Monday, June 14, 2021

Book Review: Essentialism

 My Weight Training Coach, The Berserker, is a man whom I both enjoy and fear.  He is a deep thinker and thoughtful man.  He is dedicated to the practice of training and strength (over the period of about five years, he increased his mass - mostly muscle - from around 200 lbs. to somewhere around 315 lbs.) and passes that intensity to his workouts.  I fear him because, well, he takes suffering in the form of workouts to a new level.  But I can assure you, his suffering (even to me) has brought results.

So when he recommends a book for me to read, I read it.

I first read this book in 2017, and have re-read it at least once a year since then.

McKeown's basic premise is this "....the basic value proposition of Essentialism:  only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter."  Later he states "...the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the non-essentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have smooth, clear passage.  In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making the execution of those things almost effortless."

The image McKeown uses is that of cleaning a closet.  First one assesses what is in the closet, then one organizes and cleans out the closet, and then one maintains the closet by making sure it does not return to its original state.

To start, suggest McKeown,  is to Explore your options.  The Essentialist, says McKeown, experiments with things more than others because they are trying to find what their highest and best contribution is.  They look at things, play with things, examine things.  They sleep (Protect the Asset).  And then they make a determination on what their most important contribution is.

Next, says McKeown, is Eliminate.  Having identified the highest contribution they can make, they go about clearing their decks to allow them to spend their time at things they have identified.  This removal of items should not be thought of simply in terms of things or interests; it extends to commitments and people and ideas and ways of thinking.  The Essentialist is ruthless in this, the way doctor is ruthless in dealing with any infected flesh:  all that is not necessary must be removed.

Finally is Execute.  In this, says, McKeown, the Essentialist finds ways to make execution on these identified contributions effortless.  They add buffer to their lives to concentrate, they work to remove obstacles, they find ways to increase small wins so they can engage themselves, they find ways to establish flow and focus on their activities.

All of this, says McKeown, is leading to a point:  the Essentialist becomes what they are doing, or in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "What you seem to be, be really." By focusing on the areas that one can have the greatest contribution and control of one's actions, one brings one's inner and outer being into alignment.  We become that which we are focusing on and making a priority.

This book has been immensely helpful to me.  I have read it, as I have mentioned, at least once a year for the last four years.  Every years I gain a little more from it.  Every year I try to narrow my focus and remove items which are no longer relevant (which is, actually, surprisingly difficult).  Every year I try to continue to find what my greatest contribution will be.

And perhaps ultimately, that is what I like about this book.  It does not try to dictate what one's highest contribution is; it acknowledges that it can and will be different for everyone.  What is important is that one finds that contribution beneath detritus of a world that will happily load us with trivialities and unimportant issues - "Majoring in the minors", as Stephen Covey said.

If you need a focusing tool or just a refresher course in how to actually work on finding your greatest contribution in life, this is an excellent place to start.


  1. Kind of off your main topic but if I could, I don't think I would ever elect to be 315 pounds of muscle. Life just seems easier all around being smaller and few times during it would that much strength be required.

    1. Ed, it is interesting in that it was a specific challenge he gave himself: How strong could he get? In his case, it matches well with his lifestyle and his career of martial artist and strength trainer.

      There is (as I have been discovering) a whole discussion about how much strength mass one could - and should put on. By one calculator I found, I am in about the 90% percentile for males my age, height, and build. One the one hand, that is nice and a verification of the past 6 years I have spent training with him. On the other hand, it means that anything from here gets harder.

      Being strong is helpful, just like being smaller is helpful in different situations. My strength level is such that I can do most things I would want or need to do, which is really what I was trying for.

  2. Good review, TB. I definitely agree with the concept.

    1. Leigh, I do too. I like the fact that it is one of those books that every year I read it, I figure out a little bit more. Given another ten years, maybe I will arrive.

  3. I am in the process of ordering my life based on a new diagnosis. I have struggled with much since I was a kid. Now I know why. Pills don't produce skills, so there is much work to be done. I feel a bit weird since I'm closing in on 60... But your book recommendation rings true. And I'm ordering it today.

    Thank you for the influence you have brought into my life. It has been for good and not ill. I TRULY thank you for putting your life out here for me to learn from. I regard you as a fellow pilgrim, a brother yet unseen.

    1. STxAR, I am at least grateful you got a new diagnosis - hopefully something that you can actually work on. And closing in on 60 - I will be honest, I think most of us here are getting there, if not over it. You are in good company, friend.

      I hope the book is useful. I have certainly found it to be.

      If in some way my writings have helped even one person, then the effort is all worth it and you are more than welcome. We are all pilgrims on this road of Life - and we Old Ones have to stick together!


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