What I changed thanks to reading Essentialism

Why I picked this book

I like reading nonfiction with a specific purpose or problem in mind. This lets me apply what I learn, and learn better by applying it. I picked up this book because I was worried I was chasing after too many things.

I left my full-time job as an employee 8 months ago, hoping to work on my core purpose (increasing our everyday wellness) either as an entrepreneur or as an employee. Since then I traveled, rested, read, thought a lot about what I want to do. My thoughts on wellness matured and turned into three specific projects that I began exploring. But having so much freedom and reading a few books on creativity (The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert) allowed me turn towards creative projects I had abandoned for a long time. Soon, I remembered that I loved living creatively: creating things (stories, podcasts, dances etc.) for the sake of creating them. And I vowed to never stop creating again.

The question then became: can I make everyday wellness my core purpose and also spend a huge chunk of time creating things that are not on the topic of wellness? I could position these creative pursuits as "hobbies" but I didn't want to belittle them as such. But I also didn't want to insist that everything I create touches the topic of wellness. I agreed with Elizabeth Gilbert on not insisting to create for a cause, because doing so puts so much pressure on how and what you create.

So I thought to myself: "I can have two core purposes. Everyday wellness, and living creatively." But as time passed, this bifurcated thinking (plus the concerns of making money) left me feeling like I may be trying to do too many things at once. The exercise of finding a core purpose was for me to feel dedicated and focused on one thing... and now with two different core purposes, I had again lost that sense of focus.

The other day I read an article by Tim Herrera, the editor of the Smarter Living column on New York Times, where he mentioned Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg Keown as one of his all time favorite books. It was about doing less to do more. So I decided to read it with this personal question in mind.

The read

The book feels like a collection of articles (and in fact Greg McKeown says he wrote it as such). Each chapter is short. His ideas are pleasantly supported with stories, analogies, tables, illustrations and summaries. Evidently, I found the book super easy to read and finished it in 3-4 hours. Given I am a slow reader, you could possibly finish it in 2.

Five things I changed thanks to reading it  

Rather than what people learned from a book, I like knowing how they changed thanks to it. So here are 5 ways reading this book changed me. You will be happy to know that I indeed found an answer to my original question.

1) I stopped worrying about doing many things

When I picked up the book I was worried that I chase after too many things, or that I'm a Nonessentialist. But upon reading the first few chapters, I concluded I am indeed an Essentialist. Here are a few reasons why:

  • I live by "less but better". I have eliminated all clutter from my life.
  • I know everything in life is a matter of priorities. It's never that we can't do something, it's that we don't choose to do it.
  • I know most things are noise and only a few things really matter in life: love, health and creativity.
  • I had already attempted to define my core purpose in life (he calls it essential intent).
  • I always try to have an intention behind what I do, buy, take, give, think, say. I find it hard to stay in places (such as companies) where the intent is not clear and hence people are trying to do everything and achieving nothing.
  • Even if I was doing too many things at times, my desire to do less and better was always there. And this desire to do less and better was what McKeown was calling "being an Essentialist at heart". This helped me feel reassured; whatever is nonessential right now will disappear soon enough, because in time I will realize that it is nonessential and let it go. Being an Essentialist is a long term process.

2) I merged my two core purposes into one

Taking courage from the book, I asked if I could merge my two core purposes into one.

I realized that I am passionate about wellness right now because I believe it to be the most important problem of our time. But if in 10 years, I believe something else to be the most important (or interesting) problem, I might move on that one.

On the other side, I never see myself stopping creating, either to help causes I care about or to amuse myself. And I think wellness is simply a strong interest area or a current mission within that umbrella of creating, rather than a core purpose itself. So creating is definitely bigger (or more core) than wellness. But creating is a generic human impulse; every human is a creator in the end. So it doesn't seem to be a core purpose that is specific to me.

After all this reflection, a friend asked me: "What is the impulse behind all that you create? Behind all your work? What drives you?" And I answered: "Nurturing people". I am always driven by nurturing people so that they can create products, find wellness, or find ease and joy. I am always trying to nurture people whether I share a story, a fact, a testimony or a tool. And I am very often trying to nurture myself by dancing, by writing, by spending time in nature. But I am always nurturing someone: myself, another person, or a group of people. So I have to come to believe that this is my core purpose :)

3) I congratulated myself for the time I am taking to decide what to do

Before I left my last job, I felt I was at a big cross roads of my life. I didn't want to be unhappy about work on a daily basis anymore. I didn't want short-term solutions or quick fixes. I wanted to find my path for the long term, once and for all. I went into this pause ready to do A LOT of thinking, writing, talking about what I want to do. And I did do A LOT of it during the past eight months.

I found this self-research to be as much rewarding as frustrating. I wrote and rewrote my story, vision and strategy many many times. I often ended up where I had started. The path was, and still is, nonlinear. I often started testing things without really knowing what I was doing it for. And all of this annoyed me greatly.

So I had a congratulatory moment when in the book, McKeown said that an Essentialist "pauses to discern what really matters." He says that Essentialists take time to think, while others are in a hurry to do.

He recounts his story of quitting law school because it didn't feel like it was what he really wanted to do. It was just something he was told to do to "keep his options open". After quitting, he takes the time to explore "dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different ideas" with his wife as his sounding board. He writes:

Then one day we were driving home and I said, "What if I went to Standford for my graduate work?" There had been a lot of "What if?" questions like that. Usually the ideas just didn't stick. But this time I felt a sense of immediate clarity: in that instant, I just knew, even as the words escaped my lips, that this was the essential path for me.

Reading his words and his story, I felt less alone, less crazy and more encouraged in taking this enormous time and effort to decide what it is I want to do with my life.

And I could relate to his experience of moments of clarity as well. Applying to be a mindfulness teacher was a moment of clarity for me. I knew I wanted to do it from the bottom of my heart when I received the email announcing the program. I had finished the application before I knew it. And I was accepted to the program quickly after that. Finding the essential path is often life this - taking the time to discern, to think, and to wait for those moments of clarity to appear in the thick of frustrating circles.

4) I started sleeping 9 hours per night

I already had read many studies on the positive effects of sleep on health and performance. Sleep is a priority for me. But usually after a long night of sleep, or maybe not being able to get up when I wanted to get up, I still feel a lot of guilt and anger towards myself thinking I wasted precious time to work. I still try to go by with less than 8 hours of sleep.

McKeown presents a study where the best violinists were found to sleep on average 8.6 hours per night and nap for 2.8 hours per week. I guess this was the missing piece of striking information I needed to give myself permission to sleep 9 hours. Now I am scheduling 9 hours of sleep, and napping here and there.

Joke aside, he makes a compelling argument on protecting the asset:

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.

In mindfulness, we frequently mention a similar quote by Suzuki Roshi:

The most important thing is to remember the most important thing.

Being an Essentialist and sleeping 8-9 hours means you do one fewer thing right now in order to do more and better tomorrow. This actually allows you to work harder.

5) I started leaving buffers

Have you ever spent time with someone who is always trying to fit just one more thing in? Such people know they have ten minutes to get to a meeting that takes ten minutes to walk to, but they still sit down to answer a couple of e-mails before they go.

I laughed out loud when I read these lines by McKeown because they describe me more often than I would like to admit :) I am known to be almost always late.

McKeown says "Nonessentialists tend to always assume a best-case scenario .. and chronically underestimate how long something will take: 'This will just take five minutes,' or 'I'll be finished with that project by Friday,' or 'It will only take me a year to write my magnum opus.'" But Essentialists know about the planning fallacy and plus, they build in a buffer for unexpected events. They leave 1 hour out of a 2 hour presentation for questions at the end, not 10 minutes. They start packing for a trip 1 week in advance if they are a single parent with two kids. They acknowledge they cannot predict things that are by definition unpredictable and they engage in extreme planning.

I have been working on not being late to things for years but I had never looked at the topic from this lens. Seeing it as a way of caring about the essential things (such as the coffee I will drink and the time I will enjoy with a friend being more important than the one little thing I will do before I leave) definitely opened my eyes.

Less worry, more focus, self-congratulation, more sleep and not being late – this book was definitely a fast and impactful read for me. There were many things I enjoyed a lot but did not have the time to mention here, such as prioritizing between the customers, employees and shareholders, picking extreme criteria for evaluating opportunities, finding the constraint that slows everything else down, and saying "no" to be less popular but more respected.

I hope you will pick up the book, and if you do, I hope you will enjoy it! If you've already read it, I'd love to know in the comments below how you changed thanks to it!

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