Interview with Greg McKeown
Michael Sliwinski: Everyone, this is Greg McKeown, the author of “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”… Or, I would say, less but better. I’m reading it for the third time at the moment (it’s January 2017), just to make sure that I plan the year right. So, is it okay that I’ve read it three times already, Greg?
Greg McKeown: It’s not just okay, it’s evidence that you get the idea, because it’s a disciplined pursuit. And those words are really important. It’s not something that you can just read once and then: “Now, you’ve got it!”
Greg: And it really is my honor to hear that people are rereading it frequently. And a third time, and a fourth time… I mean, literally somebody said recently that they had read it 17 times! And I’m not sure I’m advocating that, but I just think the idea of rereading “Essentialism” means that you’re in the right, you’ve got the idea. You’re going to become this type of person over time. And it’s not the idea that gets you there – it’s the repetition. It’s the continuity that will be powerful over time, because that’s what essentialism is – it’s a continual, repeated, obsessive pursuit of just those things that matter the most.
Michael: In your book, you give this very good example of the essentialist: somebody who was on the verge of retiring from a company but decided to change his role. Can you just tell us a bit more about this example to illustrate how essentialism actually works?
Greg: This individual had been focused at one time and navigated all of the different requests that he was having to eliminate the non-essentials, so they could really execute a project that he thought could really make a massive difference, personally and also in the organization he was in. And he was successful in this. Because he became successful, there was an increase of options and opportunities. And the form that took is that the company that he was a part of got purchased by a larger and, as it turns out, more bureaucratic firm.
So he goes into the new environment and he tries to say yes to everyone and everything without really thinking about it, because he wants to be a good team player in the new environment. And in the process of applying this new approach, his success seems to get in the way of his success. The quality of this work is going down and the stress he’s experiencing goes up.
So what can he do? In the end, he decides not to retire. That was an escape valve. That was a way to make all the madness stop. But he stays and he starts to be more selective, more thoughtful about how he utilizes his time and energy. And as he’s more selective, he finds that he’s able to create more space on this calendar in order to figure out what is most essential in order to figure out the right project – if he starts working on just the right few things.
And so by the end of that year, his performance evaluation has gone up. He ends that year with one of the largest bonuses of his whole career. And also in his own life, he said, “I got my life back,” because he applied essentialism not just to his professional pursuits but as an idea, a philosophy approach for the totality of his life. And so, he said, “I was able to go to the gym every night again. And I was able to eat dinner with my wife uninterrupted.”
And so he found that by doing a few things better, he was able to produce breakthrough results personally and professionally. And that’s really the value proposition of essentialism.
Michael: Exactly. It caught my attention when reading the book that the success that got you here are actually causing you more problems. You see all these additional opportunities. According to my experience, success makes you believe you can do more and more – because you got there. You think: “I’m Superman because I achieved all this and I can do even more!” …meaning more stuff, more projects. But then the results are not there.
Greg: Yes, and it’s a hubris born of success. It’s Jim Collins that put it that way. A hubris born of success… We can just start to think: I can, I am able… And it can become a curse of capability. And we become victims of our success. Yes, success can become a catalyst for failure.
Greg: Unless we learn that antidote to the problem. So if the problem is the undisciplined pursuit of more, the antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less but better. And that’s really what the thrust of the whole book is about.
Michael: And that’s how we can later escape this moment when things go up just to go down very soon after.
Greg: Yes, you can do that by taking this essentialist mindset and then developing, in addition to the mindset, the skill set of how to lead differently. Now, there’s still a price for learning how to do those things and then applying them. There’s a cost associated with it. And the cost is that one must make trade-offs.
Michael: If you say yes to something, you’re at the same time saying no to something else.
Greg: Right. One must look at the different things and decide which things to do and which things not to do. And the word “decide,” the Latin root of the word “decide,” means “to cut or to kill.” And so this is what we mean when we make a decision. It’s what we do… What will we eliminate? What won’t we do in order to let the most meaningful contribution we can make come forward? What previous aspiration that no longer serves us are we willing to let go?
I had a powerful experience with this. I think you can relate to this. This is not in the book. It occurred after the book. I remember when I was ten years old or thereabouts. I remember one of my brothers saying after we’d watched one of the Star Wars movies, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a stormtrooper outfit?” You know, if you can just wear that whole outfit, that would be so cool if you walked down the street looking like a stormtrooper. In my young mind, I was like, yes, that might be the coolest thing in the world. And that stayed with me, you know, because sometimes these ideas do stay with us, these wants, these desires – even if they’re, in this case, a little silly. And so I remember even as an adult every Halloween this idea would come forward. To the point that I looked it up eventually: how much does it cost to buy a really great replica of the stormtrooper outfit? And the answer is $1000.
Michael: What did you do?
Greg: This year I went to the store that had one. I just went on my own. I wanted to maybe surprise my children. I got the stormtrooper outfit. I sat, I thought… I asked if could try it on first. I tried the whole thing on, and I put it on, and I stood in front of the mirror and I looked at myself. And two things happened at that moment. The first was that I liked what I saw. Stormtrooper in the mirror – fantastic! And then, the second experience came with it, which was: I have no need whatsoever to do this. This was important years ago. This is not important to me now. And so I left it at the store and was finally cured of this desire or this intent or whatever it is.
Michael: This is actually quite a strong metaphor for many things in our lives.
Greg: What are the stormtrooper outfits of our lives, that at one time we cared about and then we never let go of it? There are a lot of people having these every day… Ideas: “Oh, maybe I should do this, I should do that, I should be a stormtrooper, I should be this kind of stormtrooper…” And we just add and then we try to pursue all of them.
Michael: You won’t succeed if you set too many goals!
Greg: One of my professors at Stanford said, “Goals are the theory that worked.” And what he meant, really, is not only that goals are good and positive, but that they work almost too well. Once we set goals, once we have intents in our heart and mind, they just propel us and keep us going. And so I’ve learned to be very careful about goals. I’ve learned that through even this stormtrooper outfit experience as a reminder… What are the goals that no longer serve us? What are the things that we think we want, that at one time we wanted, that we don’t want anymore? And to be aware of those when they come along, so that we can evaluate them freshly, newly, looking in the mirror, so to speak, at the outfit as to whether it matters anymore.
Michael: I think this is a perfect metaphor for the situation with Productive! Magazine. Something that served us for the last eight years, that was really great, and that I loved doing. The occasion to interview great people like you, Seth Godin, Michael Hyatt. Working with the contributors – the best productivity experts. I learned so much. This year, however, I decided that it should end because we have other things we should focus on. There are trade-offs, as you said. What’s crucial is that by closing the magazine off, we’re not killing it. We’re not saying it was wrong or it was bad. It’s a change or a kind of evolution. As you said: something that was really important then and served us then but doesn’t serve us anymore. And it’s fine. That’s why we want to go out with a blast and then continue on to other things… By all means, we still appreciate what happened but we are essentially choosing something else, right?
Greg: Nature is our teacher in so many ways, and in this way as well. Just this summer I went to Yosemite, a national park, and as a bit of a crime against nature, it was the first I’d been, even though I’d lived in California for years now.
Michael: It must be wonderful.
Greg: You’re supposed to go. Apparently, you haven’t seen California unless you’ve been to Yosemite National Park. And that turned out to be quite true. It’s absolutely beautiful. And as we were taking a tour, one of the people there said that they got to a point where, for a while, they tried endlessly to make sure there were no fires in the park. Any fire was seen as an absolute negative and destruction. And this had to be avoided at all costs. And over time they found that that was very damaging to the ecosystem of the park. And, in fact, they had to start men making fires to make sure, in controlled ways, that they would eliminate some of the buildup that had happened in the forests.
And so it’s a great example that elimination and discombobulation of things – especially if we’re strategic and deliberate about it – can be greatly advantageous to us in order to get to the next level. We can think about the phoenix who is reborn amid its own ashes. That’s what we’re going for. And you must go through these journeys of, okay, this served us. It no longer serves us. Let’s break through to the next level by allowing this former level to go, so we have the space to figure out or to think about what it is we want to do next.
Michael: Yeah, totally. Another thing that I practiced last year (and actually I was reporting to you on Twitter every time I did it) was the Personal Quarterly Offsite. I’m a GTD fan who is passionate about productivity. One of the important things in Getting Things Done® methodology is the weekly review, which many people skip… Because it’s so easy to skip your review. We have time for other people; we don’t have time for ourselves.
But what does weekly review give you? It gives you the feedback loop. What happened this week, and what is the plan for next week? It’s essential that you make conscious decisions. You advocate something more: the big picture. I actually have to admit I’d never practiced that much of it before apart from the yearly reviews. You encourage others to do quarterly offsite – every three months. Could you talk about that? Reviewing every three months was really important change to my productivity system.
Greg: Yes, the idea is a personal quarterly offsite. And it’s really kind of almost self-explanatory from that description. We know what a quarterly offsite is. In an executive retreat, you go away from your normal environment and you look at the big picture. You review the past, you look at the future, and then you sort of come from both of those perspectives, figure out what’s important now.
And so you might look at the last 90 days, what’s been going on, what are the trends, what has really worked well, what is not working. If I didn’t change anything, what would happen next?
And then after you’ve figure that out, you can evaluate your present. How am I feeling now? Where are things going in the important relationships in my life and the important goals I’ve been setting?
And then you look at the future. You say, okay, what are the two to three things that are really important to me for the next 90 days? And you’re bound to have more than two or three, and that’s why the process is so important. If you say: “Well, I can only do one. What will it be? And if I could get that one done and I could get one more done, what would that be?” And you just keep going until you’ve got two or three things, and it feels a realistic stretch to get those accomplished.
And then finally, sort of the fourth stage is just, what’s important now? If you can look at the past, present, and future, then that should inform something about what really matters this moment. What matters this next week that’s ahead of you? And you keep coming back to that question again and again. You review your answers. You might even review it every day: just a quick glance are what the goals are, what you’ve come to, and what you’ve decided about. And so this becomes a very important, deliberate, and intentional strategy, which is a sort of top-down approach in your life.
And then you also have the other side of this, which is the emergent strategy, which comes up from beneath. And that’s the daily living and adaptation. And that’s what that question “what’s important now” is all about. So you do the big picture thinking in course of the personal quarterly offsite, and then the daily or even moment-to-moment thinking and adaptation that we need in this very different environment that we live in from maybe 50 years ago.
Michael: The quarterly offsite also gives me the ability to review my year’s goals, to see if they are still as relevant as when I planned them in January. In the third quarter of the year, they could be no longer relevant. Maybe I should switch gears and do something else. And if you don’t do it, you might not realize that you’re going into the wrong direction, because you set the goal wrong.
Greg: Yes, and I think that the environment that we’re now in challenges us to think about it even more frequently. Like, there’s the military of 50 years ago, what I call the Cold War military. And then there’s the military of now that’s been developed, like the fourth area of the military, special forces. And that was designed for unusual military scenarios, terrorism, for example. So that’s a very different way of having to fight. A very different kind of enemy. And I think the prioritization of today requires both abilities. You need the long-term thinking - in fact, I would encourage people to have much, much longer term thinking than they normally have. And by that, I don’t mean five years or ten years. I don’t even mean to the end of your life visioning. I mean, way past it. So I would encourage people to develop a hundred-year vision…
Greg: That’s beyond us. And that’s why it’s so important that we have a vision that’s bigger than you and me. It’s bigger than our life. And certain vision can only take place with that kind of length in mind. So I would encourage people to think far longer than they normally would. And, incidentally, I would encourage people to think from a hundred years past before them. So when we talk about past, present, and future, I think we should think a hundred years before us, so that we can start to understand our own contribution within the context of an inter-generational family that we’ve all been a part of. They shape us. We don’t even know their names for them to have affected us.
Greg: You know, the decisions by one’s grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents have massively affected all of us. Almost certainly the country we live in is affected by the decisions that they made, the language we speak. But it’s not just geography and language – it’s also culture. It’s also ways of thinking about the world, patterns of behavior, patterns of education, patterns of emotional processing and how we do or don’t deal with things in our lives, what we’ve been allowed to talk about and not allowed to direct.
So I’m describing a very, very robust visioning process here. A hundred years before and a hundred years after….
And from that kind of perspective, you then work towards these daily adjustments, and that’s kind of like the old military system, right? Very long-term plans and strategy. And then, in addition to that, we need this other strategy, just as extreme but in the opposite direction, where it’s this moment-to-moment analysis of what’s important now. And that is a vibrant and continual and disciplined pursuit, where we are saying: “Okay, what was important even five minutes ago may have changed.” Not a big, long-term visioning of values that we’ve identified, but the adaptation.
So I would describe this as two kinds of focus, both of them necessary, both of them essential. There is focus as a noun, which is the thing that you’ve finally come to. This is important; this is the very long-term set of things that really matter. And then there’s this focus as a verb, which is the continual, perpetual adaptation, moment to moment.
It’s already happened to me. This morning I had insights that have come, the little promptings and guidance. I’ve also had, you know, an email from someone that was materially important for a project that I’m pursuing. And so being able to have enough space on my calendar to be able to call that person, as I did this morning, spontaneously to address the concern that they’ve raised. You can’t do that if you’re packed full. You can’t adapt to whatever is going on. There’s no buffer involved.
Greg: You need both of these very long-term and very short-term ways of prioritizing focus as a noun and focus as a verb in order to come together to be able to answer again and again what’s important now. Actually, a lot of what we’re talking about is not in the book. This has been post the book, as I’m learning and understanding, as I try continually to be an essentialist myself.
Michael: Wow! Okay, I didn’t expect that. As a personal note, two weeks ago we celebrated my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary.
Greg: Wow, congratulations.
Michael: Yeah, I’m blessed to have had really fantastic parents. And it was a great celebration. Lots of friends came. And I did a speech about them and a presentation, some photos, the whole history of their marriage. And one of things I said to my parents, which is something along the lines of what you just said, was: “Forty years ago, from my personal point of view, you made the best decision ever. Because without that decision, I wouldn’t be here.”
Greg: And that’s exactly what we want. We want to take on an intergenerational frame so that we can see the long-term impact of this moment. And it’s about connecting the dots, all the way from this very long moment to this very instant moment. Because what I perceive is that this moment of now, this instant, is under attack constantly.
Michael: Oh yeah!
Greg: So we experience it in the form of just how difficult it is to be fully present, even in this conversation, all the things that might be on your mind and pulling on us, and other things and so on. So being present is how we experience the problem.
But the problem, I think, has more ramifications than just that we feel frantic in the now. And I think it’s that this instantaneous way of living, this "instantism,” robs us of the narrative form of our lives. So it robs us of a sense of where we’ve been, of our journey. It robs us of a sense of future planning, thinking, and perspective. And then it also robs us – and we’re more aware of this part – of the now.
So the paradox, I think, of this new… I don’t even know if I want to call it enemy, but let’s call it that for now. This new enemy is that it affects all three parts of the narrative. And we have lost the narrative. That’s like losing the plot in a story. Like we are lost.
Greg: And, as I’ve said before, there are really only two kinds of people in that kind of world. There are people who are lost and then there are people who know they are lost.
Michael: Awareness is the first step toward change.
Greg: Exactly. To know you are lost is really the beginning of the way out, because you start to go, “I have no idea. Where am I? What am I doing here? And what’s next? And why?”
All of those crucial, what I would call “the big essential questions,” can be answered as soon as you admit you’re lost. It’s like the Matrix idea. As soon as you see that you’re in a matrix, then you go: “Oh, I’ve got a decision to make. I can start to look at what’s really going on.” And until we can see that, we can’t do anything about it. So it’s really about restoring the narrative of our lives that I’m starting to feel increasing strongly about.
Michael: I also remember you telling the story where you went to the USA and somebody said you should decide to stay in the USA. And that moment for you was actually when you made a decision. You’ve just said that we influence our narrative. We can decide… However, I think that people too often feel they are not in control. That they can’t decide. Well they can! Although they seem not to know it or to be afraid to admit that they can decide.
Greg: That’s right. Because when we have these stormtrooper moments, when we have all of these things that we just believe we should do, we put them into our backpack in a kind of almost thoughtless way. They’re very easily accepted and adopted. And we live with them, with these burdens of expectation, that we didn’t deliberately chose. They just live there, and we don’t even notice them. We’re like fish who discover water last. We just don’t see it. It’s everywhere, but we don’t see it.
And that was true for me at law school. I thought: “I’m at law school, and I just think that’s what I have to do, because, after all, I worked to get there. And, after all, it’s a great opportunity, and, after all, it keeps your options open.” (I’d always been told: keep your options open.) I felt like: “Yes, I’m here, so I just have to carry on and be successful. That’s what one does.“
And it took being geographically away from England and having this conversation. It was only a throw-away comment but they said, “If you do decide to go to America, you should come and help me,” and so on. If you did something different, if you didn’t hold the non-essentialist assumptions that you hold right now, if you could do something different, you know, what would you do?
And that was the beginning of it for me. I remember spending the next 20 minutes brainstorming. You could do anything if you didn’t have to do what you’re doing now. And when I was finished, I was struck by, not what was on the list, but what wasn’t on the list. It wasn’t just all the things I was wanting to do; it was that law school didn’t even make the list. If I could do anything, attending law school was just not one of the things at all.
Michael: You were honest with yourself.
Greg: Yes. And so I realized, well, if I was starting today, if I was right now standing there looking at these, if I wasn’t at law school at that point, there’s no way I would be going. That became a helpful challenge and insight to the question: should I even be doing this? And it was really the beginning of the end. Because as soon as there was permission not to, there was no going back. But I did see in the long ways to realize that, well, I better call my parents. And so I called the 15 digit back to England, you know, ring, and finally my mother answers, which is fortunate in hindsight. And finally she says, “Well, I think you better talk to Dad.” And he comes on the phone and he listens for a while, and, because all Englishmen quote Shakespeare, eating crumpets for breakfast in the morning…
Greg: He pulls out this line from Hamlet, from Polonius to his son Laertes. He says, “Son,” very Churchillian of him, “Son, you know I’ve always told you…” (which, by the way, was always: go to law school. But somehow he didn’t think about it in that term, in that moment) “We’ve always told you to thine own self be true.”
Michael: He said “yes” then.
Greg: Yes, that was further permission. It’s okay. Follow what’s inside of you, listen to that voice. Pursue that voice and it won’t lead you astray.
And that has been true for my life. The biggest errors I’ve made have been when I didn’t listen, violated that voice, or just let it be drowned out by other things. And the great thrust of my life has been, I’m pleased to report – at this point anyway, and it’s almost 20 years now – continually going back to that voice. I mean, that’s really what I mean when I say to pursue what’s essential. It’s not what somebody else thinks is essential and it’s not what society says is essential. It’s not what we selfishly think is essential either – and that’s a distinction I wish to make. Because I didn’t write a book called “Selfishism” or “No-ism.” It’s not about just doing more of what I want for my life. I didn’t write that book.
Greg: Essentialism is best understood by this idea – what does your conscience counsel? It’s getting enough space that you can hear that voice saying: “This is the right path, this is the way. Walk in this path.” And then when we have that, we have the “yes” now with which to navigate all of the other requests that come our way. So we then have a reason not to do whatever the next opportunity is. And without that yes, we don’t have a reason not to. And we need that in life, otherwise we will become a function of other people’s whims and requests. And it’s good to be responsive to people, but not the servant to any request and any expectation. It’s like, e-mail makes a poor master to a servant. And you have to keep it that way.
Michael: And that’s a perfect finish line. Like in our case: closing Productive! Magazine doesn’t mean I don’t want to contribute more to help people get things done. I want to do it differently. As you said in the book and in your speeches, I want to contribute more. I want to contribute better, and I now think that it’s not the best way. There is more. I can do it better. And so, it’s not no-ism. I just want to contribute more and make some space to do it.
Greg: You remember from the book that Gandhi is a great essentialist and one that can inspire no end. And his life is a continual pursuit of what he found was essential. And if he hadn’t done that, he would have made immeasurably different choices. So he ultimately was successful in bringing independence to 300 million Indians – at the time, the largest democracy in the world. And now, of course, many more. He became the father of the nation, and when he died, the U.S. Secretary of State, General George C. Marshall said: “Here is a man who’s shown simplicity can be more powerful than empires.” Einstein said of him, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” So Gandhi’s an inspirational figure worth learning from. And an essentialist, clearly in almost every conceivable.
The reason I share all that is because I was in South Africa where he lived for 23 years and I went to the Phoenix settlement, which is exactly where his house was. And when I was taking a tour of the remodeled house, I was given a poem, which I was told was the only poem Gandhi ever wrote, and in that poem had these four words, which is “reducing oneself to zero.”
This is the succinctness and deepest summary of what it means to be an essentialist: to reduce the self. And to eliminate whatever comes along, however good, in pursuit of something better. To become more and more of who we really are, and less and less of who we really aren’t. And so this desire to contribute to a higher level will always require an elimination of some previous version of ourselves. The 1.0 version must disappear, and the 2.0 version eventually must disappear, however good it’s been, however meaningful it’s been, in order for the 3.0 version to come forth.
And that’s what you’re describing, that’s what you’re doing. It takes courage, it always takes courage to do things. But if, as someone said to me recently, as soon as we aren’t using any courage in our life, it’s like the Universe wants its parts back. And I think that’s true. It doesn’t feel good at all to have courage actually. It feels terrifying.
Michael: It feels bad sometimes, indeed.
Greg: So we want to get through courage as soon as possible and on to the next thing. But we need to keep doing it, leaning into those challenges, in order to keep living and keep growing. And that’s what you’re doing, that’s what you’re describing. And, you know, I applaud you for your pursuit, and I’m sure it will lead to the next level and the next set of great things for you.
Watch the interview with Greg: