Discerning the trivial many from the vital few

Paul Nolan

Greg McKeown tells the story of evaluating the vision and mission statements of nonprofit organizations as part of a Stanford graduate-level business class on the strategic management of nonprofits. The class reviewed more than 100 statements and found that some of the most grandiose were actually the least inspiring. One mission statement, for example, was “to eliminate hunger in the world.” A noble concept, to be sure, but given that there were only five people in the organization, the mission may have been a slight stretch.

“Then out of the cluttered landscape of such loose idealism came a statement we all immediately understood and were inspired by,” McKeown says. “It was from a slightly unexpected place: the actor/social entrepreneur Brad Pitt, who, appalled by the lack of progress in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, had started an organization called ‘Make It Right’ with the essential intent ‘to build 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward.’

“That statement took the air out of the room,” McKeown continues. “The concreteness of the objective made it real. The realness made it inspiring. It answered the question: ‘How will we know when we have succeeded?’ ”

The vital few vs. the trivial many

McKeown, an affable Brit who left the notion of a legal career in England behind after one year in law school, eventually landed in Northern California and founded THIS Inc, a company whose mission is to assist people and companies to spend 80 percent of their time on “the vital few rather than the trivial many.” His book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” (Crown Business, 2014) is a clarion call for eliminating everything that is not essential in order to make the highest possible contribution toward the things that really matter.

Located in Menlo Park, Calif., THIS Inc. counts neighbors such as Adobe, Apple, Google, Facebook, Pixar, Salesforce.com and other Silicon Valley giants among its clients. The irony of working with such a roster of tech heavyweights — companies whose workers are renowned for swapping work/life balance for work/life blending — is not lost on McKeown.

“In the last 10 years, we have gone from being connected to being hyperconnected. That’s not a small change, it’s a sea change for the human condition,” McKeown says.

The problem of being overextended, and by default less productive, was part of the human condition long before tweets and email, McKeown adds. But he does feel that technology is a huge contributor to the pervasive myth among today’s professionals that if you just fit it all in, you can have everything you want in life.

“What do you get when you try that? You get people who are exhausted — who struggle to discern between what really matters and what doesn’t matter at all. Who react even more thoughtlessly to the next email, and the next Twitter update, and the next, and the next. To use Billy Joel’s phrase, technology didn’t start the fire. Technology can be an Essentialist’s friend. It’s a good servant, but a poor master.”

Idealism vs. reality

When we spoke with him in April, on the one-year anniversary of the publication of “Essentialism,” McKeown showed that he is both an idealist: “I really thoroughly believe that over time we will have a disproportionate impact for good in the world.” And a realist: “When I speak, people feel inspired. They are fully engaged. And here’s what I think happens afterwards: nothing.”

Essentialism demands that one fully commit. “It is not a way to do one more thing,” McKeown says. “It is a different way of doing everything.” It is a continuous battle against Nonessentialism.

He uses a diagram with two circles and arrows that represent the amount of effort exerted to show the difference between the way of the Essentialist and the way of the Nonessentialist. The same amount of energy is expended in both images. The circle with a number of short arrows (the Nonessentialist) shows “the unfulfilling experience of making a millimeter of progress in a million different directions.” The image with a single arrow shooting straight up depicts “the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most.”

“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life,” McKeown says. “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.”

Where and how to begin

McKeown concedes that one reason for inaction by individuals following one of his keynotes, or even after reading his book is the overwhelming dilemma of where to begin the path toward Essentialism. It can’t be done quickly and it can’t be done alone, he cautions.

“Becoming an Essentialist is a process, not an event. It starts with the individual, but the first act includes sending a text to someone else who is an aspiring Essentialist so you can
challenge each other. It’s just too hard to expect that the lone revolutionary — the cowboy — will be able to do this on his own.”

It helps if your immediate supervisor embraces Essentialism, but it’s not compulsory. “No matter who your boss is, you have enough control in your life that you can make choices,” McKeown says. Essentialism comes, in part, by embracing simple things such as sleep and play — what McKeown calls “protecting the asset.”

Essentialists start small and celebrate progress instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter. Let your momentum carry you toward the next win, McKeown implores. He points to research by psychologist Frederick Herzberg that revealed the two primary internal motivators for people are achievement and recognition for achievement.

More recently, Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile reviewed nearly 12,000 daily diary entries from over 200 professionals inside organizations as part of research on people’s wellbeing at work. Among her most important findings: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation and perceptions during the workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” Amabile explores her research in-depth in “The Progress Principle,” which is co-written by her psychology professor husband Steven J. Kramer.

It is important for budding Essentialists to not beat themselves up for missteps. “Of course we’re going to get it wrong. In this environment, how could we possibly expect anything else of ourselves?” McKeown says.

His year since the book was published has been entirely focused on one question: What is the best way to become an Essentialist? In August, he plans to convene in Napa Valley with a group of high-achieving CEOs for one week and a group of up-and-comers for a second week to answer that question.

“Creating an Essential intent is hard. It takes courage, insight and foresight to see which activities and efforts will add up to your single highest point of contributions,” McKeown says. “It takes asking tough questions, making real trade-offs, and exercising serious disciplines to cut out the competing priorities that distract us from our true intention. Yet it is worth the effort because only with real clarity of purpose can people, teams and organizations fully mobilize and achieve something truly excellent.”  

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