Beware the barrenness of a busy life.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
I’ve always been wary of books that claim they will “change your life”. Books certainly can change your life, but in my experience the books that have an enormous impact are books that sneak up on you. They aren’t commercially packaged to change your life, but somehow they do. They make you understand other people in a way you never did before. In her brilliant collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison says, “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us . . . it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” Reading is one way we leave ourselves behind and consider life from another person’s point of view.
I believe that one of the main reasons to read — aside from pure enjoyment and escape — is to develop empathy — “to get inside another person’s state of heart or mind”, as Jamison says. And when we understand others, we understand ourselves better too. Books whose purpose is to help us understand and improve ourselves have always seemed a little simple-minded and self-indulgent to me.
So when I picked up Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, I had low expectations. I imagined I’d scan it, as a courtesy to the publicist who sent it to me, and set it aside. Instead, I read it in one sitting, underlining and turning down pages as I read. The book resonated with me in a way that no business book ever has. (The book is categorized as “business & economics/personal success; it’s a toss-up whether to shelve it under Business or Self-Help.)
McKeown’s book shows us how to shape a life that is filled with meaningful activity. The book doesn’t advocate that we abandon our electronic devices, and it doesn’t provide tips for time management or organization. It’s a philosophical guide to setting priorities in life. McKeown asks:
What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?
Appropriately for its topic, Essentialism is a short, concise book. It contains 20 brief chapters, each the length of a magazine article. Every chapter opens with a quotation that epitomizes the chapter; for example, the quote at the beginning of the chapter entitled “Escape: The Perks of Being Unavailable”, by Pablo Picasso, states “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”
McKeown refers to the “Way of the Essentialist”, a phrase that grates on me because it sounds New-Agey and pseudo-spiritual. But I do like his description of what the path to Essentialism is:
The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better . . . it isn’t about setting New Year’s resolutions to say “no” more, or about pruning your in-box, or about mastering some new strategy in time management. It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference; learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential.
Throughout the book, McKeown uses concrete examples that illustrate how companies and individuals have successfully applied Essentialist principles:
- Making trade-offs: Southwest Airlines cutting what were once considered essential services
- Adhering to a mission statement: Johnson & Johnson reacting to the Tylenol tampering emergency
- Depending on a routine: Michael Phelps’s training schedule
- Discerning what really matters in a situation: Nora Ephron’s approach to journalism
If I’m starting to sound like an evangelist for Essentialism . . . well, maybe I am. I just bought five copies to give to my children and their significant others. Usually, I try very hard not to foist books on my family!
One of my favorite mantras in the book, which has already been helpful to me in quite a few situations, is: “If it’s not a clear yes, it’s a clear no.” How many times have I said “yes” to something that I wasn’t completely enthusiastic about, and then regretted it later? Another little kernel of wisdom is: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” That might seem obvious, but sometimes we need to be reminded of simple truths.