I really don't know where I heard of this book, or why I picked it up. I bought it in ebook format and made it through maybe 20 pages before I put it down, walked down to Powells, and bought a hardback copy of the book. This is the way I read books now: ebook from the library if I can, tree book if I can't, purchased ebook if neither of those. If I like the book, if it is a book I want to loan out, have on my bookshelf, or reread, I will buy it in paper format. If I want to keep it forever (for a short definition of "forever"), I will buy a hardback version. I knew in the first 20 pages, I wanted this one in hardback.
It did not disappoint.
This book is about finding what is essential in your life, and committing to only that, rejecting the parts that do not help you on your journey to what you find essential. Saying no is hard. Defining that is essential is hard. Having a good life is hard. This book helps in that journey. This book gives you permission, if you need it, to discard all the parts of your life holding you back, not helping, not worth your limited time.
I can't say I'm following all of the advice in the book, nor can I say all the advice or rah-rah-rah stories in the book are relevant to everyone or anyone. I found the book inspiring and life-changing. Let me buy you a copy.
The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials. —Lin Yutang
One reason is that in our society we are punished for good behavior (saying no) and rewarded for bad behavior (saying yes). The former is often awkward in the moment, and the latter is often celebrated in the moment.
It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload.
This requires, not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials, and not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but cutting out some really good opportunities as well.
As Peter Drucker said, “People are effective because they say ‘no,’ because they say, ‘this isn’t for me.’ ”
To eliminate nonessentials means saying no to someone. Often. It means pushing against social expectations. To do it well takes courage and compassion. So eliminating the nonessentials isn’t just about mental discipline. It’s about the emotional discipline necessary to say no to social pressure.
What if we stopped being oversold the value of having more and being undersold the value of having less?
To harness the courage we need to get on the right path, it pays to reflect on how short life really is and what we want to accomplish in the little time we have left. As poet Mary Oliver wrote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
Part I: Essence: What is the core mind-set of an Essentialist?
There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: “I have to,” “It’s all important,” and “I can do both.” Like mythological sirens, these assumptions are as dangerous as they are seductive. They draw us in and drown us in shallow waters.
To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.” These simple truths awaken us from our nonessential stupor. They free us to pursue what really matters. They enable us to live at our highest level of contribution.
“If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?”
We often think of choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice—a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do.
Have you ever felt stuck because you believed you did not really have a choice? Have you ever felt the stress that comes from simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs: “I can’t do this” and “I have to do this”? Have you ever given up your power to choose bit by bit until you allowed yourself to blindly follow a path prescribed by another person?
I’ll be the first to admit that choices are hard. By definition they involve saying no to something or several somethings, and that can feel like a loss.
William James once wrote, “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
Most people have heard of the “Pareto Principle,” the idea, introduced as far back as the 1790s by Vilfredo Pareto, that 20 percent of our efforts produce 80 percent of results.
As John Maxwell has written, “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”
It was an example of his Essentialist thinking at work when he said: “You have to look at every opportunity and say, ‘Well, no … I’m sorry. We’re not going to do a thousand different things that really won’t contribute much to the end result we are trying to achieve.’ ”
In the simplest terms, straddling means keeping your existing strategy intact while simultaneously also trying to adopt the strategy of a competitor.
The reality is, saying yes to any opportunity by definition requires saying no to several others.
“We value passion, innovation, execution, and leadership.” One of several problems with the list is, Who doesn’t value these things? Another problem is that this tells employees nothing about what the company values most. It says nothing about what choices employees should be making when these values are at odds.
To say they value equally everyone they interact with leaves management with no clear guidance on what to do when faced with trade-offs between the people they serve.
Unlike most corporate mission statements, the Credo actually lists the constituents of the company in priority order. Customers are first; shareholders are last.
As painful as they can sometimes be, trade-offs represent a significant opportunity. By forcing us to weigh both options and strategically select
the best one for us, we significantly increase our chance of achieving the outcome we want.
Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?” The cumulative impact of this small change in thinking can be profound.
Part II: Explore: How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?
Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. But their exploration is not an end in itself. The purpose of the exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.
In this space he is able to think about the essential questions: what the company will look like in three to five years; what’s the best way to improve an already popular product or address an unmet customer need; how to widen a competitive advantage or close a competitive gap. He also uses the space he creates to recharge himself emotionally. This allows him to shift between problem-solving mode and the coaching mode expected of him as a leader.
“In that instant,” Ephron recalls, “I realized that journalism was not just about regurgitating the facts but about figuring out the point. It wasn’t enough to know the who, what, when, and where; you had to understand what it meant. And why it mattered.”
anyone. The best journalists do not simply relay information. Their value is in discovering what really matters to people.
Being a journalist of your own life will force you to stop hyper-focusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture.
The best journalists, as Friedman shared later with me, listen for what others do not hear.
I also suggest that once every ninety days or so you take an hour to read your journal entries from that period.
Capture the headline. Look for the lead in your day, your week, your life. Small, incremental changes are hard to see in the moment but over time can have a huge cumulative effect.
Play, which I would define as anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end—
Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, has studied what are called the play histories. “Play,” he says, “leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity.” As he succinctly puts it, “Nothing fires up the brain like play.”
First, play broadens the range of options available to us. It helps us to see possibilities we otherwise wouldn’t have seen and make connections we would otherwise not have made.
Play stimulates the parts of the brain involved in both careful, logical reasoning and carefree, unbound exploration.
In his book, Brown includes a primer to help readers reconnect with play. He suggests that readers mine their past
7. Play: Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child >Page 90
Here’s a simple, systematic process you can use to apply selective criteria to opportunities that come your way. First, write down the opportunity. Second, write down a list of three “minimum criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. Third, write down a list of three ideal or “extreme criteria” the options would need to “pass” in order to be considered. By definition, if the opportunity doesn’t pass the first set of criteria, the answer is obviously no. But if it also doesn’t pass two of your three extreme criteria, the answer is still no.
Instead, why not conduct an advanced search and ask three questions: “What am I deeply passionate about?” and “What taps my talent?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?”
Ask the more essential question that will inform every future decision you will ever make: “If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?”
Have you ever felt a tension between what you felt was right and what someone was pressuring you to do? Have you ever felt the conflict between your internal conviction and an external action? Have you ever said yes when you meant no simply to avoid conflict or friction? Have you ever felt too scared or timid to turn down an invitation or request from a boss, colleague, friend, neighbor, or family member for fear of disappointing them?
If you have, you’re not alone. Navigating these moments with courage and grace is one of the most important skills to master in becoming an Essentialist—and one of the hardest.
So why is it so hard in the moment to dare to choose what is essential over what is nonessential? One simple answer is we are unclear about what is essential. When this happens we become defenseless. On the other hand, when we have strong internal clarity it is almost as if we have a force field protecting us from the nonessentials coming at us from all directions. With Rosa it was her deep moral clarity that gave her unusual courage of conviction.
You can apply zero-based budgeting to your own endeavors. Instead of trying to budget your time on the basis of existing commitments, assume that all bets are off. All previous commitments are gone. Then begin from scratch, asking which you would add today. You can do this with everything from the financial obligations you have to projects you are committed to, even relationships you are in. Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether.
By quietly eliminating or at least scaling back an activity for a few days or weeks you might be able to assess whether it is really making a difference or whether no one really cares.
Becoming an editor in our lives also includes knowing when to show restraint. One way we can do this is by editing our tendency to step in. When we are added onto an e-mail thread, for example, we can resist our usual temptation to be the first to reply all. When sitting in a meeting, we can resist the urge to add our two cents. We can wait. We can observe. We can see how things develop. Doing less is not just a powerful Essentialist strategy, it’s a powerful editorial one as well.
The question is this: What is the “slowest hiker” in your job or your life? What is the obstacle that is keeping you back from achieving what really matters to you? By systematically identifying and removing this “constraint” you’ll be able to significantly reduce the friction keeping you from executing what is essential.