Highlights with Greg McKeown on Essentialism:

Busy-ness has become a value, a measurement of importance.

If we don’t prioritize in our life, someone else will.

If your life’s focus is on what others want and think of you, then your life will get out of focus. We must prioritize our own clarity and build our “sacred self” while relating to the external social noise.

There is deception in busyness. The thought that “everything popular now — I’m gonna do it all” will not live up to your expectations. These nonessential things cannot give you what they promised to give you, because they aren’t based in the truth.

There’s more out there, and the more is less. Replace the fillers and the “stuff” with the value of the essential things.

Do you feel that sometimes you are being pulled in many different directions, stretched too thin, or maybe even that your life is being highjacked by other people’s agendas?  “If the problem is the undisciplined pursuit of more, then the antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less, but better.”

Three main principles to essentialism:

  • Explore what’s essential
  • Eliminate what’s not essential
  • Execute a way of living that protects those things

Start with the things you have control over. Ask yourself which things you need to do every day, the first hour of your day, that will matter one hundred years from now.

Doing tiny things, consistently and for a long amount of time, is more likely to create tremendous results.

The question to ask when talking about essentialism isn’t: Is this thing good? But the question to ask is: Is this my highest point of contribution? What is my one hundred year essential intent?

Essential Selectivity: To rid yourself of who you really aren’t and pursue becoming who you’ve been created to be. Always give yourself grace to know this is a continuous process.

Show Transcription:

[00:11] Welcome to the Ziglar show, where we inspire your true performance. This is the show that’s fuel for all your efforts to make progress in your life. I’m your host, Kevin Miller, and today Tom Ziglar and I bring you Greg McKeown, best-selling author of the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. You know the term best-seller is used a lot, so let me clarify that this is the real deal. This book was published just three-and-a-half years ago. Today, as of this writing, it is ranked 1289 in best-selling books in Amazon overall. It’s a big, big deal. Now, having studied the book, I know why. It is a game-changer, a life-changer in reality. As you’ll hear in this interview, it’s not about minimalism; it’s more about making the right and best decisions, putting decisions to extreme tests, being in control. A great analogy, really, that sets a stage for this, Greg says that in an emergency everyone is an essentialist. We get on task, on targe,t divest ourselves of non-necessities, and do what is most efficient, effective, and successful. So, can we do that in all the areas of our life, in most of the moments of our lives? Can we live like that? Well, listen in and find out.

[01:31] You can connect with Greg and his revolutionary work at gregmckeown.com. When you get value from the show, please let us know by leaving a review in iTunes — the best way to say thank you is just that. Well, here then, Tom Ziglar and I bring you Greg McKeown.

[02:01] Ok, Greg, so with your devotion into essentialism, and only doing what you deem to be essential, and discerning the right activities to invest your time into, I’m even more honored than usual that you’ve given us status as essential in your life today. Thanks for being here.

[02:16] It is so nice to be with you, thank you.

[02:20] Absolutely, and I mean that for real. We talk with such high-level folks like you, who have busy lives; to take time out for us is a big deal. I want to dive in right at the top and talk about being busy. I mean, we, as a culture, generally know or think of ourselves as busier than we should be. I hope most people think that, but what’s at the core? I mean, I’ve got nine kids, I’ve got multiple businesses, I claim busyness sometimes even though I kind of don’t like to do that, but I know couples with no kids, just as busy. I know people with twice as many kids as I have, wondering why I think I’m so busy! What’s the psychosis of this busy addiction?

[02:59] I want to understand if you really know people with eighteen children! I’m trying to get my head around that multiple businesses, nine children, and you blame yourself for being busy! That’s probably true. It actually sounds quite lovely in a way, because I can just imagine, you know. Now look, I just think that we got to a point where people are trying to outdo themselves in claiming busyness. I recently talked to woman and she said, “Oh, great! I’m so busy!” And it just barely matters. It was actually in response, so right off, “I’m so busy I slept on average four hours a night for the last two weeks.” This is an intro; this is the “elevator pitch.” And, of course, she didn’t know, as she was still doing essentialist. We have brands of busyness. I think we’re in the busyness bubble. I think that people know that they’re claiming a certain busyness because it’s become a value. Busyness is a measurement of importance of success.

[05:54] Well, so, I’m curious on that. So, then, and you say something to this in the book, but it does bring me to, I guess, a question. Is the issue mainly a self-image issue? Either we are — and you talk to this — on one side of the the badge of honor we give to the person who is so busy, they’re so important; or on the other side that you speak to is also that it may be an insecurity in being able to say no to so much, but both both are self-image issues.

[06:27] I don’t know, I’m going to think about that a little bit. A friend of mine once said that there’s a big difference between a scared self and a sacred self. And as I heard that, I thought yes, that seems consistent with what I found as I look at why we’re doing what we’re doing. This was professional for me. I was studying Silicon Valley companies and why they’re successful in particular, why silicon, right? Otherwise successful companies don’t break through to the next level. So there’s this professional thing going on in my life. But, actually, why I ended up writing Essentialism versus any other book was because of something that happened personally, and that does seem to be when my scared self, who was, you know, more or less guiding my situation, making at least on that particular day. This is the context. I got an e-mail from my boss at the time, said, “You know, Friday would be a very bad time for your wife to have a baby.” And, you know, I mean, email while my wife was expecting! Otherwise, that’s an even stranger e-mail to see. And even so, you know, Friday comes along and I’m sure they were in jest, at least in part, but try to…in the hospital; I’m still feeling this pressure, and I think, as I said, I think  was it because of me? But I was feeling, I have to keep everybody happy. I’ve got to do it all. And so I went to that meeting. And afterwards I remember they said to me, “Oh, a client will respect you for the choice you just made. You know, to be here. Try to prioritize this.” And not just in hindsight, I think what I learned was, “Look, if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” And so I think that’s one of the elements of core here: if we get too focused on the scant self, and worry about what everyone thinks, worry about trying to get everybody happy, and that’s the focus, they will actually get down to focus.

[14:20] And now that you bring back to that language scared versus sacred self, I mean, clearly, what you’re describing when you desire that it is closer to that sacred self. That saying you don’t need all of this, you know, I think that’s good. This sacred self is something to do with ego versus humility. It’s saying you don’t need all that stuff at all. It isn’t all these extra things that you don’t need — that they’re, like, pretend. It needs, like somebody who’s become addicted to a substance, or it’s that they don’t need those things which their body and brain now believes they do. I think that’s been true of this, not essentialism, Malware that has slowly entered a society and a consciousness. You know, the whole idea originally was, What’s the one most important thing? And, you know, but haven’t you been to a meeting with somebody with no sense of irony? it’s all you; Here, my twenty priorities all have to be done now or yesterday. So, you can see that as something, even in a language that hints to what has happened in our culture, embedded in that language. And dispersion is, there’s been a similar suspicion in our eyes were we just to hold all over the place. I mean, people listening to this, look, will surely relate that sometimes, at least, they feel busy but not productive. Sometimes they feel stretched too thin at work, home, community, church. They’re just pulled in too many different directions, and sometimes they feel their life is just being hijacked by other people’s agendas. And maybe not for the most important, essential activities in their lives.

[17:46] I want to get into some of the specifics, then, as we hear this message I want to take action on it. So, I’m gonna pull a couple things out of the book. One of them — and this is right out of it — you write, “The way of the essentialist rejects the idea that we can fit it all in. Instead, it requires us to grapple with the real tradeoffs and make tough decisions. Living by design, not by default.” And in a graphic in the book — which, some of your graphics are really powerfully used — so the essentialist is saying no to everything except the essential. I’m gonna pair that with a favorite movie of mine called YES MAN. It’s Jim Carrey, where a guy whose wife dies — he really retreats from life completely; said no to everything except for work and passing the time with T.V. Which, I know you’re not — that’s not the point here. You know the guy who goes to a conference and commits the same yes to everything, which leads to some great things but becomes unsustainable, as well as, we look at that because you’re also — I don’t want anyone to hear that you’re saying “Say no to everything and retreat” —  that’s not the point. Over here you’ve got them saying yes to everything; that’s not the answer either. The healthy perspective is in the middle, but shine some more light on that, if you would.

[19:03] Well, yes, first of all, let’s just look at the counterfeit for essentialism. And the counterfeit is, Greg must be saying no to everything. And that would be a book called Noism. And, you know, I did not write that. So the book is Essentialism  and includes in the title what is essential. It’s saying, for most people, the problem isn’t that they say no to many things, is that they say yes to many things. And not thoughtfully. But, either side of the equation could be a non-essentialist. You could be an essentialist and be very focused, if you just focused on the non-essential; you know, a drug addict might be focused on one single thing. They think about nothing else all day long; they’re not essentialist. They just consume something that’s important. And so that’s, the whole extreme is…as, oh, I don’t address it very much in the book. It’s a form of non-essentialism. The more common form of non-essentialism, I think, today, is this: everything for everyone all the time and just believing in ourselves, we have to do it all. It’s not even other people; it’s often just because we tell ourselves, and bought into the idea, that we have to do everything wotth thinking about.

[20:48] Essentialism is the continual, actual, disciplined, pursuit of those few things that matter most. So, how do you do it? Three principles: explore what’s essential; eliminate what’s nonessential; and then try to create a system, a routine, a way of living that protects, those states. That’s what you’re trying to do is explore, eliminate,  and execute. The thing, to begin with, is order, is creating space, to figure out what’s essential. I think the difference between pretty clear and really clear is really different. And so, it’s all about, it’s saying, “Look. Fine. You’re pretty clear,” really quick, because you can’t do everything on your list if you’re only “pretty clear” about what’s essential, you just can’t. So that means that life’s circumstances and randomness may well make those trade-offs for you. And that, I think, is a costly era of approach. So it’s all about how do you figure out, how do you create space to really get what is essential, so that you can then know what to eliminate, and know what to trade off, and you can do that strategically, deliberately, thoughtfully, with discernment, with stillness. You can say. “These are the things I’m not going to do because these are the ones that are essential.”

[25:41] So, I’m curious on, when I ask more, you mention the word “space” multiple times, and you talk in the book about the essentialist feels in control, the non-essentialist feels out of control. So we have a large part of the population, even here with a Ziglar audience, we have a lot of business owners, a lot of entrepreneurs, freelancers, but we still have a lot of the populace that is either involved in a work environment as an employee, or maybe not even as a business owner; but it’s still primarily a 9-to-5, or more Monday through Friday, scheduled existence. And our kids, who are in school for the most part, from 8 to 3, with an extracurricular activity. So, again, almost the same timeline where they have…. What those folks do, and they — talk about space, because you also have life maintenance that goes on, and dinner and bedtimes, and all those things, with those cultural confinements of work and school, those institutions, in essence. Are they handicapped right from the gun?

[26:51] It’s a complicated question, isn’t it? I think that there’s no easy answer to the question of whether you can be an essentialist. Inside of institutions that are often bought into non-essential over many… yes, that’s that’s tough. Because you’ll be counter-cultural and, indeed, I do believe that essentialism is more counter-cultural than I realized it was when I wrote it. So this is not easy, and the way that we’ve grappled with it, we’ve come to conclusions that other people might come to very different conclusions in that light. So it’s not that, “Well, what we’ve done is what other people should do.” But as the law that we looked into the model, we looked into education, the more we looked for example as one illustration, you know, then the more we found, yes, there’s so much non-essential stuff.

[33:56] Let me just jump in. I’ve got two words that just kind of bounce around my head, and they’re kind of what I work with. I do a lot of what we call legacy coaching with business leaders and business owners. And it seems it’s like the squirrel thing happens, Right? We’ll be going down a track and then the shiny object will fall, right? It’s just, I think, social media and everything is like crack for the brain. You know, we like that hit; we like the new thing, it’s exciting, it’s new. So, I heard somewhere the two words were “novelty” versus “nuance.” And so, the idea is, let’s — we could have two goals. We could say, “I want to have a successful sales career.” Or, “I want to be a successful sales professional.” If you say career, then you’re going to be looking for a novelty, you’re going to be looking for another quick thing, the new job, the other. If you say, “I want to be the right kind of salesperson,” you quickly narrow down into five or ten qualities and characteristics, that every top person, in whatever field, they’re in-house, right? And so, then you set that goal and it’s not to seek out the new thing that’s going to give you the multiplier; it’s the nuance of the essential thing.

[45:22] Kevin, I’m just going to say one thing, then I’ll turn it back over to you. I played college golf, and I love golf, and Dad and I played a lot of golf. I read an article about how to get your child excited about playing golf. A lot of kids don’t naturally just say, “I want to go play golf,” right? Because it’s awkward and it’s hard. So here is what…this is what the guy, this is what this pro said: You take your five, six, seven-year-old out, and you get some old golf balls — not too many, fifteen, maybe twenty. And you let him hit them into the lake. And while they’re completely satisfied and happy, before they get tired you leave. And you do that a couple of times and all they think about is how much fun that was. You know, “Maybe next time I can get it over the creek,” or or whatever the situation is. And, so, what you kind of just said was, whatever creek you want to hit over. The big thing: Do only that much so the next day you want to do even more.

[46:40] Yes, just so you got to do less than you want, you feel like doing today. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it, because most people are like, you wanna go big. Those try everything you’ve got and I think, How long can I give everything I’ve got to that thing? I mean, this dream, this is…I do that. I have twenty-one days to create, you know? Maybe it’s true; I don’t know. But we would hope so, because I can’t do that for the next twenty-one days. But what I want is tiny, tiny changes, and I am experimenting with this all the time. I mean, I can look, I think…I think there are two kinds of people in the world: there are people who are lost, and there are people who know they are lost. And I just want to be in a second category: I want to admit that I don’t know what I’m doing. You know, want to admit that I don’t know where I’m going, because then the paradox is as soon as you know, you’re last. Think about your life — look long-term; do the six, because you go, “Well I don’t know where I’m going.” So, I’m, “Well…” But I stop and figure that out, and when you get into that category, I think you start to see the need for things like a personal coach off-site, where you say, “Look, I’ve got to actually take some time every ninety days, take a day, figure out what’s important to me. Where I am, what’s going well in my life and why that matters to me and, one of the two or three things I’d like to achieve over the next ninety days.”

[52:20] Ziglar has a Ziglar goals planner, and folks listening go to Ziglar.com and get his Ziglar goals planner. And it is a paper product,  leather cover thing, but it’s a paper product and that’s purposeful. It is to have that time off of your computer, off your devices, with a pen and paper and the kinetic, but a psychological, benefit that you get from actually doing that and taking that time, and the people who do it absolutely swear by it. But I want to take that and go into something that’s been brewing here as we’ve talked, that to have this essentialist life, to know what are the right and essential decisions that I’m going to make, seems impossible before first having a…. you talk about a daily planning session, having a life planning session of discerning what is important, which really brings us full circle to the Ziglar focal point of all time, is goals. And in that we know that, to do that, life goals, that’s a daunting place for a lot of people as well. Where do you take take us from that focus, if you would?

[53:35] Well, I…you know, of course, you’ve got to have goals — somebody said that. And I completely buy that. One of my standard professors once said to me, he said, “Goals are the theory that works.” And what he meant was, you know, it’s always theories that they’re sharing in business school, and some of it, some of them work some of the time, and some of them are interesting and useful but incorrect. The goals work, I completely agree. Now, we have to also be careful, the ability to set goals is a full leadership capability, really important, the ability to unset goals is just as important, just as crucial.

[56:16] Other things that, once I’ve set the intent of the goal…you know, many years ago, I can still hold onto that for a long, long time, and occasionally it’s led me to sort of have a misjudgment. Now, because I’m just trying to still do this thing that I really wanted at some previous time, so the ability to know consciously, what are all of the existing goals that I have set in my own mind? They might not be on a piece of paper, that’s the goal, in fact, is to get them, all of these so that you can look at them. But what are all the things that I should do, you want to do? You have to believe “I have to do,” because one time I said the intent, that’s what he really meant when he said, the professor, is a theory that works almost too well in some circumstances. So you have to learn how to master your goals and not let your goals master you.

[57:31] I love the analogy, absolutely. I’ve got a question on this is, we get into the nitty-gritty of people taking action on this, altering the decision process in their lives. You have a story you tell, or an analogy that you use, in the book of an essentialist approach to the closet, and which inspired me to clean mine out, I thought about it this morning, I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it. Here’s what you say: instead of asking is there a chance I will wear this someday in the future, ask: “Do I love this, do I look great in this, and do I wear this often?” And I relate to the former statement as well, and then you go on in the book and you talk about taking those decisions…and you have a couple examples that you use, and putting them to an extreme test. And that paradigm I feel like is very…it’s tangible. I can take that. So. you give us a couple examples of taking that extreme test into our day-to-day family lives, professional lives, and putting the question to an extreme test. Again, back to your closet. “Is there a chance I will wear this someday in the future?” That’s not an extreme test, but do I love this: “Do I look great in this? Do I often…” Those are extreme questions.

[58:56] Yes, I do use the word “extreme” in the book. They’re not really very extreme, as I hear you repeat them back to me. As I reflect on them now, I think they’re just sensible. I think that people probably ought to begin by saying< “What criteria am I currently using to pursue something?” And, honestly, I think for a lot of people, listening criteria that they use will be something like, could this thing be good, could it do something good for someone somewhere, would it be a good thing at all? And if it’s at all good then they feel not only justified in doing what they feel they ought to do, I mean, this is a good thing. “You know, that’s a good option, so I should do it.” It’s good, but the problem is this: the number of good things were so massively out-numbered. It’s time results, and you…we have…it cannot be the right question. The question is this, my highest point of contribution. So how do we figure this out? And I think that one structure that I found helpful is to come up with an essential intent in the book. I talk about that being a sort of one single goal so the next two or three, yes. Doesn’t mean you can’t have more goals, that you just only have a single essential intent. But now I think, given our conversation today, is consistent with what we talked about, is what’s the essential intent for one hundred years, what’s a one hundred year essential intent.

[1:03:34] I want to wrap us on something that feels important to me. Greg, there’s a saying you’ve probably heard, it’s always stuck with me, that says: Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people. And I always see the People magazine in the grocery store and that feels very small to me. And I really feel like, in this, the perspective that I keep getting, that I’m embracing, is you saying you elevate the status of the essentialist and call us to a higher place of living and success in our decision making, in our lifestyle, that in being discerning with our decisions, our commitments, if we’re not discerning we are choosing a lower road that is not going to lead to anything of significance, and in taking the higher road we should have pride in this. I guess what I’m grasping for…that it’s a more orderable way to live, yes?

[1:04:35] Yes, I think so. I think it’s that you know it’s a part of discernment. And, you know, even from an even deeper faith point of view, it’s relevant. Because it’s for those who are listening to — it’s, you know, a deeper level of thinking about this is a disciple pursuit of mass. And, in fact, whatever that somebody’s religious orientation is, every major religion, think of this, every — the fount of every major religion was a sensuous in an extreme form.

[1:11:41] That is powerful, Greg. this is a powerful message that we all need to hear and embrace, and I’m incredibly grateful for you taking the time today. And I’m really interested in our next part two interview, that folks can hear after this, on your daily habits, and these small, at the small things you talked about that you’re doing to help live this out in your life. Thank you immensely; thanks for sharing your heart, and this message that is going to impact. When I stop this interview and walk out my door, the decisions that I make, I’m excited I’m a little daunted, and I’m excited because I feel a higher calling, so thank you.