Notes on Essentialism
Less but better
Essentialism is the relentless pursuit of removing all but a few vital activities from your life. It’s about letting go of the many good things you could be doing any given day and instead focus on the few great things you should be doing to reach your full potential. Essentialism exchanges quantity for quality.
In systems speak, an essential strategy is the process of identifying the key leverage points and focusing of all your time, energy and resources solely on them.
A little note before we begin: Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, is by far the best book I read in 2022. It’s a paradigm shift in our Western approach to work, replacing sterile efficiency with prolific effectiveness. It’s a must-read for anyone who feels overwhelmed, underutilized or out of control in their professional life. I hope this short series of notes will entice you to give the book a read or a listen.
The Essentialist discipline occurs in three phases: exploration, elimination and execution. In this series, we’ll explore each of these phases and give you helpful tips on how you can integrate Essentialism into your life.
As an introduction, let’s talk about essentialism and, its counterpart, abundance.
Excessive abundance, scarce essence
The pursuit of the essential is about letting go of abundance. Abundance is the child of the growth paradigm. If growth is always good, then abundance (as the remainder of what has grown) is always good too. However, as we’ve known for a while, there are limits to growth. There are also limits to abundance; many of them.
Essentialism dismisses an outdated pipe dream of perpetual growth (itself fueled by oil pipelines). In its place, essentialism welcomes the sobering reality of sufficiency.
An excessive abundance of choice, opinion and work (among many others) has made our lives more difficult and less enjoyable. Here’s how.
Excessive abundance of choice
In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time — literally — substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.
— Peter Drucker
An so, we are overwhelmed by choices on a daily basis. Too many options cause exaggerated expectations and result in less satisfaction when a decision is made (due to opportunity cost of other options).
The opportunity cost of a decision is the expected value gained from choosing any possible alternative. It is the lingering thought of all the good that can come from another choice, even after our choice is made. This can overwhelm one during decision-making, and may lead to FOMO once the decision is made. The alternative realities we could be living incessantly crop up in our mind. Inevitably, this diminishes the perceived relative reward in our chosen (or unchosen) reality.
Excessive abundance of opinion
It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload.
From social media platforms to a candy wrapper, we’re consistently exposed to social pressure both on- and off-line. Everyone and everything has an opinion on what’s good, what’s bad, what’s trendy and what’s lame.
In our hyperconnected world, we are inundated with tsunamis of likes, comments, reactions, shares, follows, claps, reposts… The endless stream of opinions relentlessly impose both conscious and subconscious pressures on us and our own choices.
These social indicators also distort our ability to understand the world. News articles, videos and images; the more popular the content, the more important and validated the information behind it. As Renée DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory, puts it simply:
It you make it trend, you make it true.
Excessive abundance of work
Within the paradigm of abundance, it’s normal for everyday workers to feel both overworked and underutilized simultaneously. Our to-do lists seem to grow day by day even as our workdays get longer and longer.
If you are good at what you do, you’ll eventually receive more demand than you’re able to handle. You’ll rise within the ranks of your company until you stop doing what you are good at. You eventually rise to a “level of respective incompetence” as per the Peter Principle.
Accumulated success can distract our focus away from the essential activity that made us successful in the first place.
These are only a few of the many, many examples of issues with the abundance mindset. Essentialism helps overcome these. Find out how we can address some of these issues on the second episode of the series.