4 More Lessons from Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Essentialism is the book I most often find myself recommending to others. I am an Essentialism evangelist. It is a key lesson for organizations and individuals in my work. It is a key to mindful leadership. It is a lesson as relevant today as it was for Thoreau. Essentialism is an idea I think about and work on each and every day.

I recently listened to McKeown discuss Essentialism with Tim Ferriss on this podcast. It was a nice refresher, reminder, and reinforcer. I also learned four new lessons related to Essentialism.

1. Let Other People Keep Their Problems.

For many leaders taking on other people’s problems is tempting. Many leaders even think taking on other people’s problems is their job. Good leaders are able to help others solve their own problems without taking them on and enabling. Here is a quick 4 step process for being helpful, letting people keep their problems, and not enabling adapted from Love and Logic.

  1. Listen carefully to the problem and express empathy.
    “Wow. It sounds like you’re having a hard time with John. That can be rough.”
  2. Ask if they want help with their problem.
    “Would you like some help?” Some times people just want to be heard and do not want your input.
  3. Brainstorm some possible solutions.
    “What are a couple of things you might try?” If they ask you for solutions, mention that you’ll offer yours after you hear two of theirs. Make sure yours are a bit silly. “Well, I guess you could just cut John out of your life entirely, but given that he is your supervisor that’s probably not going to work. What’s another solution you have?” This keeps the real possible solutions all their ideas, which means they own them and are more committed to making a solution they choose work.
  4. Sincerely wish them good luck and ask for an update.
    “Good luck with this. Please, let me know how it works out.” This conclusion is key. It communicates to them that they still have the problem, but you are supportive and hopeful.

2. We think our pressures to do more are external, but the hardest part of practicing Essentialism is internal.

Expectations from bosses, family members, friends, and more can be challenging to navigate. We can often feel stuck without much control given all these external expectations. However, McKeown points out that in reality the most difficult part of putting Essentialism into practice is doing our own inner work. How do we help navigate our own Inner Critic? How do we make sure we aren’t “shoulding on ourselves”? How do we believe we are good enough and not constantly hustling for our worthiness? Learning how to handle these challenges (rather than them handling you) are some of the most powerful tools my coaching clients develop for themselves.

3. Don’t over-correct for negative feedback.

Perfectionism leads us to aspire to no negative feedback. However, this desire for no negative feedback can lead to average at best and boring and bland at worst. Excellence aspires to make a transformative contribution and if it doesn’t work for everyone, that’s OK. Take the feedback, consider it, apply where it can help you improve, but don’t over-correct for the negative feedback and take away something that really has value to many because it didn’t work for everyone.

4. Quarterly Off-Site Retreats

Just like an executive leadership team would take regular retreats to step back from the day to day and see the big picture, McKeown recommends quarterly (every 3 months) off-site retreats to get clear about what really matters and take steps to align the day to day actions with your big priorities. Some suggestions:

  1. Off-site. Get out of the office, out of the house, and out of town. If you can get into nature and limit your connectivity, that’s a huge help in getting out of the day to day and really considering the big picture. I imagine a cabin in the woods or on a lake.
  2. Have a partner/guide to ask big questions, suggest activities, and help you think. This could be a coach, a good friend, a partner, or a small group of individuals. The key here is that you believe that this person(s) is unequivocally on your side and that they will not restrain your thinking and possibilities.
  3. Think big picture. Think about your whole life, not just work. What would you like people to say at your retirement dinner? What would you like people to say at your funeral? What would you like your great grandkids (who you may never meet) to say about you? What legacy would you like to leave? What impact on the world could you have after you are gone?

Want to work more closely with Keith?

Leaders and organizations turn to Keith as an authentic educator, trusted leader, and unconventional scholar helping them advance leadership, learning, and equity.