Podcast Transcript: Essentialism in Quarantine


Intro: Welcome to Beyond Speaking with Brian Lord. A podcast featuring deeper conversations with the world's top speakers.


Brian Lord: Hi, I'm Brian Lord, your host of the Beyond Speaking podcast. Our guest today is Greg McKeown. Greg is the author of The New York Times bestseller "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less" and the founder of McKeown Inc., a company with a mission to teach essentialism to millions of people around the world. Greg, thanks for coming on.


Greg McKeown: It's great to be with you, Brian.


Brian Lord: So we're recording this in March of 2020 and the coronavirus is the top story everywhere. So I do want to get to how people can use essentialism to determine their course and actions at work and home in times like these. And so, Greg, you did a virtual keynote last week and shared a brand new story that really pertains to our situation. Can you share that with us now?


Greg McKeown: Yeah, I was hesitant to share it and even a little now... But it was a real game-changer for me and our family. Not long ago, my family and I moved to a pretty idyllic community, white picket fences lining the streets. There are no street lamps. There's like more horse trails than roads.


Brian Lord: [Laughing]


Greg McKeown: Yeah, seriously, right? And our children spent just long days playing outside with a happy dog, riding horses, playing tennis. And really, in this little piece of heaven on earth, one of our daughters, Eve, seemed especially to thrive. She's a brown-eyed, brown-haired girl. She's got a mischievous grin. She just simply cannot stay cross at any time. Even when she tries to be frumpy, she can only do it for a few seconds before bursting into laughter. She loves nature. She is always climbing trees. She's running barefoot everywhere. She's wrestling a brother on the trampoline, naming chickens, catching lizards, all of this. She's reading constantly. She knows more about bees and insects that I... You know, she's forgotten more than I'll ever know. She loves the James Herriot series. I mean, this is she is just constantly talking, vivacious personality. Everything. Everything's punctuated with laughter. Then, she turns 14. She hits a growth spurt. She begins to feel tired a lot and then she talks to us less. She's taking longer to do her chores, which is to say all pretty age-appropriate behavior. On a routine visit to a physical therapist, he noticed that she failed a certain test that really you shouldn't fail, and she took my wife and her aside and he said, look, you just might want to see a neurologist. You don't need to be told twice, so we immediately took her and re-examining her behavior from that perspective. We found other tics and behaviors that we could no longer chalk up to teen awkwardness. And not only that but her symptoms worsened on a daily basis so it was like a free-fall really within just a freak a few weeks, she would answer it only one-word sentences and she's spoken of slurred monotone voice, the whole right-hand side of a body started responding at a slower speed. It took a full two minutes to write her own name. Took her hours to eat a meal. So this light was once so vibrant and bright in Eve dimmed. And then it seemed to go out entirely. She was hospitalized after a major seizure. And what made the situation worse was the doctors couldn't explain it. I mean, they could not offer even the beginning of a diagnosis. So every day after more respected neurologists, they just look with furrowed brows. I mean, one I remember literally shrugged her shoulders, tests, the tests, more tests, everything coming back negative. The doctor couldn't find a thing. And to watch our vivacious daughter decline into this almost just constant deterioration with no explanation is the stuff that I think suffering can be made of. Of course, what we want, the only thing we wanted in the world is for Eve to get better. Yet, with each unfruitful visit inconclusive test, it becomes harder and harder. In fact, not just not harder. It's impossible, impossible. This was sort of this moment we realized we had a vital- Yeah, I mean, an essential choice for sure. Vital choice, which is we could either focus on our pain, on fear, we could fall into a panic about what we might lose or we could focus on being grateful for what we had. And really, we chose the second. So we focused on the good. Even in the smallest moments and expressed gratitude for it. Soon those moments started to add up and in the process, we observed a magical force at play. And when we might have fallen into deep overwhelm, we experienced- and I don't use this word lightly- joy. So we were grateful for music and we got around the piano and sang together. The children put on music, played it loud and danced. We were grateful for nature. We went on walks and we were grateful for books. We read together. We looked for something, anything positive to say to each other and said it. So through it all, there was singing, laughing, eating, make memories, some crying, hugging along the way when the moment called for it. Family and friends reached out, asking if they could pray for Eve. Soon the word spread and the group became a legion. We were thankful for any effort, any medical professional made to try to ease the worry. The most grateful moment was for this neurologist specializing in pediatric movement disorders, which is an unbelievable level of specialty, is who had a nine-month waiting time suddenly called with a cancellation. We met with him two weeks later when the appointment came. The doctor kept us waiting for a couple of hours, at least a couple of hours. And even then when I was tempted to complain Anna said, "Look, I'm thankful he's spending as much time with us as with these other patients, because when he gets to us, he'll do the same." And she was right. When he arrived, his approach was so fresh, different, his whole team was therewith. We were thankful when he was admitted to the hospital so quickly. Even still without proper diagnosis. We're thankful when she came over, even though she was nauseous, vomiting, sick. We're thankful to find that that was in effect, the side effect of the treatments. We're thankful that a couple of days later we saw some improvements. We are thankful that she started being able to speak a little more than walk properly. And so then these blossomed into full-force jokes. And we believed that the worst passed. Eve continues to get better. We hope that she will still yet to make a complete recovery. Here's the thing. Now, I know I know that most people listening to this have not had their daughter... You know have to watch their daughter wither into a shell of their former self. But I think that most people listening to this have experienced, especially in this current climate. Unexpected challenges, significant shifts in expectation, big expectation failures globally and look, I mean, here is really what one of the things that we learned from this experience was this: When you focus on what you lack, you lose what you have. When you focus on what you have, you get what you lack. And I think that this is such a vital thing to remember in these circumstances that when we start to complain, we find that we have many, many more things to complain about. It can be so easily overwhelming and consuming. When we are grateful, we find that there are more things to be grateful for. And this is in fact, not just helpful or better than doing something else. It is catalytic, causative. It propels and transforms the experience that we have in the next moment and it produces such positive momentum. It is something that we can do something about even in circumstances that are in many ways beyond our control.


Brian Lord: And you're someone who, you know, has has been talking about this a long time. But also, you know, for this particular story, I mean, that's a... That's a very kind of raw, fresh thing. And first, thank you for sharing that. And, you know, kind of the world we're living in right now with the coronavirus... And I know you mentioned right before we went on air that it's currently 25 percent of the world population is on lockdown. What do you think is essential for us right now?


Greg McKeown: I think that the word "priority" came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. You know, what's the one thing? It's the first thing. It wasn't pluralized, according to Drucker, for another 500 years. So you know, when you ask that question, I mean I'm thinking about what is the priority. What is the number one thing that we can do now? And I think at least for me personally, it is to create and then protect a positive, beautiful family culture and then the same in the business as a sort of a similar equivalency. That if you- It's a bit like this. I'm not saying, by the way, I'm not saying. Look. Look at the glass half-full versus half-empty. I'm saying- I read this clarification somewhere- What's in the water? That's the question.


Brian Lord: [Laughing] Yeah.


Greg McKeown: Have you gone fly fishing before, Brian?


Brian Lord: I... Yes. Once a long time ago. And I did poorly. Yes. [Laughing]. 


Greg McKeown: Well, here's the thing though about fly fishing. So there's a little trick in fly fishing. I don't know if you did it when you went, but if you wear polarized sunglasses- The way polarized works is that they're vertical lines and they cut out a certain kind of light. And it turns out it's the same kind of light that reflects on the water if you're out fly fishing. So what it means is if you wear polarizing glasses versus other sunglasses, it will neutralize that light reflection and allow you to see under the water. And so you can see where the fish are. And that's what I'm advocating here. This is what I think the priority is, is to be able to... This is what gratitude allows for. It's that you get to see what's in the water, you get to see what's possible here, what assets are here, what's the potential now? What can you build in this that you couldn't before? Instead of simply seeing all that is missing and all we don't know and all that's uncertain in all this. Yes, of course, that stuff is... that's the light reflecting on the water, we can all see that. But it can distract us from the opportunity. And so to me, the priority is to be able to get those polarized glasses on us. The game-changer first so that then we can build on the possibilities in front of us. To me, that's what matters most in these in these situations- in the situation we're in.


Brian Lord: I know a lot of people, you know, it's been years now. I've been having people, you know, whether I go to a business meeting, a church meeting, college stuff, whatever it is, you know, people talk about essentialism. But for those few who haven't heard it, what's a quick recap of what essentialism is, just to give us a little more foundation?


Greg McKeown: Essentialism is the disciplined, continual pursuit of what is essential. It's based on the idea that only a few things matter, are disproportionately important and most stuff is trivial noise. Once you understand that, once you have that perspective, you start to do three things spontaneously. One, you actually explore, look for what is essential! If a few things really matter, if you really believe that, it's worth investing the time and energy to find out what those are instead of just jumping reactively to everything. Number two is that you automatically, spontaneously start to eliminate the non-essential stuff. I mean, if you know that it's of total trivial value. Compared to the essential things, then you want nothing to do with it. You solve your investment in that energy by investing in what's essential. And number three is that you make that as easy and effortless as possible by creating systems and routines to support executing what matters most. So it's a mindset followed by these three skills to explore, eliminate and execute. That's essentialism.


Brian Lord: Now, I'm always curious to know where people come upon these types of things. So was that something you learned from your parents or when did you get onto this path?


Greg McKeown: I spent... Well, I had an experience that helped to clarify this for me. I got an email from my colleague at the time that said Friday between 1 and 2 p.m. will be very bad for your wife to have a baby. Otherwise, I mean, because I needed to be at a client meeting. And look, back then, that was probably just a throwaway comment, probably nothing. But for me, I was still feeling torn so that when we were in the hospital Thursday night, our daughter was born in the middle of the night, Friday morning we're there. Everybody's ok, we're all healthy enough. I'm still feeling torn to go to the meeting. And to my shame, I did go to it. And the colleagues said afterward, "Look, the client will respect you for the choice you just made." And, you know, maybe- Well, I don't think they did, because the look on their faces didn't evince that sort of confidence. But, even if they did, you know, it's clear that I made a fool's bargain. And what I learned from that lesson is really simple. It was this: If you don't prioritize your life, someone else will.


Brian Lord: Right. Right.


Greg McKeown: That was a personal experience I had while I was also observing a similar pattern in a business setting. Where I noticed that companies that were once focused and successful, started having so many options and opportunities and in pursuing them, they started to plateau in their progress or fail altogether. I call it the Success Paradox. And I just realized, look, this is the same thing, the same thing is happening in both situations. This organizational level inside these businesses and in my personal life is the same phenomenon. To give it a name now, non-essentialism. It's non-essentialism where you're just doing too many things. They may be good things. You're trying to straddle it. You're reacting to everything. You are straddling everything. And as a result, it's very hard to get the most important things done because it's all just cluttered amidst the trivial many. So that's the enemy of our story, is non-essentialism. Essentialism is the antidote to that.


Brian Lord: Now, you also... One of the things that you talk about is essentialism in a VUCA world. So I think I think that's a military term. But maybe could you explain that that term and how it applies?


Greg McKeown: It is a military term and it stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. And really, not only is this apparent right now in March 2020, right? This is viscerally true right now, people feel this. It is also just more broadly true in a modern, interconnected, hyper-connected world. And so the way that we approached prioritization 30, 40, 50 years ago, 200 years ago. Is going to be insufficient to the challenge at hand right now. When we were just talking before this began, you know, this virtual keynote that I did on Friday was before India and the United Kingdom are now shut down. It's unbelievable! This is just unbelievable. Just two hugely important countries in the world just "OK, that's it. Please stay at home." Completely, you know, some version of what we all call lockdown, right? Various kinds. So in a world like that, where it can move and change so much, you've got to increase your prioritization capability. It becomes its own leadership competence. The ability to figure out all of this noise, what's the vital voice? Out of the trivial many, what is most important right now? That ability is to me, it's the most relevant ability of the 21st century. Like, I don't think of anything that even can compare with it, in fact. To able to figure out what really matters, cut out the rest of it, eliminate the non-essential stuff and make it as easy as possible to make meaningful progress on the thing that you now see as important. This to me is the very key ability.


Brian Lord: Now, you're from London originally. You live in the U.S. and you've traveled the world. Are there some places that are better at essentialism than others?


Greg McKeown: Well, that's an interesting question. What honestly comes to mind, I was invited to- this is very, very namedroppy- but I was invited by the Prince of Norway.


Brian Lord: [Laughing] That's the best name- I'm around namedroppers a lot and that's the best one today!


Greg McKeown: If the Prince of Norway invites you to do something, you have to tell somebody that the Prince of Norway asked you to do something! That's how it seems to me anyway. And so he invited me to come to an innovation conference that he was putting on, you know, in Norway. And there were there were so many things about that trip that that gave me the sense that essentialism as a culture could be scaled to the national level. And so in his case, I mean, they had been- Actually they had the Olympics in Norway, the Winter Olympics had been scheduled this is many years out at the time- And there'd been back and forth discussions about this with the Olympic Committee. And I don't know all the details about it. But in the end, from Norway's point of view, they just said, "No, we're not going to do it." They withdrew from the Olympics and they reasoned that the Olympic Committee was simply asking for way too many things, too many perks, too many expenses for the committee and its extended organization. That's just not Norway's way. So the court the royal court prides itself on being, you know, what I'm looking for, not frivolous, it's the opposite... Frugal! And so it's just not the way they do it. It's not a big fanfare. They want to be simple. They want it to be clean and simple. And I just got to build on this for a second, that there's a great contrast between the United Kingdom and Norway. In one specific example that I researched- I had to do it for when I was writing essentialism- the North Sea oil was found at the same time, and it was the divided... that North Sea oil was divided between Norway and United Kingdom because of where it's found. And you can argue about how the UK used the proceeds that came from that, that windfall. But you cannot argue about whether it was used. It has been used. Meanwhile, over in Norway, they have not only not used it, so they built it up into the largest single sovereign fund in the world, over a trillion dollars. They also have rules that they've asked around how much they can use each year. So they have some sort of return on that fund, something like 5 percent. They can't use any more than that. And then culturally, here is the interesting point of the whole thing to me is that culturally, the culture around it so strong, they don't even use what they are allowed to use in the law, so to me that it is an illustration of the power of culture around, "Just because we could doesn't mean we should. Doesn't mean we will." Just because you can spend the money doesn't mean you have to. Just because you have the time doesn't mean you ought to just give it away on to something not non-essential. And so that's it. To me, there's an illustration, a story in there that we can apply directly back to ourselves around creating a buffer. Resource buffer, time buffer to allow us to handle the unexpected things that are certainly going to come. We don't know what they are, but we know that unexpected things are going to come.


Brian Lord: Now to finish up, if you were going to give some answers here, I want to make this change. What would you give them that they could do ten minutes after listening to this to get started on that path?


Greg McKeown: You know, what I would say is really take some time. I recommend that in normal circumstances, people take a personal quarterly offsite. And if you really look across your life and you say, look, what's going well, what's working, let's celebrate the things that are working and then let's build on those by choosing no more than three goals for the quarter. This is part of the "what's important now process" and that you identify "Look if I don't get anything done over the next 90 days, what's the most important thing I get done?" And once you've identified that, you move to number two, number three. That's when, you know, the 90-day personal quarter offsite is done is you can answer those questions clearly. And a lot of people cannot answer those questions clearly or confidently. And so then what you do with that is you have that right by your bedside table, you get the phone out of your room- Phone has no business being in your bedroom. That's my point of view- And so every morning you do the grid glance. Right? You do a glance at those goals so that you are priming yourself for that today so that when you start saying, "Look what's important now," especially when there's such uncertainty. You keep coming back to these goals. You can change the goals if you need to. Of course, you can. But it allows you to come back to something that you've chosen deliberately and intentionally rather than just react.

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