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Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Self-improvement books follow a fairly predictable formula. First, the tone must convey can-do enthusiasm. Anyone who reads a particular self-improvement book, and follows its directions, will successfully accomplish [fill in the blanks]. Second, there must be pages and pages of diagrams and charts and illustrations and various schemes. Bullets appear again and again. This combination of the verbal and the visual reinforces the lessons being taught. It also simplifies the message, which of course is repeated and reiterated and regurgitated in a hundred different ways. Finally, there must be examples, lots and lots of examples reinforcing the fact that anyone who follows the author’s instructions will improve, find success, triumphantly accomplish [fill in the blanks]. Analogies and comparisons help, too, so the reader will grasp the salient points, over and over again.

Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less follows the pattern perfectly. His energetic tone jumps off the printed page. His language is familiar, as if an old friend were chatting with the reader in a bar somewhere. His sentences are short and to the point. “With practice, enforcing your limits will become easier and easier.” His bullets are even terser. “BOUNDARIES ARE A SOURCE OF LIBERATION,” or “MULTITASKING VERSUS MULTIFOCUSING.” Immediately, we get the idea of paring down our options. “The Essentialist doesn’t just recognize the power of choice, he celebrates it.” [Without additional comment, I note the gendered pronoun reference.}

Charts and illustrations abound in McKeown’s book. My favorite diagram occurs on page 6, where he replicates dispersed energy versus focused energy, an elongated arrow pointing off the page alongside a circle that resembles the body of a porcupine. McKeown also takes advantage of white space and black space, sometimes using the negative to reinforce a positive direction. Large type and small, with various fonts, clarifies exactly what is important to remember. Pie charts and lists help, too, always balancing the Nonessentialist clutter with the Essentialist clarity.

I can’t begin to itemize all of the specific examples of Essentialist behavior. McKeown chooses from a wide array of business leaders, managers, speakers, scientists, artists, teachers, and writers to illustrate his logic. From Victor Hugo to Robert Wood Johnson, from Norah Ephron to Sir Isaac Newton, from Nelson Mandela to Warren Buffett, plus an array of common folk, the essential actors display their essentialist behavior. Their stories are fun to read. Especially charming are the author’s own experiences, like taking more time with his wife and his children rather than burying himself in the trivia of his work. The day his daughter was born, for example, he left his wife alone in the hospital while he attended a meaningless meeting. The stupidity of that choice still haunts him, and eventually led him to write Essentialism.

As I mentioned earlier, and must repeat for emphasis, the essential characteristic of a successful self-improvement book is its messaging, over and over again. What you read on page one must reappear in another guise on nearly every page. McKeown not only understands the self-improvement formula, but he manipulates the patterns adroitly, writing more of an archetype than a stereotype. Just for fun, I tested Essentialism. I read the first one hundred pages, then I drafted this review, then I read the remaining one hundred and fifty pages. Only my prose, not the gist of this review, needed to be tweaked. Need I say more?   – Ann Ronald

Also available by McKeown: Multipliers, How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter (co-author Liz Wiseman)

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