Essentialism by Greg McKeown

How Essentialism by Greg McKeown changed my life. 

A Little Story

Once upon a time, there was a young warrior. His life was full to the brim with learning new skills, new hobbies, new interests, virtually every activity you can imagine. As a proud Generalist, he thought that was how it was supposed to be. The more the better. The newer the better. The faster the better. Being on the move all the time he didn’t notice that he was spreading himself very thin over a broad range of activities. He was good in a lot of things but great in none. He was interested in a lot of things, but not on the top of the game in any of them. He was motivated by a lot of things but began to notice that he became exhausted. Slowly, day by day he spent less time doing the thing he loved most: reading books. Nevertheless, he wanted to keep learning Spanish, keep making money, keep DJ-ing, keep studying, keep writing, keep playing music, keep drawing, keep running, keep doing handstands and keep meeting with friends. He didn’t want to quit with one of these because all were so fun and challenging. So, he said to himself, “I will work harder!” like Boxer the workhorse in Animal Farm to fit all these things into his schedule.

One day on a vibrant spring day, the warrior noticed the smell of growing grass and the opened flower buds while walking in the park. He saw in the distance a little girl with a flower in her hand, trying to give this gift to her mother. However, the mother didn’t seem to notice. She was on her phone. While seeing how desperately this little girl reached with the flower to her mother’s back, I could not help but think: “Does this mother know what is essential?”

A few days later the warrior got covid and needed to be quarantined. He had to cancel a lot of plans, but as a substitute, he obtained time for himself. After reminiscing about the little girl and her mother he realized he was not that different from the mother. He knew deep down that virtually every of his so-called interest was not that essential. But which of them were the truly essential ones? That was the question. With the help of the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown, he moved step-by-step toward the answer to this question.

The Three E's

After writing a post about Generalism two weeks ago, I thought it would be interesting to write something about the book Essentialism. I remembered that this book reminded me of specialism, so it would be nice to compare it with the book Range. I decided to re-read Essentialism. However, to my surprise, I realized I was wrong, plainly wrong.

The basic structure of Essentialism exists of three things: Explore, Eliminate, and Execute. Exploring many options is actually a characteristic of Generalists. This confused me. Wasn’t Essentialism about Specialism? Apparently not the way I thought. Nonetheless, I like that the first step is exploration because it is my “specialty”. I can say that Curiosity is my thing. From the second step on, however, my expertise ceases. Eliminating is my Achilles’ heel. I find it enormously difficult to say no to opportunities, requests, or invitations. This requires Courage that I don’t always have. The last step, Execution, can be fairly easy with the right tips and tricks once you know which are your essentials in life. Though, it is important to stay Honest with yourself on which activities you should execute.

After reading the book, I realized something: Generalism and Essentialism don’t necessarily exclude each other. They are in an interesting symbiosis. I’m trying to become an Essentialistic Generalist or Generalistic Essentialist, which way around, I don’t know yet.

“I wish you the Curiosity to Explore, the Courage to Eliminate the unessential, and the Honesty to Execute a life that is true to yourself”

How To Discover Your Essentials

What I’m going to propose right now might sound like kicking in an open door. Nevertheless, I recommend answering these three following as concrete as possible. Most people have a vague, general idea about the answers to these questions, but the clarity of purpose doesn’t hurt you. Here are the three questions you should ask yourself according to Greg McKeown:

  • What am I deeply passionate about?
  • What taps my talent?
  • What meets a significant need in the world?


The overlap of these three is what should be your essentials.

How To Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

In order to keep your essentials your essentials and don’t let your life fill with non-essentials, you can use two strategies:

1. The Mountain

The best-selling author Neil Gaiman proposed the following in his commencement speech. Try to imagine where you want to be as a distant mountain. When you don’t know if you should or should not do something, think about whether it takes you towards or away from your mountain.

2. Memento Mori - Memento Vivere

Remember that you will die – Remember to live. Realize your time is limited. Why would you spend time on non-essentials? As an exercise, you can look up your life expectancy and turn it into days. Then you can calculate how many days of these you have already had. I have already had 7786 days of my 27225 days. This was a revelation to me.

Extra 1: The 50 Book Project & Essential Intent

The concept of essential intent laid out in this book is something I find severely interesting. Essential intent is the combination of statements like “I want to change the world” or “I want to help people” that are inspirational, but not so actionable as statements like “I will read book 50 books” of which it is possible to measure progress but are too bland. Both inspiration and actionability are important to keep motivation at a high level.  

So, I was thinking about the essential intent of this blog. My first brainstorming resulted in statements like: “Sharing life-changing ideas since 2021”, and “Lifelong Learning Through Books” but those were not actionable enough. Then I thought of “The 50-book project” and with it, came the right Essential Intent:

“On a quest to search for the 50 most lifechanging books”

(To convince people to read more of the right books and learn more as a consequence)

Why is this such a good essential intent in my opinion? Let’s break this sentence down into three parts.

“On a quest to search for…” highlights the fact that the journey is more important than the destination, which I’ve learned from Jordan Peterson. It highlights that life is dynamic and only by acting and experimenting do you find what is right. This blog is the perfect example of it. I started with it to share my thoughts on books I have read creatively, but I didn’t know where it was leading. However, by reading this book Essentialism and writing about essential intents in this blogpost I realized what the purpose of this blog is.

“…. the 50 …” makes it very concrete. Now I know that I am going to search for 50 books. 50 motivates me because I know it is doable but challenging enough at the same time. It will require dedication and time to find those 50.

“… most lifechanging books.” Books have always been and will stay the focus of this blog, but why do I use this overly used word “lifechanging”?  Well, the thing is, I love books that are very practical and are about things you can apply in real life. I want that after I’ve read a book, I:

  • Learned something new
  • Am inspired to change for the better
  • Know how to take action to make that change

When I can check off all of the three requirements above, I know I have read a terrific book. In that case, it would be a shame to call it anything different than “lifechanging”

Extra 2: Just Stop - Another Little Story

As a 10-year-old boy who was tall for his age chances were high that I would go out and play basketball or volleyball. I chose basketball. I loved playing basketball and I was rather good at it, not the best player you would have seen, but good enough to play across the country. With a father who had played soccer at high leagues and a grandfather who watched every game I played it was clear that my family supported me in my basketball career. Years passed. I changed clubs, won championships, and trained hard. All of a sudden Covid-19 came and we were not able to train and play basketball for a long time. I soon realized I didn’t miss playing basketball. This was the first time I even dared to ask myself, “Can I just stop?” This thought didn’t come unexpectedly, the last years I had spent many hours driving to trainings and games all over the country, sacrificing time with friends. At the same time, I got very few minutes on the field. The input/output ratio was clearly out of balance. I wanted to stop but stopping was way more difficult than I thought. “How would I keep fit? Am I just being weak, and I should keep training hard? Then probably one day I will get my minutes on the field, like my father always says. And, oh yes, I should not forget my grandfather he would be disappointed when he hears that I will stop,” were thoughts that ran trough my head.

Eventually I made the choice. I just stopped.

Some of my predictions were right. My father and grandfather were indeed disappointed. Other predictions were wrong: I managed to stay fit. However, none of it mattered. The advantages outbalanced the disadvantages. Suddenly, I had way more time on my hands and started reading, writing, and even a blog. It all started with one decision. Just stop.

Extra 3: My personal clean-up

Things I stopped doing:

  • Basketball
  • Instagram, Snapchat
  • YouTube for fun
  • Watching TV on my own
  • Student jobs: DJ, tutoring & working in a bookstore


Things I could start because of that:

  • Read More Warrior
  • Reading more books
  • Learning Spanish
  • Starting a book club
  • Learn to play the ukulele
  • Learning to perform a handstand

Your Turn

Think about one thing you did today that was non-essential. Try to stop doing this. If you need help with it, Atomic Habits is an informative book that helps you to erase a non-essential bad habit.

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