beginning of the day.
In part two of the interview with Greg, you'll hear he has some really, I kind of Jedi mind tricks of how to start your day, which are pretty rad. Another one, write down one item of gratitude per day. My wife does a phenomenal job. She just printed out for me the last 12 months worth of her gratitude items that she wrote down almost daily. I'm not nowhere near that drive down a different route at home. And what this was about a story in the book Greg talks about is that as an essentialist is just exploration. So maybe it's as simple as on your way home tonight, you'd just drive a different way. And the reason that we're trying to do these changes, these alterations of our behavior is that it produces that same result in other areas of our life. So we start small and move on to big things.
Number 14, first principle thinking he talks about Elon Musk from Tesla and this concept of what we changed as seek what we changed to address. We have to first start with what we know we were certain about in regarding facts. And then what he talked about in the example in the interview part one was about the battery, how that electric vehicles are notoriously challenged, prohibited limited by the length and power and strength of battery, whether pickup speed or early versions of electric cars, their miles, they could travel.
And he goes through the story and talks about how they reduced it down to what do we know for sure. And then from there, once you address what you know, for sure, then you can begin designing and building on top of that and using that as it applies to our lives. And I would say that that's a priority setting or a value setting type question, starting with what's important to you. What do you know for sure, for instance, you want to have dinner every single night as a family at 6:30 PM, we have some good friends that's their jam. And I think it's phenomenal. And they have, for the 15 years, I've known them every night at six 30, everybody's home, everybody's at dinner together. That's their one unifying principle. Now everything else they build upon that they can build on top of that or around that.
But that unifying principle at first principle thinking is, here's what we know for sure. This is what we're going to do. Or if it's in relation to solving a business problem, like he talks about with Tesla.
Number 15, final one here, how are your choices and commitments out pacing your available resources. You've heard me talk about this before in relation to emotional calories and managing our emotional energy and simply put that is our choices and our commitments outpace our capacity. Really good ending question for today. I hope you really enjoyed part one with Greg McKeown, the disciplined pursuit of less and essentialism stay tuned for a coming episode of part two. Thanks. You can do this. Keep going. You've been listening to Work Life Play. If you'd like what you've heard, please do us a favor and rate us on iTunes. It really does help. You can get more information about this and other firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening. Thanks for being part of this adventure for being part of braving, the pioneering work of discovering sustainable work life, play rhythms, love your work, live your life, and play a whole lot more. I'm Aaron McHugh, keep going.
*We’ve done our best for this transcription to accurately reflect the conversation. Errors are possible. Thank you for your patience and grace if you find errors that our team missed.
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