Opening with a deeply personal story of near-regret, one which brought author Greg McKeown to question, obsess, and quest after an “essentialist” transformation, his self-help book titled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, is written to empower readers to perform to their fullest potential at their highest levels of contribution to the benefit of their families and careers.

If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking McKeown’s self-help mission seems lofty, impossible and perhaps too good to be true, I was right there with you. To be perfectly transparent, I had picked up a copy of McKeown’s book as the marker-scribbled cover art intrigued me and because it said “New York Times Bestseller” printed on its cover. If it’s a bestseller, there must be a reason for it, I thought. The literary consumptive masses aren’t often wrong. 

After reading the book and examining the nuggets of helpfulness I bookmarked along the way, I realized that many of the concepts shared in this book aren’t all that outlandish. They seemed reasonably researched (given the citations in the back of the book) and the concepts could be applied to nearly anyone’s life. The book shares many corporate business examples around productivity and some notes and suggestions that might be best tailored to leadership positions, but if you, like me, are not currently working in the corporate business world and are not in a supervisory position, there are still relevant take-aways and life application concepts. 

McKeown shares a story about a class with a journalism assignment. Students were asked to write a lead to a story by pairing down a large volume of facts to just the most essential bits of information; a succinct sentence or two that gave the who, why, what, where and when to readers. As hard as the students tried, all of them failed the assignment. The students were all sharing facts, but everyone failed at figuring out the point of the exercise, which was to explore the informational bits and to understand the relationships and connections between them. The value journalists bring, I learned, is not simply in the relay of information. Their value is in discovering what really matters to people. If you have ever felt lost in and overwhelmed by information and are unable to discern the important from the unimportant or have even felt unsure as to what to make of it all, the “look” chapter of this book might be for you. Knowing that we can’t possibly pay attention to everything, McKeown shares ways of tapping into our “inner journalist”.  He encourages us to listen for meaning while still listening for headline information and to also read between the lines of what is not being explicitly stated. My take-away is, when we are bombarded by information, we need to seek what really matters.

Another chapter goes in-depth on the power of a graceful “no”. If you have ever struggled with saying no or even uncommitting to something you  previously committed to, this might be a valuable chapter to read.  In this chapter, McKeown challenges us to use new questions to understand the value of a commitment. He addresses the common pitfalls of sunk-cost bias, the endowment effect, the fear of waste, and status quo bias. I had many moments of revelation in reading this particular chapter, parts of which helped me to understand my reluctance to decline a commitment and the costs in doing so. I think that reading this chapter gave me permission to let go of some of the initial guilt I am faced with when having to say “no” by counterbalancing it with the overall benefit of what can happen when I do say no. I gathered from this, that by not saying no when I should have been saying no, I may be (even unintentionally) saying yes, which was not being true to myself and the results of which are awkwardness, discomfort, and regret. “Yes” decisions that we waffle upon cost us dearly if misaligned with our purpose.

Scattered throughout the book are some bolded statements, set apart from the text, that highlight key thoughts. The statements might serve as good mantras or reminders in life. Here’s an example of a few that spoke to me:

  • If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
  • We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them.
  • If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.

So, are McKeown’s ideas pie-in-the-sky optimistic and impractical? Somewhat. Maybe. But I think his suggestions to take back the control of our own choices instead of letting others determine the outcome, to eliminate the trivial, to celebrate the important, and to lead meaningful lives, are enough in themselves to recommend the book. If we were to wholly buy into “the essentialist life” and choose to live out the systematic disciplines shared in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, identifying what really matters and investing our time and energy into these essential areas while living a purpose-filled life, we wouldn’t have much to lose. We would live our lives focusing on what really matters so that years from now we can look back on the passing of this time with no regrets.

By Kerry Tay McLean, Ombuds Program Administrator
University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office