One Big Thing

A look at Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

Right off the bat, I love the writing style with which the author presents this information. And regarding that information, adhering to the materials will have a profound impact on my life.

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

Greg McKeown, Essentialism

How many days have I woken up with a general idea of what I would like to accomplish? How many times did I go into a weekday or weekend with an exhaustive to-do list? Since I build in planning time into my schedule for these two endeavors, daily and weekend, I say nearly all the time. But, and this is a really big but, how often do those items get crossed off the list? Unfortunately, not as often as I would like.

Too often things come up. I have a bad night’s sleep, I get lost in social media or unproductive reading, or I fail to say no to something that is not on the list. Tasks get pushed down the list, pushed off until tomorrow, or rescheduled into the next weekend. In essence, I procrastinate. I lose my sense of urgency and fail to accomplish the mission.

Because I am a fox and not a hedgehog, I never accomplish the one big thing. Sadly, I am a non-essentialist. I overachieve in the unimportant and grossly underachieve in the things that matter most.

Since reading Good to Great by Jim Collins and now The Essentialist, I have started asking myself these two questions every morning:

  • What activity is essential?
  • What is the one thing that I must work on that will get me closer to what matters most to me?

For any activity that falls outside of that activity, I must ask myself whether it is a part of my plan. I must weigh the activity according to its cost versus the benefits.

  • What will it cost compared to other activities on my list?
  • Will this detract from the things that matter most to me (family, personal growth, business)?

If the activity generates a greater cost than the benefits, why would I consider doing it? For example, I am a sucker for gathering knowledge for the sake of having knowledge. I used to tell myself this was for the purpose of being as well-rounded as possible. This was great in the past because I did not have a clear direction of where I wanted to go in life. But now that I have a very clear direction, how does non-pertinent knowledge bring me closer to my intended destination? It doesn’t. Therefore, my time would be better allocated to the pursuit of knowledge in my field. I would rather be a master of my craft (hedgehog) than a mediocre jack-of-all-trades (fox).

How do I do this? in a nutshell, I must determine what is essential. From there, I must learn to eliminate all the nonessentials. On paper, this is an easy formula for success, yet the reality is not so easy. It is a skill requiring vigilance and practice. If this is something I can master, which I believe I can, then my to-do list will have many less items on it and will be far more achievable. This will get me down the road and closer to my intended destination with less deviations along the way.

We can all purge our lives of the nonessential and embrace the way of the Essentialist—in our own ways, and in our own time, and on our own scale. We can all live a life not just of simplicity but of high contribution and meaning.

Greg McKeown, Essentialism

Fox or Hedgehog

I.

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” -Archilocus

The fox is crafty and intelligent. He can create elaborate strategies to gain a hunting advantage over the hedgehog.

The hedgehog on the other hand is simple. He knows how to do one thing. When danger is on the horizon, he will roll into a prickly ball.

II.

Ask me a few months ago which I would rather be, a hedgehog or a fox, I would have said a fox. Why not? A fox can do so much. Not being a one-trick pony, he can use the full array of his skills to plan, strategize, and execute. Why be simple when you can be complex? Complex is alluring, even sexy, whereas simple is just that, it is simple, maybe even a bit boring.

I have lived my life as a fox. And now I wonder, where has it gotten me? I can perform a multitude of odds and ends but not well enough to make it a profession. I can spout off a ton of random knowledge, yet who would be willing to hire me as a consultant? Even worse, I can dabble here and there on a plethora of projects. How many of these get finished? Not enough! As much as I try to be a fox, I have never successfully hunted a hedgehog.

III.

Oh, that I was a hedgehog! What would it be like to know one thing perfectly? How excellent would it be to execute, without flaw, one single task? The foxes may scoff, but they will never be able to compete with a hedgehog. A handyman may be able to perform a wide array of activities, but will they be able to compete with a master carpenter?

As I look to a new business, the allure is to do a little of everything. But touching upon a little of a lot will prevent the mastery of one. Do I want to be an amateur dabbler, or do I want to find mastery in the one big thing that will take my little upstart from mediocrity to excellence?

IV.

Hedgehogs see what is essential, and ignore the rest.

Jim Collins

In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins writes about businesses that employ the Hedgehog Concept. These companies made a transition from being average to leading their respective industries. To do so, they found the intersection of three circles based on the following three questions:

What can you be the best in the world at?

What drives your economic engine?

What are you deeply passionate about?

Understanding and finding the intersection between these three questions, one can determine where to put the focus. This is the essential business of the hedgehog. Everything else should be ignored.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

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Do you ever read a book that just seems magical? I’m not speaking about magic in a book, but the words, the content, the meanings all seem magical. When I read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, that was what I experienced magic.

Once all of my self was overcome and had died, once every desire and every urge was silent in the heart, then the ultimate part of me had to awake, the innermost of my being, which is no longer my self, the great secret.

When I was young, I was very passionate about living a “holy” life. I had thoughts of becoming a missionary. I wanted to run away from the things of this world and live in obscurity in the most meager way. Reflecting back on it, I think part of me was scared and lost. I wasn’t ready for the great, big world and instead wanted to seclude myself in the smallest part of it I could find.

In my 20’s and 30’s, my eyes  were opened up to the ways of the world. I left the part of me that wanted to live as an ascetic behind. I began to live for pleasure. The things I consumed were not because I needed it, but because I wanted it. It was during this time, I allowed the undesirable things to slowly creep into my life. The darkness began to seep into my soul and threatened to corrupt the things I once held precious. During this time, I was still trying to escape. The memories of my youth haunted me. I began to live in the past, dulled in the present, and blind to the future.

Then a time came when those worldly things were no longer important. They began to lose their luster. Food became less about pleasing my belly, and more about fueling my body. Alcohol no longer became a tool of escape to dull the senses. My mind and my body even started to reject the idea of laziness. Those things of the world now seem vain and fleeting. Worthless.

This is how it is when Siddhartha has a goal, a resolution. Siddhartha does nothing, he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he passes through the things of the world like a rock through water, without doing anything, without stirring; he is drawn, he lets himself fall. His goal attracts him, because he doesn’t let anything enter his soul which might oppose the goal.

img_0471As I move into this next stage of my life, I am also drawn to a goal. I am attracted by the things which are greater than myself. I am striving toward that which goes beyond this lifetime.

Even with him, even with your great teacher, I prefer the thing over the words, place more importance on his acts and life than on his speeches, more on the gesture of his hand than his opinions. Not in his speech, not in his thoughts, I see his greatness, only in his actions, in his life.