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The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,

The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

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Why don’t successful people and organizations automatically become very successful? One important explanation is due to what I call “the clarity paradox,” which can be summed up in four predictable phases:

Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.
Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

Curiously, and overstating the point in order to make it, success is a catalyst for failure.

We can see this in companies that were once darlings of Wall Street, but later collapsed. In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins explored this phenomenon and found that one of the key reasons for these failures was that companies fell into “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” It is true for companies and it is true for careers.

Here’s a more personal example: For years, Enric Sala was a professor at the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. But he couldn’t kick the feeling that the career path he was on was just a close counterfeit for the path he should really be on. So, he left academia and went to work for National Geographic. With that success came new and intriguing opportunities in Washington D.C. that again left him feeling he was close to the right career path, but not quite there yet. His success had distracted him. After a couple of years, he changed gears again in order to be what he really wanted: an explorer-in-residence with National Geographic, spending a significant portion of his time diving in the most remote locations, using his strengths in science and communications to influence policy on a global scale. (Watch Enric Sala speak about his important work at TED). The price of his dream job was saying no to the many good, parallel paths he encountered.

What can we do to avoid the clarity paradox and continue our upward momentum? Here are three suggestions:

First, use more extreme criteria. Think of what happens to our closets when we use the broad criteria: “Is there a chance that I will wear this someday in the future?” The closet becomes cluttered with clothes we rarely wear. If we ask, “Do I absolutely love this?” then we will be able to eliminate the clutter and have space for something better. We can do the same with our career choices.

By applying tougher criteria we can tap into our brain’s sophisticated search engine. If we search for “a good opportunity,” then we will find scores of pages for us to think about and work through. Instead, we can conduct an advanced search and ask three questions: “What am I deeply passionate about?” and “What taps my talent?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” Naturally there won’t be as many pages to view, but that is the point of the exercise. We aren’t looking for a plethora of good things to do. We are looking for our absolute highest point of contribution.

 

Enric is one of those relatively rare examples of someone who is doing work that he loves, that taps his talent, and that serves an important need in the world. His main objective is to help create the equivalent of National Parks to protect the last pristine places in the ocean — a significant contribution.

Second, ask “What is essential?” and eliminate the rest. Everything changes when we give ourselves permission to eliminate the nonessentials. At once, we have the key to unlock the next level of our lives. Get started by:

  • Conducting a life audit. All human systems tilt towards messiness. In the same way that our desks get cluttered without us ever trying to make them cluttered, so our lives get cluttered as well-intended ideas from the past pile up. Most of these efforts didn’t come with an expiration date. Once adopted, they live on in perpetuity. Figure out which ideas from the past are important and pursue those. Throw out the rest.
  • Eliminating an old activity before you add a new one. This simple rule ensures that you don’t add an activity that is less valuable than something you are already doing.

Third, beware of the endowment effect. Also known as the divestiture aversion, the endowment effect refers to our tendency to value an item more once we own it. One particularly interesting study was conducted by Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler (published here) where consumption objects (e.g. coffee mugs) were randomly given to half the subjects in an experiment, while the other half were given pens of equal value. According to traditional economic theory (the Coase Theorem), about half of the people with mugs and half of the people with pens will trade. But they found that significantly fewer than this actually traded. The mere fact of ownership made them less willing to part with their own objects. As a simple illustration in your own life, think of how a book on your shelf that you haven’t used in years seems to increase in value the moment you think about giving it away.

Tom Stafford describes a cure for this that we can apply to career clarity: Instead of asking, “How much do I value this item?” we should ask “If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?” And the same goes for career opportunities. We shouldn’t ask, “How much do I value this opportunity?” but “If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?”

If success is a catalyst for failure because it leads to the “undisciplined pursuit of more,” then one simple antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less. Not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials. Not just once a year as part of a planning meeting, but constantly reducing, focusing and simplifying. Not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but being willing to cut out really terrific opportunities as well. Few appear to have the courage to live this principle, which may be why it differentiates successful people and organizations from the very successful ones.

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Comments (41)

  1. LOVE THE THOUGHT AND CREATIVE SYNERGY,,,,WORTH A READ!

  2. Dan Hinmon says:

    Thanks, Greg, for this excellent post. I’m at the Oregon coast watching the waves pound the beach on a mini-retreat. Just the clarity I’m looking for as I eliminate the unessential for 2013 and forward.

  3. Vikas Mittal says:

    Very true! Some where along the path, we get distracted and therefore lose focus on the Why?
    Less is actually MORE

  4. Andrew says:

    Very good theories, worth a read and application

  5. [...] the full Harvard Business Review article The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown Posted in How To – [...]

  6. [...] people end up doing lots of projects well but are distracted from what would otherwise be their highest point of contribution which I define as the intersection of talent, passion and market (see more on this in [...]

  7. Given Edward says:

    This article is the greatest I ever came across talking about discovering inner self in careers. Thanks!

  8. Wendy Cobrda says:

    This article is quite interesting — and I acknowledge that it is important to stay focused. Yet at the same time, serendipity can rule when it comes to being the kind of broad-thinking, multi-problem-solving employee that companies need to innovate.

    Frustration comes from the belief that their is only one solution to a problem, and those with particular industry experience are best for coming up with solutions. On the contrary, I have found that the most enthusiastic, passionate people who are relentless at finding a solution can come up with the best ideas.

    If you allow yourself to stay too close to a planned path, you’ll never have the chance to think holistically about anything. You fall prey to myopic ruminations — while your competitors leap ahead.

  9. Given Edward says:

    One of the greatest articles I’ve ever come across on the internet!

  10. Yusra Tamimy says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. I understand that this is great for a person who is starting a career. But if you have found yourself to be in this rut for a while, is it easy to fix?

  11. Jyothis says:

    Great! good way to look back and take what is needed….

  12. SIVA KUMAR P says:

    The stepping stones for the peaks….

  13. RS says:

    Thank you for the insight and sound advice!
    RS

  14. Warren Franks says:

    I’m 70 years old. My father died in an automobile accident when he was 57. While I was going through his personal effects (closets, office, library, etc.) I found he had apparently never owned a suit he didn’t plan to keep forever, or a piece of paper that didn’t have prospective future value. I made a mental note not to leave the same legacy to my heirs.

    It hasn’t worked, yet. The clutter in my closet, on my desk and in my life is awesome. I am, once again, prompted by your article to do something about it….. Stay tuned.

  15. Joni says:

    Thought provoking and intelligent…nice.

  16. Dr. Mukund P Kakade says:

    Hi,

    Mr. Greg McKeown,

    Great through process. It will definitely help all
    of us.

    Thank you,

    Warm Regards.

    Dr. Mukund P Kakade.

  17. Pelak says:

    This article has named the highway that I find myself on, thanks for giving a context & definition to this mindset so I can more easily follow the path.

  18. P P Gopalakrishnan says:

    Well balanced article!
    May be more acceptable to non Steve Jobs fans!

    Though the main theme of “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” runs as a direct lift from the life and practices of Steve Jobs and many of his achievements at Apple, the author has packaged it well.
    Lucidly written and amply illustrated with examples.

    Liked author’s suggestion of intersection of Talent and Highest Point of Contribution!

    I am a little upset why the author hasn’t given credit to Steve or mentioned Steve, it was his philosophy of remaining focused and saying NO to many good things; as he is the greatest example of simply remaining or rather brutually reamining FOCUSED!

    it was not just a philosophy to Steve, …but he lived his life that way and that has given us, the world, the very best in consumer electronics….!

  19. Sergio Aguiar says:

    Very insightful. Worth reading! Thanks for that article.

  20. This all makes perfect sense. Now I just need to calm down my brain and focus.

  21. Sean says:

    Great advice… “Fortune favors the bold.”

  22. Shikhar says:

    Thanks Greg, for this eye opening article of yours.

    The way you clarify everything with the most simple examples in the world is just awesome.

  23. Luis says:

    Extraordinary article! The logic and argumentation is crystal clear. I argue a similar point in my book “The Seventh Distinction: The Path to Personal Mastery, Leadership & Peak Performance.” Chapter one of my book is titled “Complication vs. Complexity: The Rise of Simplicity.” In short, the chapter defines complexity as the nature of reality; complication as the result of addressing reality the wrong way; and simplicity as the result of addressing reality the right way. What’s the right way of addressing reality you might ask? Well, it is composed of four steps: 1) properly defining the problem being addressed; 2) modeling the problem as a system; 3) identifying the leverage variables within said system (leverage variables are those few ones with the most influence in the system as a whole); and 4) influencing the leverage variables properly in order to change the behavior of the system toward the desired goals. Such a change in behavior and direction is the solution itself, in which case simplicity has been achieved. This methodology is inspired by Peter Senge’s book “The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization.”

  24. Grant Avery says:

    Excellent article!

  25. Prashant Nagre says:

    The idea of ” Highest Point of Contribution” is superb!

    I was fortunate to have been explained this by one of my mentors earlier in career.

    It works!

    Thank you so much.

  26. [...] The Disciplined Pursuit of Less – Harvard Business Review @ Greg McKeown [...]

  27. Denise Chan says:

    Good article. However, some of us do not have a passion from Day 1 but we are shaped by our life experiences. We discard things we thought we are passionate about and have new ones at different stages of our lives based on financial or personal needs. Not everything in life is clear-cut and can be planned for. We only hear about the successes such as the Enric Sala example. Life is to be lived and complexity can be part of our moments in time. The thing I learned from MIT is to continue to be curious, to learn, and to find a way.

  28. This article impacted me profoundly. It makes lots of sense, “more is less” and simplify your life. I think it will help focus an already successful career of almost 40 years for the next 30.

    I will start now, and will check back in 90 days. I will throw a granade to my web site and will do the same with my career and my life.

    Redus, focus and simplify are great guidelines. Follow them.

    I hope soon I can make a contribution as good as this one, thanks Greg.!

  29. Dhan Koolwant says:

    Great Suggestions ! Will try to apply.

  30. Rob Buser says:

    Dear Kathy…

    Great blog.

    Thank you so much. It is already helping me to realize I did the right thing just recently. I just left a billions of dollars opportunity to follow my heart.

    It toke me 6 weeks (until now) …to mentally and physically detox and find my source being again, …yet it was nothing compared with the agony.

    Rob Buser

  31. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for that article!

    The timing couldn’t be more perfect – earlier this week I finally realized that I need to stop jumping at every cool opportunity that comes my way (and there are many all around) because at the end of the day, they’re just distractions from what I really should be doing in order to reach my “true” life goal.

  32. Karen Sexton says:

    Insightful and well-written, thanks for sharing!

  33. [...] See full article here: http://gregmckeown.com/blog/the-disciplined-pursuit-of-less-harvard-business-review [...]

  34. [...] The Production Possibilities Curve in Employees [...]

  35. [...] the full Harvard Business Review article The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg [...]

  36. [...] people end up doing lots of projects well but are distracted from what would otherwise be their highest point of contribution which I define as the intersection of talent, passion and market (see more on this in the Harvard [...]

  37. [...] people end up doing lots of projects well but are distracted from what would otherwise be their highest point of contribution which I define as the intersection of talent, passion and market. Then, both the company and the [...]

  38. This was a wonderful article! Very insightful and helpful. Ironically enough, I am already following the principles outlined here so finding the article made me feel like I am definitely on the right track. This article was meant for me. Kudos, to the writer!!

  39. Jo Ann says:

    Thank you Sir Greg, this idea is really worth living. :)

  40. Wow! Just what I needed to see. I can’t wait to read your book. I find myself feeling just like Sam. Need to focus on the essential.

  41. Vishal Soni says:

    Truly revolutionary….gives crazy level of clarity almost like a sudden flash of light…going through this phase 1 , where i am doing pretty well and hence getting many opportunities….just the right time to know that choosing them well will make a HUGE difference