Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn so that we can make our highest contribution. What’s the most important thing you need to do today? Today I will share a powerful story or two, something counterintuitive I’ve learned, and some highly actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you’ll be able to get clear on the most important thing you need to do today, every day. Let’s go.
If you want to accelerate your learning in today’s episode, commit to spending six minutes within the next 24 to 48 hours to follow the tool that I share with you, and then share that same tool with someone else.
The late writer Nora Ephron is arguably best known for movies like Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle, and When Harry Met Sally, each of which was nominated for an Academy Award. Ephron’s success as a writer and screenwriter has a lot to do with her ability to capture the essence of a story, a skill she honed in her earlier career as a journalist. But for all her years in the high-octane world of journalism, the lesson that affected her most profoundly dates all the way back to her high school years.
Charlie Sims taught a journalism 101 class at Beverly Hills High School. He started the first day of the class that Ephron attended, much the same way any journalism teacher would, by explaining the concept of a lead, he explained that a lead contains the why, what, when, and who of the piece. It covers the essential information. Then he gave them their first assignment, write a lead to a story. Sims began by presenting the facts of the story. Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college President, Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California Governor Edmund Pat Brown.
The students hammered away on their manual typewriters, trying to keep up with the teacher’s pace when they handed in their rapidly written leads, each attempted to summarize the who, what, where, and why. As succinctly as possible. Margaret Mead, Maynard Hutchins, and Governor Brown will address the faculty on or next Thursday, the high school faculty. Sims reviewed the student’s leads and put them aside.
He then informed them that they were all wrong. The lead to the story he said was There will be no school Thursday. In that instant, Ephron recalls, “I realized that journalism was not just about regurgitating the facts, but about figuring out the point. It wasn’t enough to know the who, what, when, and where. You had to understand what it meant and why it mattered.” Ephron added, “He taught me something that works just as well in life as it does in journalism.” (1)
In every set of facts, something essential is hidden, and a good journalist knows that finding it involves exploring those pieces of information and figuring out the relationships between them. And with my undergraduate degree in journalism, I take this seriously. It means making those relationships and connections explicit. It means constructing the whole from the sum of its parts and understanding how these different pieces come together to matter to anyone. The best journalists, wherever they are these days, do not simply relay information. Their value is in discovering what really matters to people.
Have you ever felt lost and unsure about what to focus on? Have you ever felt overwhelmed by all of the information bombarding you and not sure what to make of it? Have you ever felt dizzy from the different requests coming at you and unable to figure out which are important and which are not? Have you ever missed the point of something in your work or at home and not realized your mistake until it was too late? If so, this essentialist skill, and specifically this tool that I’m going to share with you today, has the power of relevancy because it’s not just journalists or budding journalists like in this high school story who bury the lead that is missed the point in all the information.
It’s you, and it’s me in our lives because there’s so much going on at the pace of change is breathtaking. In fact, it literally takes our breath away. Some days we forget to breathe, and I don’t know about you, but for me, at least, it means that every day I wake up with the need to orient myself, to just even figure out what’s going on, what’s really going on, and what do I want to achieve today, what’s even possible. And underneath all of that, what really is the most important thing I need to do today?
Back in episode 19 of this podcast, I interviewed Jo Davey. Jo wrote to me after a life-changing moment. It happened when her mom had not been very well for a few months. She had some infections which wouldn’t go away, and she’d been to the GP about it. Her dad called her up and told her that her mother had been admitted to the hospital, but it was no big deal.
And he made a point of saying that. Do you want me to come? No, no, you’ve got too much on your plate. Don’t worry about it. But she wrote to me about it and said this. I remember that moment exactly where I was sitting, what the weather was like. I remember thinking, what is the most important thing I need to do today? I was a consultant, and I had a big job for a major brand and was working on a day rate, and we needed the money. But something said to me, the most important thing you need to do today is drive down to the hospital, which was two hours away, and see your mom. I went to the hospital. I sent dad home for a rest. Mom told me she loved me. I told her I loved her. An hour later, she had a seizure and was put into a coma in front of me, and a week later, I switched off her life support machine after she died of sepsis.
She concluded it could have been different if I wasn’t an essentialist. And that’s when she decided to write to me to tell me about that moment of trade-off when she could have done something else. She could easily have buried the lead and found herself perhaps not writing the note, but at least reflecting on what she’d missed, how easy it is to do that in life. In fact, how rare it is that we create the space to achieve that clarity.
What can we do to discover the news in our lives every day? What can we do to discover that hidden story of what really matters most? And I should say that it is clear to me that there are infinitesimally, small but infinitely important things in our lives. But the complication is they’re hidden way below the surface, so they’re so valuable.
They’re worth the time to connect the dots and discover them, to develop the skills, to be able to figure them out fast. But they don’t just present themselves to us. By the time the most essential things in our lives present themselves to us, it can be too late to take advantage of the insight. We can get into the situation that the captain of the Titanic was in for those few minutes after he knows that they will crash into that massive iceberg below the surface, but without enough time to be able to turn the ship or stop the ship or do anything at all to protect the coming catastrophe. And what we want is to be able to learn faster than that, to have an early warning system to build into our lives, routines, and rituals, and to be able to discern what matters before it’s too late.
Now, stay with me for a moment as we cross-reference to another more recent episode, episode 165, with Alison Jones. You remember that she wrote the book Exploratory Writing, and you can go back and listen to that episode as well for context, but she has identified the simplest ritual for trying to declutter all that mess that’s in our head, all of the pieces of the lead of our life each day. She discovered in a moment of total chaos and a sort of panic attack that she had in the middle of the night after she’d started her own business and just is so worried about what on earth she’s done. She wakes up and, in that duress, takes a sheet of paper and just writes, just writes with abandonment, writes the rawest thoughts and feelings that she has. And as she does that, she finds that she goes from chaos to clarity to creativity and all in just a few minutes. So she codifies this into a six-minute free writing way of coping with our lives, making sense of it.
That reminds me of another episode with Matthew McConaughey, where he recently described that sometimes we need a connect-the-dots day in our life. But if you’ll connect the dots here with me, you can see there’s a smaller version, a six-minute version of what he’s suggesting, what Alison Jones is suggesting. The question Joe Davy asked at a key moment in her decision-making to be able to do what Nora Ephron learned way back in that high school journalism class.
So here’s what you do. You take a piece of paper blank and ideally throw away, and you write at the top of it your prompt, which is What’s the most important thing I need to do today? And then you write, and you write without stopping, and you write the raw thoughts, the chaos that’s in your head, all of those competing ideas, all of the competing priorities, all that noise. You write it down, all those feelings, you write it down. You time yourself six minutes. Now, you don’t have to stop at six minutes, but I found six minutes is enough. Six minutes seems to be an almost magical number for being able to go from chaos to clarity. And I’ve been doing this over the last few days, and it works, and it takes a little courage because you have to admit that you are full of all of those thoughts and mess and noise that’s in your head. But here’s what’s absolutely marvelous about it, is that all of that noise in your head are the raw materials you need to produce clarity, this is the essence of the creative process. To go from chaos to order. The chaos is part of the creative materials you need. You get to act as the creator of your life to take matter unorganized and organize it into what matters.
So today, wherever you are listening to this, driving along, maybe it’s your commute to work or the commute back. Maybe you’re riding your bike somewhere or going on a walk. Maybe you’re in a beautiful place on the beach and enjoying the beauty of that place. Maybe you’re doing something more mundane. You’re cleaning up in the kitchen right now. What I want to say to you is you’re doing better than you think you matter, and you figuring out what really matters. And if you right now are struggling with all of the different things pulling at you, all of the different voices in your life, all of the different demands coming at you, all the disruptions, digital and in person, or just the mental clutter internally, there’s a way out. But now, within the next 24 to 48 hours, get a piece of paper, get a pen, set a timer for six minutes, and let it all out. Let it work for you. Let it all flow and see if this process doesn’t work for you as well as I’ve now seen it working in my own life. See if it doesn’t help you to see the news hidden in your own life. You won’t find that sitting in your inbox. You will never find it surfing social media. But you might find it in this minute, powerful ritual I’ve been describing here.
All of this brings me back to the marvelous quote from TS Elliot in the Rock, 1934, he wrote, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” But before that well quoted idea, there’s another question he asks, “Where is the life we have lost in living?”
What is one idea you heard today that caught your attention? Why did this matter so much to you? And when will you take action by asking this ritual, just once in your life over the next 24-48 hours. And who will you share this tool, this ritual with so that they can start to adopt this in their life as well?
If you haven’t yet, please sign up for the 1 Minute Wednesday newsletter. There’s probably 150,000 people signed up now, and every week it grows. But be part of the conversation there. It reinforces these conversations you are a part of in the podcast and the books as well to make it a little easier for you to be able to design and live a life that really matters.
If you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive free access to the Essentialism Academy. For more details, go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo. Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. And I’ll see you next time.
- Nwscholasticpress.org. (2018). The Best Journalism Teacher I Ever Had. [online] Available at: http://www.nwscholasticpress.org/the-best-journalism-teacher-i-ever-had/ [Accessed 10 Feb. 2023].