October 16

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

In this interview, Greg Mckeown discusses essentialism and The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less

  • Greg’s thoughts of “Anything is possible for anybody”
  • Finding his Purpose after Law School
  • Greg’s views on situations like the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Undoing Operating Systems in organizations
  • Greg’s Rule – Essentialism
  • Keeping boundaries in relationships

The first step in finding your purpose and passion is to ask yourself, “Do I want all of the downsides that go with the particular upsides?” This is a liberating place to begin and pushes past the unhelpful thinking.

Instead, you should say, “What was I born to do?” According to Greg McKeown, this is the essential path, and what it means to be an Essentialist.

Let’s dive right in!

Greg’s Entrepreneurial Inspiration


Greg’s father was an entrepreneur, he ran a carpet and upholstery business. His father’s path influenced Greg towards entrepreneurship at a very young age.

He started his first business when he was 10 – washing cars in Leeds, England, which was quite profitable.

This experience showed him that the effort and the reward are not linearly aligned. Throughout his path over the years, Greg often looked back to his first business to help guide him through complex situations, often proving useful in the aid of his clients.

The difference between The US and UK – Entrepreneurship

One aspect that makes the US stand out more than England is having the laminate stand, i.e. in the US, the community supports, values, and recognizes entrepreneurs.

In the UK, Greg has not found anyone that is openly against entrepreneurship, but instead they ask, “Why would you want to do that?” This highlights the assumptions of people doing things differently.

England has over 1,000 years of uninterrupted freedom, hence, stability has a high value. When Greg was younger, it was important to be able to have the freedom to challenge how it was done, and how it had to be done differently in the future.

Greg faults the traditional educational system despite the deeper desire to do things differently, in what he perceives to be more efficient.

His father made him go to law school to help broaden his opportunities, which was a recommended traditional path. Even though getting into law school was an achievement in Greg’s mind, he did not feel the sense of mission or alignment within it.

After being acquainted with some friends and a mentor in the US, Greg thought of leading a new, different life there. And that’s exactly what he did.

You can always choose the path that you were not on before. After he met with his mentor, he brainstormed ideas on what he would do if he lived in the US and realized that Law School was not on the list. This was the key moment for him.

Thoughts on “Anything is possible for anybody”

Greg does not think that everyone can do everything. This is an important principle in creating a counter way to the false narrative of “Anything is possible.” He thinks that one can undeniably achieve extraordinary things, but certainly not everything.

Instead of trying to do everything for everyone, you need to find out your unique purpose.

Life is all about figuring out your path and purpose, what suits you, and what doesn’t. Essentially it’s a path of elimination to reach our final destination that’s what makes things easier in terms of finding one’s purpose.

Greg’s view on Srinivas’ conversation with Justine Musk on the Cost of Accomplishments

Next time you feel jealous of somebody, ask yourself if you want the full trade-off – exchange everything of yours for theirs. This is not to aid the excuse of faltering off one’s mission, but to help distinguish “hero-worshipping.”

When Greg’s book was published, he saw that many of his colleagues had already started to develop their second books, along with other extensions like coaching sessions. This of course made him falter and envy those same opportunities. But after some thought, Greg realized that his trade-offs were better suited for him, keeping him honest to this day.

Finding his Purpose after Law School

According to Greg, it might be logically true that people can find new paths, but emotionally, it’s far from it. This was even true for Greg’s life, he was on a different continent, talking to someone who gave him an outside perspective to feel emotionally possible.

People are pulled to do things that seem essential, but the counterweight is the fear reaction in their brains when they try to make a big change.

Greg encourages people to go small, and simple. Start with a chance you can't fail in, take one minute a day to research something that you want to do, and which career it would lead to. You can then conduct a tiny experiment on something that matters to you while letting it build forcefully over time.

Thoughts on risk-taking and it’s glorification in society

As a society, people tend to glorify “risk-taking”, and people who take incremental approaches do not get the same glorification. However, taking a deeper look into their approach the path to success becomes clearer.

Greg agrees that this has completely been true for him. Even when he quit Law School, it was a dramatic decision but it was one he never regretted. For him, this decision was well thought of, overtime, and not a decision that was made overnight.

Start planning for your purpose now, don’t wait for the perfect time while the years go by. For Greg, it was incremental before and after he quit Law School as he spent it thinking about his purpose. After, he went back to England and spent his summer reading, writing, and researching things.

The path towards his purpose was an adventure Greg loves Because it led to his current career. This is something that comes naturally and easy to you compared to how it is to other people. This is a close test to see what your unique and highest contribution is.

The future of the education system

Education systems were designed after the Industrial Revolution – educators applied industrialized thinking to the way a school worked. It is not just universities, but the entire formal education system is built on assumptions that are now invisible to us.

The separation of subjects was far less established before mass education. For example, Newton’s laws are not in traditional formal education.

The education system takes people through different subjects like a factory-based system, moving from one machine to another. None of this is close to how the learning in the world would take place.

What Greg wants his children and all his students to learn is to remove all non-essential clutter that gets in the way of the real work of life. He does not want his children to wait until their mid-20s or 30s to start asking the right questions, that would be a shame!

He wishes each student of his to find and fulfill the measure of their creation. It does not matter what they choose to be, but by finding their voice and putting it fourth in the world.

Situations like the COVID-19 pandemic

Not long ago, Greg and his family moved into a lovely community – their little piece of heaven on earth.

His daughter was a cheerful person as a kid, and as she grew into her teenage years, she started changing, growing into her “teenage” behavior. On one of their routine visits to the therapist, he noticed that his daughter did not respond properly to the basic reflex test.

He was asked to take his daughter to see the neurologist.

From that point onwards, her symptoms worsened daily – she could answer only one-word sentences with a slow moderating voice, the right side of her body responded slower than the left, it took two full minutes to write her name, hours to eat a meal.

The light that burned so bright in his daughter had dimmed and slowly started to go out entirely. She was hospitalized, and what made matters worse was that the doctors could not even offer the beginning of diagnosis. Even after visiting different doctors and conducting numerous tests, no one was able to identify what it was.

Greg and his wife had no choice but to just look at their daughter suffering over the months.

He mentions that in moments where everything is out of control, you only have two choices, the harder one where you take on the situation that is consuming you or, focuses on something you can do which might be very reduced items.

He realized that the best way for his daughter was not by exerting more pressure, but to not question themselves with answerable questions. What he did was to focus on essential and easy things by playing the piano with his daughter or going for walks, reading books, etc.

What Greg and his wife noticed was there was a magical force at play. They never felt overwhelmed, exhausted, nor did they burn out. It’s been two years since the incident and they have noticed amazing results.

He has watched his daughter wither in a shell and grow from it. Even though she has medical treatment, he believes that she will be completely healed. Currently, she has not only made up for lost time but is planning to graduate from high school as well.

Greg does not think for one moment that he would have enjoyed it or strived through it if he had done it the hard way.

Undoing Operating Systems in organizations

As people went from the Agrarian to the industrialization age, 90% of the jobs disappeared and were replaced, all while productivity was 50x’d as Peter Drucker stated.

Drucker said that the biggest challenge in the transition from the Industrial to Knowledge age is to remove all the old systems and create a new system that again increases productivity by 50x. Since the time he laid this down, no one has been able to achieve it, and we are still in transition.

Greg thinks that the forces are at play that will help achieve that mark inevitably. But as of right now, we still have all of the systems of structures and burdens of the way of doing things, where the asset was labor and machines.

Currently, it is not an efficient system anymore. The knowledge, the value, and the possibility is the person’s ability to create value, hence, “What is to be done?”, is the primary question.

Greg’s Rule – Essentialism

Greg thinks that essentialism can play an important role to help lubricate the transition from the industrialized age to the current high-value knowledge age. Essentialism is put across as a productivity idea, but Greg believes it’s a complete misrepresentation.

Traditional productivity is about getting things done as efficiently as possible, however, essentialism might be the first productivity book of the new age about getting the right things done.

The new age of what an essentialist can do is set their lives upright to create space to decide what matters. They can develop the skills to negotiate out of the unnecessary things. They can also build a new system to make things easy and more valuable.

This is the concept of what Essentialism is.

How Greg applies Essentialism to other parts of his life

Instead of getting lost in the middle of the endless possibilities one could be doing, you should use a strict rule.

In Greg’s own life, a couple of years ago, he came up with 3 rules to help make the right decisions on things as they came along – to agree or disagree.

Writing down rules will help you be more decisive. It’ll help bring yourself to say “yes” or “no” to certain things in your life. The process of coming up with rules is part of becoming an Essentialist.

David Allen, in a conversation with Greg on The Essentialism Podcast, states that according to recent research one is only capable of holding two things in mind at any given moment. Therefore, it’s important to clear one's mind.

The first time Greg let out everything that burdened his brain, he realized that there was an endless list of thoughts burdening his mind. During the entire process of decluttering, he constantly asked himself one question – “Is this essential?”

When one goes through a process to rid themselves of as many of the tasks as possible, they end up with a life where goals become possible.

One thing to keep in mind is the weight of saying yes to each task because each is a burden by themselves.

As with your mind, you start to look at it, not through a dark lens that lies to you and makes you believe that everything is equal. Essentialism is when you take off the lens to see clearly to help realize that not everything matters to you allowing you to move forward.

Keeping boundaries in relationships

Any conversation has to begin with boundaries as everything is a trade-off.

If you set any relationship without boundaries, you will be violated. At some point, there will be something that you feel like disagreeing with which hurts you, eventually resulting in a harmful relationship. This is the evitable trade-off when you had first said “yes” to everything that came your way.

Greg mentions that you are not choosing between keeping someone happy or causing a problem. If you try and live a boundaryless living, you will make somebody upset, with no benefits to yourself. In reality, the perfect optimal option does not exist.

The only possible and viable relationship will be one with healthy boundaries. Having boundaries, especially ones that protect the essential things, can be enormously valuable to live a life that matters.

Greg’s thoughts on what makes someone an Unmistakable Creative

The one thing Greg mentions is to be more of who you are.

For Greg, it is a spiritual and sacred idea that each person is truly unique, made for a purpose, designed to be unmistakable.

You should eliminate all unnecessary things and have the courage to accept that whatever you are left with is going to be special and meaningful.

That there is a set of things inside of you that you are drawn to and will allow you to play a meaningful part in the great narrative of life – the great human story.

Listen to the interview.

Before You Go

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