Book Notes: Essentialism by Greg McKeown


I read a lot of business and strategy books. They often introduce me to different ideas or even simple solutions to issues I have while operating companies or trying to optimize my work and life. Some are pure business books, some are management books, some sales books. The subject varies but they all have an element of challenging the accepted path and have some form of advice on how to be better. I have a mixed relationship with this category of books.

On one hand I love the unlikely results, the challenge to accepted concepts and the applicable advice they offer. On the other hand, once I’ve grasped the key concepts, I find the authors tend to drone on and on about their subject. Sales books do this to an extreme. They may offer incredible sales tips, but in order to get those you need to read about how amazing the author is over and over again. I suspect it’s because their main audience, sales professionals, eat up the braggadocio and will only keep reading if they think the author is a sales master.

This style of writing in business books often means I will understand the key concept but will forget most of the interesting and practical advice the book has to offer. For this reason, I decided that for each business book I read I will write a short summary of the key concept as well as my key takeaways from reading it. These notes are geared toward myself and what I can integrate into my life and business. This means that I might overlook even the most interesting advice in the book if it’s already a part of my process, or if it simply wouldn’t apply.

I am sharing my notes, nonetheless, for anyone who may have read the book and wants to remember some key points, or simply wants to see some excerpts from the book, or is interested in what I liked about it.

Preface ends

Title: Essentialism: The disciplined Pursuit of Less

Author: Greg McKeown

Personal Scoring: 7/10

Advice Importance 8/10

Advice Applicability 7/10

Droning on and on: 5/10 (lower is better!)

Key Concepts

The book centers around the idea of “less, but better.” From the macro decision in life, like career choices, to day-to-day choices on how to spend your time, the author argues that we should do fewer things but do them better. We should not run after every opportunity, nor say yes to every commitment. He argues that the unbridled pursuit of everything makes you a slave to other people’s wishes. You stop focusing and working on what you like most or are best at to pursue whatever opportunity comes knocking, regardless of its suitability or likely outcome. He argues, correctly I think, that you should be fiendishly defending your time and choosing how you want to spend it.

He argues that we now live in world of abundance rather than scarcity, and as such we need to learn how and when to say no. How to pursue only what we really want and ignore the rest. Do only what is best – everything else is distraction. If you don’t really like a social event, don’t go just because of “fomo”. If your closet is full of clothes, just keep your favorite things and throw the rest out.

Key criticisms

Firstly, McKeown seems to be swimming in opportunities that come knocking on his door. He is obviously successful in his field, and I’m sure he would argue that is because he embodies his ideals of essentialism. However, I reckon that most people do not have to barricade their door and inbox against a relentless onslaught of opportunities. I myself, having been moderately successful, have to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities.

Secondly, most of McKeown’s advice works best if you are self-employed, or a manager, or generally can control your agenda. Some of his advice will straight-up get you fired as an employee. While this point is never explicitly addressed, the book often allude to it: “The employee had been there for so many years he/she had no chance of getting fired,” or “Even though she could have gotten fired, actually her manager saw the error of his way and converted to essentialism.”

My Key Takeaways

  • Being an “essentialist” does not mean looking at fewer opportunities. On the contrary, it actually means exploring more options, but ultimately choosing to pursue a lot fewer of them.
  • The problem of ‘straddling.’ When as a person or a company you try to do everything, but ultimately do everything poorly. Or worse, people do not recognize what you do. The example he gives is how Southwest Airlines basically went full low-cost carrier without any concessions. Then Continental tried to replicate their success while also keeping their mid-market position at the same time and failed.
    • This reminds me of my experience with Home61, where we tried to do a little bit of everything at the same time. Because the Real Estate category is huge, we could do everything: buying, selling, commercial, lead gen. For a while we were unfocused, and it was difficult.
    • The issue with startups is that your product-market fit is rarely obvious. In which case, do you try 10 things at once and see what sticks? Or do you try 10 things one after the other but upping the quality of each individual test? The book seems to suggest doing the latter. I am not sure.
  • In chapter 6 McKeown talks about understanding the “essence” of things rather than being bogged down by details. I think that is interesting in a number of ways.
    • For abusiness to launch, what is the overarching premise? What are the key reasons it will work? Assuming you can execute perfectly, why is this the best opportunity for you? We should understand the consequences of a fact or a moment (like a recession), rather than worry about the details. For example, think about what effect the coronavirus will have on the long term rather than looking at the play-by-play details in the news reports.
    • For personal relationships, don’t worry so much about what is being said in a fight, but think about why you are having a fight in the first place. Understand the motivation of the person rather than their approach.
  • Perhaps the most interesting concept in the book is the power of “extreme criteria”. That is, applying highly selective criteria in your decision-making. It’s either, Hell yeah! or, No way! This applies very well for selecting business opportunities and for HR matters.
    • I have often agreed to jump on project I was only mildly interested in, and as a result I have not delivered or did a poor job of it.
    • In my experience, 9 times out of 10 if I had a doubt about someone during the hiring process, that person did not work out or under-performed for the exact reason that was worrying me. In other words, I should have applied more extreme criteria: it’s better to be one person short than to be stuck with a low performer.
  • Clarity of goals and roles. If the mission is not crystal clear, people in doubt will be less creative and hard working.
    • For years a key practice of mine has been to leave project descriptions ambiguous to see if someone will come up with something ingenious or unexpected. This is counterproductive.  
    • Furthermore, clear goals and responsibilities motivate people a lot more than a motivational speech.
  • Mission statements. It is less about wordsmithing and more about clarity. To build a good mission statement you must make sure it answers the question: How do we know we succeeded? This will create a clear mission statement for everyone in your company. The book offers practical advice here. I will simply paste what it says.
    • Mission statement should NOT:
      • be vague or general (bland words like leadership, teamwork, etc.)
      • be a concrete objective that is not inspiring
      • provide no guiding principle on how to implement values
    • Bad example: “Profitable growth though superior customer service, innovation, quality and commitment.”
    • Mission statement SHOULD:
      • be concrete and inspirational
      • have an intent that is meaningful and memorable
      • make a big decision that eliminates thousands of smaller ones
    • Good example: “To get everyone in the UK online by the end of 2012.”
  • McKeown gives the example of Jack Dorsey, who chooses only to focus on one or two ideas that his team provide him at any given time. He is flooded with a lot of ideas or projects from his team, but he feels his job is to pick only the essential ones. The author pushes it further: that if the idea/project does not add to the company, even if it is a pet project, you must kill it. “Kill your darlings,” is what Stephen King said about editing out characters or threads that do not add to the story. The principle applies in business as well.
  • Focusing on the spirit of a project rather than the details. The example the book gives is from Michael Khan, chief film editor for Steven Spielberg. He does not do precisely what Spielberg tells him to do, but rather what he thinks Spielberg really wants.
    • This is something I want to instill in my colleagues. Often when I give a briefing, I get no questions, ideas or push-back. They do what I say to the letter, which means I really need to give extremely detailed briefs. It is very hard to do it on every project. I would rather have my peers ask, prod, and clarify while we are doing the brief of the task.
  • McKeown then touches on a current subject of mine: preparation vs. execution. He says the more prepared you are, the easier everything gets. Basically, save time by preparing your quarter, your week, your day for it to be most productive, but also be done much faster. And leave some slack in your plan for when something inevitable happens. He applies this to work but also for cash reserves of companies and personal finances.
    • I particularly liked the example he gave when he was doing his post graduate degree. He took his syllabus and planned out exactly what he would do and when, preparing huge deliverables bit by bit, weeks and months in advance.
    • This is quite similar to habit forming and programming. When you plan out what you will be doing and when, you then run on auto pilot and the execution become seamless. It is not dissimilar to how I know a day ahead of time what manual work (which I hate) I will do the next day.
  • With regard to motivation, the book explains that progress is the most effective motivation to humans.
    • Celebrating small incremental progress as a win is paramount for fundamental changes. (see the title to the blog!)
    • “Friday wins” we did at Home61 worked really well.
    • Also, steadiness and repetition of progress is a huge weapon. Better to run a little bit everyday than do huge runs ones in a while.
  • McKeown adds, of the power of perception in motivation, “There is something powerful about visibly seeing progress towards a goal.”
    • This is very true. At Home61, people loved when we added our top deals and number of closings on the wall. This should also be applied to projects. There should be a wall that shows what are the top projects, who is responsible for what, and what stage it is in.
    • Trello is useful for remote working but not transparent enough. The key developments should be physically visible. Go, Post-Its!
  • There is an entire chapter on building good habits and routines. This goes hand in hand with the preparation point above.
    • I liked the quote: “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.”
    • I also liked the example of Michael Phelps’ routine, where each step is deliberate, practiced and repeated.
    • I liked that the race was just a part of the routine. It continued after the race was over, thus deflating the stress associated with the race. I will surely apply this to my tennis practice and matches.
  • In the same chapter on routines, he talks about a company that did a ritualized Monday meeting of three hours. Everyone had to attend – no travel, no ifs, no buts.
    • I like the ritual of it, and I like the bonds you create by starting the week together. But I’ve also experienced meetings where it was so boring that for most of the people it was a chore to attend.
    • I wonder if for my next company we might do a Monday breakfast that everyone needs to attend, a way to catch up on the weekend and build bonds. I am still undecided on this.
  • The last chapter is about leadership and held the most interest for me of the entire book.
    • It recaps how clarity of task and purpose unify people and teams.
    • It recaps that one wrong hire is far costlier than being one person short.
    • It recaps that people on a project should know who is responsible for what.
    • Having clarity of responsibility also adds the ability to easily follow up on the key task and celebrate the small wins achieved.

Overall, I am happy to have read “Essentialism.” It helped articulate some concepts I was working on and introduced some new ones to me. I will review these notes when I write the handbook of my next company, to make sure I didn’t miss any key concepts that I like. Overall, I would recommend this book mostly to people who feel they are overworked but do not feel they’re making progress, or people who struggle with work/life balance, and feel they never have the time for anything.

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