Book Review #21 - Essentialism

This book was written by Greg McKeown and it distills the principles of essentialism; the disciplined pursuit of less. Interestingly, I don't remember where I first saw this book, I might have had it in my library for a while or it might have been suggested to me after the last book I read which was Atomic Habits by James Clear, read a review of that here.

I needed this book, as the principles it teaches are exactly what I needed to hear at the time. With books like these, oftentimes you might only need about 20% of its content to make a significant meaningful change in your life. But, you don't know which is the new information out of the 100%, so you have to read it all, re-learning or enforcing old concepts, while gaining new.

I will share the lessons I learned from this book using a story of Bethany, a young professional woman. You can read a previous story on Bethany here.

Once upon a time, there was a lady called Bethany, a young management consultant at a leading global firm. Bethany was a high flyer, super sharp, and hardworking. She was also very driven, and people grew to depend on her reliability, professionalism, and her ability to simply get things done.

With this personal branding going for her, she rapidly rose through her career, got selected for the best projects, got invited to several conferences to share the secret of her success, asked to moderate panels, asked to be mentored. Simply put, Bethany got many opportunities to be part of amazing projects that aligned with her skillset at the time. It was the dream. Her colleagues envied her. She was a female leader and a worthy emulation to any young woman, so she tried to take advantage of it all.

One day, Bethany woke up and couldn't get out of bed. It wasn't physical, her legs worked. But she was so emotionally exhausted, tears fell gently down her eyes as she lay still in bed. She felt empty. Even with all the activity, in her eyes at the time her life had no real pattern, no meaning, no impact. She was on the brink of depression. She had a conference the next day, and a few other commitments the following week. She knew she had to start saying no. She composed several polite emails apologizing that she could no longer make it. She made calls to the ten other events she had slated for the month. The organizers were disappointed, but they also respected that she communicated with them.

After a few days in this state. Dave her husband who didn't like what he saw, invited Bethany to join him in an exercise. "Write out every extracurricular activity that requires your time and commitment" - He said as he pointed the green marker to the whiteboard in their home office. Off she went. Bethany wrote them all; the conferences, the weekly book club, the mentorship program, her 1:1s with a former professional colleague she kept recurring. After this exercise, she stepped back from the board and was astounded to find out she was involved in over thirty (30) different activities that required her consistent time and effort. No wonder she was so spent!

Bethany knew at that moment as she stared at the whiteboard filled with all these activities, that her current situation was simply not sustainable. She decided to take on the path of the essentialist using the principles shared in the book. Here are the principles she stuck to and how she approached them.

Find Your True North

Bethany began journaling. She created clarity in her mind to truly understand who she was at her core and what was important to her. During this time she gained clarity on a very high level on what she wanted her life purpose and her legacy to be. She gained a deeper realization that she had to live an authentic life, one that was true to her. This then became her true north, the yardstick to which when an opportunity came her way she asked herself "Is this the absolute best use of my time in line with my true north?". If it wasn't a resounding yes, she politely declined, deferred, or delegated, even if it was a "soft yes". It had to be a resounding yes before she committed.

Related Post: What is your why?

Choose The Essential Few Over The Trivial Many

The success paradox says that as a result of your reputation as an efficient and effective person, you begin to get a lot of options thrown your way and if you are not able to identify the essential few, you will work on other people's time which is chaos in your world. This was what happened to Bethany. Our minds are not wired to handle too many decisions, so decision fatigue then sets in. In the end, you have then expanded into many different areas with no real yields for focus, congruence, and consistency. Pretty much incremental progress that do not compound. Worst of all you have betrayed your true purpose by not being the director in your own life.

Get Used To Saying No (even to good opportunities)

Bethany struggled the most with saying no. Even as Bethany composed the messages declining the offers, she wondered if she was wasting a good opportunity. At that moment, the chose the path of the essentialist and asked herself the test question in #1 above. To her surprise, she realized that "No" was the right answer. This reinforced to her that her purpose is not to help everyone, but to do that she was most equipped, and aligned to do at that very point in time in the context of her journey. She realized she had the power to decide and used it.

Related Post: On Being Too Nice

Respect > Popularity

There were times it was difficult for Bethany because she often had to say no to people who did not expect it from her, and eventually were offended. While it was difficult at the moment, Bethany knew deep in her heart that choosing to do what they asked just because they were offended did not serve her. She never wanted to feel what she felt that day on her bed, the emptiness, and the exhaustion. Bethany decided to choose respect for her boundaries, and decisions over popularity. It has served her well. She is happier, more effective, and has a clarity of purpose that drives her. She is arguably much more effective as she became more selective.

Less is More

The fallacy of linear thinking says that more is better. But the truth is less is often more. Keeping things simple is difficult, and once you have too many choices, it is easy to make no choice. The discipline of consistently removing the non-essentials, to strip anything to its bare essentials, so that the precision of selecting what is truly important done over time will be rewarded exponentially. So, the question Bethany constantly asks herself is: What is the non-essential, and how I can take it out!

I hope you enjoyed the story, and I only re-express the principles of the book through my lens. For a direct, and complete assessment of the book, you will have to read it, and i suggest you do it. It's available on Amazon here.

Read the book? Share your thoughts in the comments section. Also, tell me what are you reading?

Looking for something to read? Here is a list.



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