Top Menu

Greg McKeown on How to Live an “Essentialist” Lifestyle

By January 18, 2017 August 11th, 2020 No Comments

Greg McKeown“Sometimes people think ‘Look, if I had a larger closet, that would solve the problem.’ Until they get a larger closet and then they realize, at least over time, that isn’t the problem.” –Greg McKeown

Commander Divine talks to best-selling author, businessman and speaker Greg McKeown about his book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” Greg dives into his philosophy and Mark points out the similarities between the Essentialist outlook and the kind of mindset that he fosters in Unbeatable Mind. Essentialism is ultimately focused on setting a priority and doing the right things, rather than trying to do everything that comes at you. Listen to this episode to get insights into how to understand your goals and, most importantly, how to make them in the first place.


This week’s episode is brought to you by The Neurohacker Collective has recently come out with Qualia, an extensively researched nootropic that combines natural ingredients with the best synthetic ingredients to maximize our capacity to think effectively. It is the “Lamborghini” of nootropics, having been researched and held to higher standards than most new nootropics are. When you purchase an ongoing subscription for Qualia at, enter the code “unbeatablemind15r” to get 15% off the price of a monthly subscription.

Love the Unbeatable Mind Podcast? Click here to subscribe on iTunes. We’d love your feedback, please leave a rating and review.

Other episodes of our podcast that you might be interested in are Mark’s podcasts with Cal Newport,  Jenna Wolfe and Commander Divine’s podcast on powering up and emitting excellence.

Transcript & Shownotes

Hey folks, this is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for joining us today, with our guest Greg McKeown. McKeown (MacEwan)? Is that right Greg?

Greg McKeown: Greg MacEwan.

Mark: Sorry about that. About 50% of the time I get my names right, and the other half of the time, oh well. I’m a Navy SEAL so I get a little bit of a pass on that one. So Greg, welcome to the show. This is a take two for us, and we’re going to cross our fingers that our internet doesn’t go down. I’m in Utah, you’re in Silicon Valley I believe, right?

Greg: Yeah, that’s right.

Mark: Well thanks so much for coming on. Before I start, I’d like to remind the listeners to go rate this show on iTunes, if you like what you’re hearing. Give it 5 stars so other folks like you can find us. And they’re going to want to hear what Greg and I are talking about today.



Greg, you’re a public speaker, you’re a leadership consultant. You’ve worked for the world economic forum. You’re a New York Times bestselling author of a book called “Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less,” which I have read recently, and I think it’s absolutely fantastic. And also a Wall Street Journal bestseller with a co-author named “Multipliers: how the best leaders make everyone smarter.”  I know… I see from my notes here, you’re from London, which would account for the accent. And you’ve got a wife and four kids, so you’re a busy guy. And I imagine that you practice what you preach, is that right? With all that you’ve got going on?

Greg: Well, I think what’s important there is I live in the real world. I don’t live in somehow on the mountain top calling down with none of the obligations that people have, right? I want to be making a contribution with my family, with my business, with writing, and that’s really the spirit of what essentialism is all about. Essentialism is about successful people who don’t break through to their highest point of contribution. And why that doesn’t happen, and what we can do about it.

Mark: I love that. That syncs up with our message at Unbeatable Mind beautifully. And also, what I really like, Greg, is I’ve interview a lot of academics and though it’s intriguing, you know, to hear their theories, most of it is from them studying other people. As a SEAL, I’m a big believer that we’ve gotta practice what we preach. We’ve gotta be in the arena.

So these things that you write about in “Essentialism”… you’ve has the experience yourself, and you know how to de-clutter and focus and figure out where to really put your mind.

So how did you kind of come about this line of thinking? I mean, what were your feelings that led to this?

Wake up and Beginnings of Essentialism


Greg: Well, talking about being in the arena, I remember receiving an email from my boss at the time, with… that said “Friday, would be a very bad time for your wife to have a baby.”

Mark: (laughing) Thank you very much.

Greg: (laughing) Appreciate that. And Friday was in fact… well, actually it was late Thursday night that my daughter was born. So I’m in the hospital with my wife, and it’s Friday morning, and instead of being so focused on that clearly important, essential moment, I felt torn. “How can I do both? How can I keep the boss happy, and go to this client meeting, and also still somehow be there for my wife?” And to my shame I went to the client meeting.

Mark: Oh my goodness. Wow. I bet you earned some points from your wife on that one.

Greg: Yeah, that’s right. My new wife thinks it was a bad idea that I did that. No, I’m just kidding… Anna stayed with me.

But you know, of course, I remember going to the meeting and afterwards, actually, my boss said, “The client will respect you for the choice you made.” And I don’t know that they did, but even if they did, I’d made a fool’s bargain. I had violated something more important for something less important. And in a really important way.

And what I learned from that lesson is simple enough, but has had profound impact, and that is if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. And so that was really the birth of “Essentialism” in the form that it was written and published. Why is it people do what they do? I mean, people listening to this are by definition successful, they’re certainly motivated, they’re driven people. So why is it that otherwise successful people don’t break through to the next level of contribution? And in the story that I shared, one of the reasons that I’ve found this happens to people, is success itself. That success creates options and opportunities, and that sounds like the right problem to have. But it does in fact turn out to be a problem if it leads to what Jim Collins has called the “undisciplined pursuit of more.” And that’s really what I was doing that day. Is an undisciplined pursuit of more. “How can I do both? How can I shove them both in?” On the basis that if I do both, that will equal a higher contribution.

But actually it often doesn’t. What it does is it spreads you too thin. It reduces your overall contribution, because you’re not making a proper trade-off. You’re not making a strategic trade-off. You’re not saying “This thing matters, therefore I will allocate resources to it.” You’re saying, “It’s all about equal. So I have to do it all.” Which is the trap I think most of us get into. And so I can ask… I mean, anybody listening to this right now, can answer these 3 questions, to get a sense of whether Essentialism may be relevant to them. And it might not be. But if it is, you know, here are the questions:

Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin at work or at home?

Mark: Yes.

Greg: Have you ever found yourself being busy but not productive?

Mark: Yes.

Greg: Have you ever found your day–like mine was–hijacked by somebody else’s agenda?

Mark: And that would be a yes.

Greg: So these are… there’s more questions we could explore, but those are the questions… that’s the litmus test. The language is really deliberately selected so if the problem is the undisciplined pursuit of more, the antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less.

And it is a disciplined pursuit of less. Everybody is in that case that you are in. Everybody is in the situation where they feel that despite their best efforts, they end up feeling stretched too thin. That is a very common experience, and it’s not something to beat ourselves up about. In fact, I’m really keen to emphasize this. That really, there’s only 2 kinds of people in the world. There’s people who are lost. And then there’s people who know they are lost.

Mark: (laughing) Absolutely. I know that very well as a Navy SEAL from a practical sense. We were either lost, or we were becoming lost. And we really wanted to be in the latter, just so that we had some sense that we were on the right track, you know?

Greg: Well that’s the thing, you see? And it takes humility to admit this. To say, “Look, I’m lost today.” If you know you’re lost, then you’re actually… it’s quite a Zen idea… if you’re lost and you know you’re lost, you’re not lost anymore.

Mark: Exactly. Cause you are where you are.

Greg: Exactly. And you know, “Oh, I don’t know where I’m going.” So then of course, just like if you’re lost in the car. When I was growing up, I remember sometimes, my father would be lost and might not admit to being lost. And so that meant we carried on being lost. We carried on being, “Oh, I feel it’s this way. I think it’s that way.” You just keep being lost. If you admit it, you know what to do. You just stop and ask for directions and then you weren’t lost anymore. You knew what to do and you’d get on the road.

Same in life. Same with this journey to becoming and Essentialist, is to keep admitting… like, “I don’t really know what the right contribution is to make today.” Well then we know what to do. Make a list of everything you want to do. Evaluate each item. Think through it. Think long-term. Create space to figure out what is my highest point of contribution this year, this quarter, this week. This day. What matters most now? And if you can… those things are actually skills a lot of people have, maybe most people have. But what precedes it is the humility to admit one needs to go through that process.

Mark: Right. I’m reminded of my father certainly had that… I think that runs through all guys. You can almost… some people–and I put myself in this category at certain times–would rather be lost than to ask for help. Or to admit that they don’t know where they’re going.

Greg: It’s exactly right. And this is… and think of how much truer this becomes when somebody has actually had some success. I mean there’s another phrase from Jim Collins I like, which is the idea of the “hubris born of success.” You know and you have hubris born of success it can make you very afraid to admit you don’t know something. Failure’s not an option. I have to look like I know the answer to everything. And it can make people afraid to try, it can make people afraid to change.

Mark: You have a great quote that actually supports that, and I’ve got a few of them written down. This one popped for me. “Success can be a catalyst for failure.” And I think that’s kinda what you’re talking about, right? Is that the more successful you are a) the more opportunities that come at you, so you have this decision fatigue or this inability to choose the right one, or the right ones. And then b) you’re afraid to fail. You’re afraid to take some bold moves.

Greg: Yes, because what we do is we want to keep on doing the things that… We start playing a different game. Instead of playing to win, we play not to lose. And that becomes a very different kind of game. And I think when we move into that category, where we’re sort of living without courage, it’s like–someone mentioned this to me–I like this phrase. It’s like the universe wants its parts back. So that we must live with courage, or we’re not going to know what our contribution is. It just won’t become clear. And so… I mean, it’s happened in my life.

A New Book and Television


I’ve been living just this summer… It is time, by the usual calendar, to write the next book. And one of the things that’s interesting about that is I’ve got no motivation problem about that, whatsoever. In fact, from a motivation point, I’m probably more motivated now than I’ve ever been.

Why? Because I have an agent who is really ready for me to do it. Follows up with me. I’ve got a publisher. Amazing partnership that we’ve had through the first book, and they’re ready for the next book. You’ve got actually an audience, who, you know… Increasingly, people ask the question, “Well, what is the next book?” And what do you have? So you’ve got everything aligned to do the next book.

And of course, the 2nd book… if the 1st one was successful, pays better too. So everything aligns to do it. And I’ve got no shortage of ideas of what to do, and I should think what the next book idea is now. I’ve gone through many, many ideas in order to get there. And with all of that, will of that this summer, again, I felt this sense that was not the order I should take it. That it was not time to do it. And I should put it off in favor of some different project that I know almost nothing about. It’s terrifying for me. It has been, it was. And now I’m at 3 monthsish, past the decision point, which was, “don’t do the next book.” Instead, what it was supposed to do was television. Do television.

And here’s the thing, my undergraduate’s in journalism, and so I spent a lot of time thinking about communication and different mediums and so on. So it’s not like I know absolutely nothing. But pretty close.

Mark: (laughing) Okay, so you’re not suffering from hubris born of success. I’ll tell you that right now. That’s good.

Greg: Well, certainly not in this area, because I’ve spent almost 20 years thinking about books, titles, ideas, how to put them together, what people’s wants are, needs are, and so on. In one field. But one of the things I do remember from my journalism degree was this idea that the medium is the message. I mean, the medium massively, massively changes how you would communicate, and who you would communicate with. And it’s a completely different thing. And so all of a sudden–and I have felt this again and again, so when I have done this deep work. When I’ve done the meditation, when I’ve taken my personal quarterly off-sites. And thought deeply. When I’ve gone to prayer. When I’ve done all that private work, it has become clear to me that this was the right trade-off. But not easy.

And even sharing it’s a little bit vulnerable because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Somebody could be listening to this in a year from now, 5 years from now, and they’re going to go, “Oh, well he didn’t do anything. Nothing happened. It was a big fail. That was too bad for him.”

So at one level, it’s vulnerable, and at the other level it’s like, “Yeah, but this is what it means to live as an Essentialist. Make trade-offs you wouldn’t otherwise make in pursuit of something that you believe, you feel, deep down, is a higher contribution for you.

And there have been… I just want to at least tie this story for now, it’s a work in progress. But right after I made that decision, Steve Harvey read “Essentialism” and blogged about it. Said it “changed my life.”

If I hadn’t made the trade-off I’m mentioning, I’d have just gone, “Well, that’s cool. Steve Harvey really likes the book. That’s great.” And maybe I would have blogged about it. Maybe. Sent it out to my newsletter list and said “Hey, this is cool. You might read what he has to say.”

I wouldn’t have thought beyond that. But what caught my attention is this. My priority professional pursuit was to figure this out. As soon as I saw that, I was like, “Oh, well maybe there’s a way… maybe we should do something.” And so we ended up talking to his producers, and they’re like, “Yeah, he’d love to do this. Let’s have an interview.”

So we did the interview and that went really, really well. Way better than anything I’ve done on television before. And he said, like, live, real-time, “You know what we should do? We’re going to pick somebody and we’re going to do an Essentialism life make-over with them. And we’re going to do another episode on this.”

And so what was just a blog turned into a great relationship and connection with Steve. And that’s led to now at least 2 or 3 appearances, and who knows what will happen after that. I never want to assume the future. But that is still so significant to me. And there’s other things. I won’t get into them right now, but there’s other things that have happened, and this is all in 2 or 3 months. That this is a living, breathing example… I emphasize it not because the story’s about me. It’s not about me. Essentialism’s definitely not about me. But I wish to say that it’s something that is real and the more you live it, in a sense, the harder it gets because you’re giving up more each time. You’re making a different trade-off. Trade-offs that you wouldn’t have made even the year before. But what also changes is that the rewards change for Essentialism. So in a sense it gets harder, but the rewards increase massively. If you think of somebody within whatever field someone’s in… and you say, “Okay”… and there’s a range of success within those fields. We were talking about TV so let’s just stay on that. And you think about somebody who has like a thousand times more impact than someone else. I mean, I remember years ago having this sort of little reflection that Oprah doesn’t work a thousand times harder than someone else. So that’s not what explains the impact difference.

In that case it has a lot to do with the medium of television, right? Like, that has an incredible leveraging power, still in America today. Still people watch television on average 4 hours a day, in America. Which is extraordinary, really, isn’t it? Because that means that some people are making up for the rest of us.

And so… but I just mean to use this all as an illustration. We’ve got to learn how to make the right trade-offs. I didn’t on the day of my daughter’s birth. I’m trying to in various ways now. I’m living this disciplined pursuit. I’m coming back to it and I have been amazed at the rewards of doing it.

Mark: Yeah. So… I’m with you totally. A hundred percent. We need to focus on the right things versus more things. Those are your words. And my work, the words I’ve been using over the past year is to say “no” in service to the higher “yes.” And I think that’s it. You know, those two are basically saying the same things. When you can say no to the trivial, then it allows you the space to reflect upon what’s the important thing. What’s the one thing you really need to be doing right now?

I’d like to kind of just zero in on… like, when it comes to choosing that one thing. Let me rephrase this question, cause I’m kinda rambling here. It helps to know what you’re passionate about and what you’re kinda driving for in life. What your purpose is. So that you know what to say no to. And then that allows the opportunities to kind of flow in the right direction. Does that make any sense? You gotta get clear about what you’re good at and what you need to be doing, so that you have the potential to make the right “yes” decisions. Otherwise, there’s just too much noise, too much clutter. Don’t know where to point your compass.

Greg: Well, this is absolutely right. We need to have sort of the right essential intent. The longer-term intent, because otherwise we’re only… we’re sort of organizing and re-organizing the wrong things. I can use television as an example again. If I don’t take a personal, quarterly off-site, and think about the bigger picture, and think about what you’re really trying to accomplish. What it’s really about. Then, you will just keep prioritizing within a smaller group of your existing commitments and existing ideas. And so yes, you might do very well at prioritizing between this list. I can really organize well between all the book ideas that I have. But the potential impact could be 10x or far greater than 10x if you take the right next path. So this idea of really getting… asking the big questions. Yes, what are you passionate about? Yes, what can you be great at in the world? What contribution would you love to make? Yes, what will drive the economic engine of whatever venture you’re pursuing in an entrepreneurial sense?

These are the big questions. And out of them we must find the next level. And there’s a lot of people who I think, to use this metaphor, are trying to make their tent of contribution in their life higher by putting tent poles of the same length as the ones that they already have. And it’s never going to work. But they just keep on doing more of the same things, and I think that the way of the Essentialist is best understood by thinking about: what’s the longer pole? What’s the thing that will take it to a whole ‘nother level? And that’s… and then never being satisfied with just doing more of the same.

You know, you keep the same going. You try and make that run as much on auto-pilot as possible, so that you can discover the next level.

Deep Work


Mark: Yeah. I love that. We talked earlier about challenging yourself to allow the better version of yourself to emerge. And so in that vein, we can’t keep doing the same things and expecting different results. We’ve gotta do different things to get the results. And the things that you do need to be pointed in the… need to be things that are going to super-inspire you. That’s that essential intent. So where I’m going with this is, you know, I recently did a podcast with Cal Newport. And I heard you use the term Deep Work. I think the concept of Essentialism and Deep Work are like a hand in a glove. In order to practice Essentialism, you have to do some Deep Work.

So what is your Deep Work? How do you get clear about what to say no to and what to say yes to? What are your practices on that?

Greg: Well, first of all let me just frame this. That to me what you’re asking about isn’t the sideshow in life. It is the very work of life. It’s not like a little thing that we do once in a while, we have this insight, and then we go… No. It’s what we do. It is our work. And when we think about it that way. When we think about it as sort of our full-time job. And I don’t mean paralysis of analysis. I don’t mean that. But I do mean returning again and again and again and again to this question. What really is my highest point of contribution? What’s the next level of my contribution?

So what I believe is that people need to have a cadence of reflection. Once a year. We’re going into the perfect season right now for this. Where we go through and evaluate what happened in this year, and what the big wins are, what the big challenges are. What the trend of is our life is. And we’ve got to try and gather what the news is of our life. What the headlines are. What’s hidden from view on a day-to-day basis, so we can try and see clearly where we are and where we want to be.

And then we have to review the next year, and think through 2, 3 big things that we want to do. Put that in priority order across our lives. And so we evaluate the whole year.

Then I think the next thing in this cadence of reflection is put it in a schedule on your calendar a personal, quarterly off-site. Every 90 days you’re taking a full day just to go through a process of again reflection, of saying, “Where am I? Where do I want to be? What are the big wins? What are the progress? Let’s celebrate the progress. And then what are the 2 or 3 things I’d like to accomplish in the next 90 days.”

And then those become little anchor points to keep coming back to. And then every week, the same. You take at least 20 minutes and think through the same thing. What is… what are all the things I’d like to do? Get it all out of my head. And then after those things for this week, what’s the priority today? And then every day the same.

So I’m describing an end-to-end cadence of reflection. And that’s what I think it takes. And so, I recommend that every day people go through and identify the priority contribution they want to make today.

Sometimes I push people on this a little and say, “Okay, what’s the priority personally and professionally overall?” But you ought to come out of that process knowing, “what’s the one thing I want to do personally today?” And, “what’s the one thing I want to do most importantly professionally?” You ought to get to that level of prioritization. And here’s why…

Here’s some history around this. The word “priority” came into the English language in the 14 hundreds and it was singular. One thing. The prior thing. The first thing. And it’s so strange when you think about… it heads into the 19 hundreds and it became pluralized. According to Drucker, that’s sort of the first time people started using that term “priorities.” And the strange thing about that word is what does it even mean? You know, by definition, can you have very, very many… before all other thing-things? The answer, by definition, is no. It’s madness to even think it, and yet the people listening have been to some meeting where somebody said with no irony at all “Here are my 20 priorities.” And what does it mean? You can have 20 important things, but by definition, you can’t have 20 priorities.

You need the first thing. You need to know what it is. So all of this practice, all of this cadence of reflection is all about getting to a point where you can win today. And win has a nice little acronym. It’s “What’s Important Now.” And I don’t believe people can do that without serious reflection. And a routine of reflection, this cadence of reflection that helps to inform and educate that moment.

I don’t find any of what I’m describing easy. I don’t. I wrestle with this. I wrestle with it constantly. I wrestled with it this morning before we spoke this morning. I made my long list of all the different things that feel pulling on me, and at first they all feel like they’re all important. They’re just all equally important at first. It feels that way. And you just have to keep working on it. And you ask these bigger questions. Well, what’s my big goal for the end of this quarter. That helps me inform some of the things I should be working on. I can ask, “Well who’s the most important person in my life? Who’s the undisputed..?” You know, like, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world in boxing? It’s like, who’s the undisputed priority relationship in my life? Well that’s my wife, so that informs how I might think about my list. And over time this process helps me to identify “Here is the priority.”

And I was able to identify it this morning. I don’t always get there. I wish I did every day. I don’t always. I did today. And I have done that thing. And it’s done because it was identified as the priority. And it really, easily would not have happened.

Mark: Isn’t that amazing? Cause it’s only 10:15 AM your time. So the rest of the day is gravy. How amazing is that, you know?

Greg: Well, it’s certainly… it doesn’t feel to me that the rest of my day is now easy. But what it feels is that you have the sense of satisfaction of momentum, of knowing, this is the right path. And you’ve just invested in it again. And the cumulative impact of figuring out and doing the priority each day is tremendous. People simply underestimate the power of that.

Closets and Cognitive Bias


Mark: Is that what you mean by the endowment effect is the momentum that comes from building upon doing that one priority thing every day?

Greg: The endowment effect has a very precise definition, and it’s a healthy and helpful segway to address it. But to do it I have to talk about our closets. Literal closets. And… because it’s such a good, concrete illustration of the undisciplined pursuit of more. We have all this stuff in the closet. You go in there to try and find something. Sometimes they can’t find the thing they’re looking for. They’ve got masses of stuff in there but they don’t feel like there’s anything for them to wear. Yeah, you know that experience. And I think a lot of people listening can relate. Either them or someone they know well. And sometimes people think, “Look, if I had a larger closet that would solve the problem.” Until they get a larger closet, and then they realize, at least over time, that isn’t the problem. It helps to have a larger closet, but we tend to fill up the space that we have. And so it fills to the size of the room, and then we have the same problem again. And so we realize, whatever the problem is, it’s not… it’s sort of to do with this idea of cadence again. We don’t have a system for really going through it all and clearing out all of the stuff we don’t really want. We just add, and there’s no system… there’s a system for addition, called “consumerism,” which is constantly telling us we need more, and “buy this” and when to buy it, and which things to buy.

I mean, there is a system for addition to our closet. But there is no system for subtraction. And so the system of subtraction, what would it look like? We would take everything out of our closet, get it all out. We would go through each item selectively. We would eliminate the things that don’t meet our criteria, and we would keep only the essential few things that absolutely we love to wear, we wear often or to use Marie Kondo’s term, which spark joy. If it doesn’t spark joy, it’s gone. And so we’re using this really selective criteria. And then, we would finally… the final thing we would do is we would create some sort of routine and system for going through that process regularly–once a quarter, once a month… however we go through this process to make sure that only the things we love are in that closet. Does that make sense? That’s the system.

Now, that’s the Essentialist approach to cleaning one’s closet and keeping just the right things in there that we want. Less but better clothes. But what do we normally do? What do we do? We stuff it full like we’ve said. Maybe we every so often give a nod to the idea of elimination. We go into our closet, we take an item. We take it off the shelf, and in that moment it’s as if to eliminate it, as if to pass it along. But something magical almost mysterious happens. We look at that item and we think, “Well. You know, it might fit me someday. It might come back into fashion someday.”

And what we’re doing in that moment… this is all full-circle to the endowment effect. What we’re doing in that moment is we are overvaluing the asset. We are overvaluing it because we own it. Ownership has a value and that’s good. It’s good in lots of ways, but the problem with ownership having a value is it can lead us to overvaluing something. And so the key for that, the fix for the item of clothing in our closet is to ask the question “How much would I pay for this item today? If I was buying it now, how much would I pay for it?” And that tricks the mind into not evaluating value plus ownership value. It’s just the pure value of the thing. Now this is a big metaphor… closet metaphor… but we’re not talking about closets, we’re talking about the closet of our lives.

Mark: You know, what you’re talking about… cognitive biases. Which tend to clog up the closet of our lives, right?

Greg: Well, that’s right. They help to support the non-Essentialism way of thinking. And we have cognitive bias for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that we have been sold this idea for a long time. That you’re happier if you have more.

Mark: Yeah, we call that here at Unbeatable Mind our Background of Obviousness. You know, the whole consumerism that we’ve been brought up in. TV, you know, the culture… even our language creates this massive cognitive bias. We’re like the fish who don’t know what air is because we live in water. And so to step out of that is the challenge. That’s what we’re talking about. How do you step out of that bias that says “everything is the way it is” when the reality is it’s the way we think it is.

Essentialism and the Culture


Greg: Yeah, I love this idea summarized by the four words: Fish discover water last. Just as you’re saying, right? It’s so invisible. And I do believe that non-Essentialism… this idea that if you can have it all… if you do it all, you can have it all, is such a dominant idea, that it’s achieved monopoly status. Nobody even sees it. Not nobody… that’s an exaggeration–actually I think that there’s an increasing number of people who do. But as a general rule, the culture of our times… you know, listeners can answer this question for themselves. Where are we on the continuum between undisciplined pursuit of more, and disciplined pursuit of less? As a culture? In the United States today?

Mark: We’re still racing towards more. I mean, literally clamoring…

Greg: I’ve done this sometimes when I do keynotes, you know. Sometimes these are 5000 people keynotes, and I’ll have the whole audience… I’ll walk across the entire room that we’re in. So this is like huge, huge center. And I’ll just say, “Look, I want you to snap when we get to the point that you think we are as a culture today.” So I start over at the Essentialist side. So if we lived in an Essentialist culture, the whole audience would snap then. And if they think that we’re in the middle, the whole audience would snap in the middle. That would be a normal distribution curve.

Nobody snaps at all till we get to the middle. Nobody. Ever. Then almost nobody does until we’re 3 quarters of the way over the room. Vast majority snap when we get to the very edge. And plenty of people, every time, say, “Look, you’ve got to keep going before I can snap.” They can feel… So the question is, for you today is does it matter, and if so, why does it matter that we live in a culture like this? I’m curious about what your thoughts are. Does it matter?

Mark: Does it matter and why does it matter that we live in the culture? Well I think it does because… of course, this is being borne out in many different disciplines that more is better has led to a real disruption of balance in every single system known to mankind. Our economic systems, environmental systems, health systems… and so it obviously cannot work forever. There is… linearity has to eventually end…

Greg: You’re saying… your argument is “It is not sustainable.”

Mark: It’s not sustainable. Yes. Both at an individual level, from a health, peace of mind. We’re talking about Essentialism. More leads to more fatigue, burnout, decision fatigue–again, which is your word–and, you know, essentially a breakdown, I think. And that’s what I’m seeing. A lot of the people who come to us is that they’ve broken down. You know, the midlife crisis, health crisis, whatever. It’s because they’re just trying to keep packing more on. And I see that being played out in families and even companies that just think “bigger is better.” And also our economy. It’s just not working to say that we need sustainable growth. Used to be 4 to 6 percent every quarter. There’s a whole new paradigm. We need to see the water, as it were.

Greg: Yeah, I wonder what would happen. I wonder what is possible if we saw the water.

Mark: I think it would be a transformation. And I don’t know if it’d be overnight or if it’d be a long-term type of thing. But I think it’d be transformative.

Greg: A revolution. That if you could replace the idea that the undisciplined pursuit of more with the disciplined pursuit of less but better. That you might see a… I mean, it’s just fascinating to think through it. What kind of a culture would we have? What would that look like? What would it feel like? What would we have space to do?

Mark: I think it is a fascinating thing, cause when we talk about abundance. Technology can lead us to abundance. People think, “Well that means I can have more. I can have anything I want, because it’s an abundant world.”

And what you and I are talking about, and I think what we’ve discovered personally is that the more we clutter our lives up with things, with people, with ideas, with commitments, with projects… then the less value they have and the less time we have for the important things and the less we feel.

Greg: Yeah, it begs the question of what do we really want? What do we… what is the end? It’s a non-trivial question, isn’t it? Cause if we go deep enough on this question. We say… Okay, so imagine yourself–not just on your deathbed, although that’s like normally what we would do if we were trying to do really long-term thinking. But what if we said, like, 25 years after, we’re gone. Our grandchildren or people that we’ve influenced that remember us and what we’ve done.

What do we want their life to be? What is it? What produces this kind of joy, happiness, contribution? What is it? And does Consumerism produce this?

And I’m certainly not anti- the capitalist system. I’m not anti-consumption in some extreme form. I’m not against all consumption. I believe in creativity and entrepreneurship in good Zen services.

But what’s the end? How will I know if I’ve made a great contribution? I think it has to do with… I’ll just speak again, personally on this. I’ve kept a journal… I keep a journal pretty religiously now. Like, I don’t know that I’ve missed a day in the last 6 years. I think I’ve kept it that long. And not much… not many days in the past 10 or 15 years now. So what I haven’t done as well is gone back and read through it again. I’m just starting to make sure I’m getting better at making sure I learn from this asset of reflection. And one of the things I was doing just recently is… as I was doing it, I found I was surprised at how useless many of the entries felt to me.

Mark: (laughing) That’s been my experience as well.

Greg: How non-valuable some of them were, but how amazing some of them were. For me, a gaining of perspective for me, was watching that my… that whenever I’ve written detailed accounts of me, like, playing with one of my children. And not just, “Hey, I played with a child today.” But what happened. What they said. What the look was in their face. What you did next. How it all worked. I mean that is a literal example of something I’ve read in the last couple of weeks. And I was able to go to my daughter and say, “Do you remember this?”

And as we talked about it, even though it would have been gone from our minds completely otherwise, it was back for us. And I thought, in that little story is just that awareness that some things really matter. That a successful society is one in which families thrive. People have space in order to make these connections. There’s enough for people to be able to get along and do well and work together. I mean, this perspective…

Essentialism and Video Recording


In fact, I’ll just give you one other illustration that I came across when I was researching the book. A true story about a man who’s 3 year old daughter died. And it’s a tragic story right from the beginning. And so he was trying to put together a video montage, of time with his daughter. So he’s going through all these vacation videos and all of this, and he just found that wherever he was, he would be videoing 1 second on his daughter and then, “Hey, we’re in this amazing place! We’re in the Grand Canyon. Let’s do panoramic shots of everything. Oh look at this thing over there.” And now given this new perspective of what was essential, and which relationships really matter. Things seen with a different and truer perspective, he could see that he’s making a fool’s bargain there.

This tiny thing is so much more. This tiny video… so now of course, he and everyone that hears this story can video differently in their vacations. I know I do. I definitely want to capture video of my children, of my wife, of me doing… it’s these relationships that matter so immensely more than the next most important thing on the list. And so, I think this is really what we have to be careful about, so we don’t efficiently do more of the same stuff. We have to do the right few things because they’re so much more valuable.

Mark: Absolutely. So this is a good way… we’ve been going for almost an hour, and I could go and talk to you forever because this is awesome and fascinating. But we probably should wrap it up. But to me, I think the quality of our life is dictated by the quality of the questions we ask ourselves. And I’ve heard you relay some incredible questions. And the essence of Essentialism is to ask better questions, such as “how can I focus on the right things at the right time, for the right reasons?” And “How can I say no to the larger yes?” So let’s just kind of start to wrap this up from your perspective, what are the questions… and this might be a little bit of a review, cause you’ve already shared some of them. But what are the key questions you ask yourself in your daily reflection and your 90 day reflection, when you’re going deep? What are the questions? And when you journal, what are the questions you ask yourself?

Greg: My most repeated question, and I do believe it’s an Essentialist question. Although counter-intuitive. Is “What are you grateful for?” And: “Where have you seen God’s hand in your life today?” Because if I pay attention to those things what it means is I’m going to see with better perspective. That’s really what a non-essentialist loses. They lose perspective. They are taught to believe that everything is equally important. That’s a loss of perspective. And so for me by simply saying, “What am I most grateful for? Where have I seen God’s hand in my life?” I can start to be… see in each day what’s most important. What matters now? And it also provides me with some motivation and momentum to go “Oh, I want more of that.” And I’m making progress in my life. And these things are getting there. And that has proven to be a very rewarding, meaningful and just success inducing process.

Mark: So what are you grateful for? What and who is most important? And, I love this, what matters now? Keep reminding us that now is all we have. And so ultimately these types of questions and this practice of Essentialism is going to get us to be more present. So we can always ask those questions–what matters now? What is our “why” right now? And stop living for some future that may not exist. And stop living for a past that is beyond us, right?

Greg: Yeah, it can be awfully hard to do this. I think it’s a mental tension and a mental challenge. It took us years to learn how to use our bodies. It’s going to take the rest of our lives to learn how to use our minds. And it’s all about… I do believe this… about trying to see clearly with good perspective. And then align our lives with that perspective. That there are so many times–I still struggle with this–where something relatively unimportant… but maybe it’s emotional… will try to take center stage. Will try to push the priority relationships and focuses in my life off the stage. And say “Look at me” And it’s my job as an Essentialist to really not allow that kind of bullying in my life. Mental bullying in my life. To be able to say “no, that’s not the priority relationship and that’s not the priority task. And I’m going to insist that the right person’s onstage. That the right relationship gets the attention.

And it just is this disciplined pursuit, right? Keep coming back to it. A flight from San Francisco to New York is off track 90% of the time. It gets there on time because it keeps coming back. And so we’ve got to be very gentle on ourselves. That’s one of the reasons that I find this gratitude… Essentialist gratitude journal so cathartic and helpful is that–yes, we’re not going to get it all right. We’re going to get lots wrong. But if we look and celebrate the wins, if we look and celebrate what matters most today we will find it. And we’ll see that we’re doing better than we think, and that can encourage us to keep going in the pursuit of a life that ultimately really matters.

Mark: Awesome. Awesome, Greg. So your book, “Essentialism“– found all over the world, probably. Amazon, Barnes and Noble bookstores. Where can people learn about you on the web and what else you got going on? Anything else you want to tell us about?

Greg: No this it. This is it. Just, you know, is the place where the latest is happening. Sign up for the newsletter and get from time to time insights and things that hopefully inspiring and helpful in this ongoing journey.

Mark: Awesome. Well I super-appreciate–I know we all do. Everyone listening to this call really appreciates your time today. Also the work you’re doing. Please let us know and let me know if there’s anything I can do to support your efforts. We’re big believers and would love to meet in person someday, so…

Greg: Mark, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much.

Mark: Awesome. All right folks, you heard it. Go check out “Essentialism” if you haven’t already. I know it’s been on our reading list. And do the work. It’s a daily practice. If you can spend that time every morning, in your morning ritual, reflecting upon what you’re grateful for and what your one thing is for the day. And then link that to your quarter, and then link that to your year, and then link that to you main thing over the next 3 years, and link that to your ethos.

And if we can do those things every day, and nudge yourself forward then wow, what a difference it will make.

Greg: thanks so much.

Greg: Mark, thanks so much. Bye for now.

Mark: Hooyah. Take care.