Newsletter 593 – Should You Become an Essentialist?

cover.essentialism-230x345There are two books in my mind that I am passionate about and itching to write. One is roughly half finished. So which one should be done first? Several friends that I don’t want to disappoint, are urging me to go in different directions. Experience has taught me that good writing (including the writing of reports, term papers, and even newsletters) usually takes a lot longer than we expect. Even so I’ve concluded that I don’t need to chose which book to do. I can do both.

Not a good idea, suggests Greg McKeown’s thought-provoking and very practical new book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. McKeown defines the nonessentialist as a person who tries to do everything, acquire as much as possible, and please everybody. Often these people spend unwisely, never throw anything away, rarely say “no,” have a short-term perspective, and live under constant pressure. They feel overworked but underutilized, too often busy but not productive. “When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose to focus our energies and time, other people will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.” Sound familiar?

In contrast, essentialists learn to be selective in how they spend their time and money. They assume that “less is better,” that they can’t do it all or let others set their life agendas, that they need not accept every invitation or appeal to get involved. McKeown shows how even people with high-maintenance children, difficult bosses, demanding careers and inner insecurities can make wiser choices and choose to be different. At times the book may be a little idealistic and not applicable to everybody but the author intersperses questions that we all might ask ourselves or our clients even when life is mostly about survival. Examples:

  • Is what I am doing or asked to do the most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?
  • What do I feel deeply inspired by?
  • What am I particularly talented at?
  • Of all that is before me, what has potential to meet the most significant need in this world?
  • If I could only do one thing right now what would it be?

As some of you know, every year I pick the most influential book of those I’ve read since January 1. Essentialism is my pick for 2014. Any comments?


  1. Thanks, Gary. I believe you have been a model of practicing “essentialism”. You continue to inspire me to be all the more focused on being and doing what matters most.


  2. Essentialists write from a position of financial security or of a dependable income. They can allow themselves to say no to others’ demands, for they have no need to earn a living this month. Or have I missed something, again?


    1. Galen, we all do things that we are not passionate about nor gifted in. Yet, we all have some degree of choice. Choice in how we do our work. Choice in what we do outside our job. Choice in our mindset. Choice to grow, step out, take risk.

      I do not say no as much as I’d like to. Yet, if I didn’t say no at all I wouldn’t be where I am now. Companies are looking for people who are passionate about the work they need done. If you’re the right person for that job, then that’s a degree of essentialism for you. If it’s not the right job, then getting clear on your passion can be the first step toward moving toward that “right” job.

      It may just be that financial security comes from a growing degree of essentialism, rather than the other way around.


      1. Galen and Keith, I appreciated your comments. Galen you usually raise some fresh ideas or challenges about what I write. That can be helpful. But do you agree with Keith that we all have some degree of choice. His last sentence is great: It may just be that financial security comes from a growing degree of essentialism, rather than the other way around.

  3. I also found Essentialism a helpful and inspiring read. Clarity of purpose and focus on working as much as possible from giftedness and calling are my top challenges. These are also the top challenges of the leaders I coach. It’s so difficult to let go of all the little things that eat at my productivity and focus. There’s some something seductive about keeping all my options open and having my fingers in a dozen barely-related projects. Yet, the more I focus and do what I’m truly gifted in, the more impact I see happen.


    1. Hey Keith. What a great comment. You are one of my hero-coaches, a guy who has competence, sensitivity, and a deep commitment to Christ. You are one of the few people I know who recognizes that coaching is very cultural and can’t be applied in the same way from one culture to another.

      I liked the Essentialism book for the same reasons you did. It is a wakeup call, especially for guys like me who try to do everything.


  4. About your two books, Gary. You can write them both at once but not on the same day. Take one week to work on the first book, a few days off, and then write on the 2nd book. If you have a hot streak going write on that book for 2 weeks. That is, you are not locked in on your “tight schedule.” I would be willing to buy one of each. Do you remember the twin study that we were working on at Bethel? Well, those little twins are now over fifty and have their own wives and bunches of kids. One is a Marine training for the band and another is finishing a MA in Kinesiology. Wow, does time fly. Keep writing, my friend, many will be blessed with your books and articles.
    Bruce McLeland


    1. Bruce, thanks so much for your note. How do my former students get to the place where they have kids over 50. Our little girls are now 46 and 48 (and, of course I am still 30 – plus little).

      I read your message to Julie who at 76 is still four years younger than me. She said “You need to keep that!” The book writing needs to be picked up again. Apart from here I will tell you about the half done book. I have your email address now. For several months we have been in the midst of a move. That has pulled at my attention. The Essentialism book has helped me get back on target.


  5. “Getting used to the idea of ‘less but better’ may prove harder than it sounds, especially when we have been rewarded in the past for doing more…and more and more. Yet at a certain point, more effort causes our progress to plateau and even stall. It’s true that the idea of a direct correlation between results and effort is appealing. It seems fair. Yet research across many fields paints a very different picture.” (p.43)

    “The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away–it can only be forgotten.” (p. 36)

    The book has been very helpful and affirming. I continue to refer to it often. It’s not a book about downsizing. It’s a book about learning to be true to ourselves and being intentional about our choices and taking responsibility for them on all levels.


    1. I love this Pam. I like reading a book that I can spot quotations worth pulling out and pondering. This book had lots of those as you imply here. Be sure to scroll down and read Keith Webb’s post below, in response to the perspective from Galen Currah.


    1. Hey Denise, of course you are right. And, of course you are one of those super-coaches that I have come to know well. We need to connect across the border so I can get an update of how things are progressing for you in “my home and native land!” We need another conversation one of these days for an update.


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