I’ve been writing about the value of sustainability, simplicity and minimalism for over six years. Because it’s a big part of living SMART, I’m always on the lookout for ways to introduce new people to the idea and explain the value and incredible advantages that such a perspective offers. Maybe that is why I synchronistically stumbled across the word “essentialism” during a recent Internet surf about how to create more meaning and purpose in a person’s life. Author Greg McKeown uses it frequently in his best selling book, Essentialism—The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. And after reading the book, it’s possible that Essentialism just might be a new and better way of describing what so many of us seek when pursuing minimalism or a simple life.
So what is Essentialism? Simply put, it is the identification, and then the continual choice, of living only what is essential. Similar to those who claim to live a minimalist or life of simplicity, Essentialism tilts the saying, “less is more” to the statement “less is better.” In fact, McKeown claims that the relentless and disciplined pursuit of less leads to a life of meaning filled with what really matters.
McKeown learned much of this approach through his own practice of wanting to make better and more meaningful choices in his own life. The pursuit of it led him to drop out of law school knowing that lifestyle would not make him happy. He then found himself doing graduate work at Stanford and working as a business consultant. Still like most of us, he found he was slipping into a life of expectations and pressure, rather than the meaning and purpose he craved. Only after he left his wife and hours-old baby in the hospital to get to a business meeting where nothing much important happened, did he resolve to come up with a way to make better choices. He describes that way as living life as an Essentialist.
Similar in many ways to those who practice a minimal lifestyle, there are a number of important elements. Here are some of the most insightful statements made about Essentialism by Greg McKeown throughout the book.
* “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” As we all know, those we work for or with, our family and friends, the media and even our culture are constantly doing their best to tell us how we should be living and how we should be doing it. Until we take the time to claim and prioritize it for ourselves we will always be tied to others expectations.
* Continually ask yourself, “Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?” It doesn’t matter whether you are at work or at play, asking yourself this question zeros in on what is most important in the moment. If it isn’t important to you, for whatever reasons you use to qualify it, then stop doing it and redirect your focus to what matters.
* “The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default.” Most people live their lives based upon what is happening to them. They react to situations good and bad, and then wonder why they can never get out in front of a situation for long enough to turn things around. Instead, the Essentialist sets his or her focus on what is most important in any given moment and then acts accordingly. Then, even if unexpected circumstances attempt to throw them off balance, they return quickly and easily to their “design.”
* “We can’t have it or do it all.” Most of us believe and wish this were true. We would really like to believe that we can do and have it all. But McKeown admits that even thinking that we can cuts us off and distracts us from experiencing and having a few highly desirable choices and experiences. Instead McKeown believes it is critical that we first clarify and then make trade-offs in order to pursue what is most important to us.
* “Don’t be tricked by the trivial.” As a great example McKeown says that the cell phone constantly, “…tricks you with the trivial; it fools you into thinking that news and updates from the virtual world are more important than what’s right in from of you in the actual world right now.” Of course the cell phone isn’t the only thing that tricks us. Unfortunately, whether we are home with our family or busy at work we are constantly being offered distractions. Instead McKeown reminds us that focusing on the essential few ideas right in front of us, is always more rewarding that the trivial many attempting to distract us.
* “Say no to the nonessentials so we can say yes to the things that really matter.” McKeown points out that most of us end up saying yes to far too much and end up sacrificing our time and energy on things that don’t really improve the quality of our life. He believes we do it because of social pressure—either from those we like and love, or from work situations. An Essentialist learns to be courageous enough to say no firmly, resolutely and gracefully so that he or she can say “yes” to those things that are truly important.
While there are actually dozens of more interesting and inspiring statements and insights to the book, these are those that stuck out as being most helpful. Clearly, as a business consultant McKeown approaches the subject from a workplace perspective, but each and every tip is applicable to the way we all run our lives. As he says, “In the same way that our closets get cluttered as clothes we never wear accumulate, so do our lives get cluttered as well-intended commitments and activities we’ve said yes to pile up.” Clutter is clutter whether it is in our closets at home or at our work.
Minimalism or simple living has never just been about sacrificing or getting rid of stuff. Like Essentialism, the pursuit of simplicity has always been arriving at a deep understanding of what leads to a happy and meaningful life. McKeown says, “In many ways, to live as an Essentialist in our too-many-things-all-the-time society is an act of quiet revolution. Is it better than minimalism or a simple life? You decide. But regardless of what you call it, we think it is SMART to pursue less so we can become more.