Welcome everyone. 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. Have you ever felt like you were too busy living to think about life? By the end of this episode, you will be able to create space to really think. This is number two of four solo episodes about my experience at the University of Cambridge. Let’s get to it.
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Go back with me to the year 1642, which began with the death of Galileo Galli, who was the father of observational astronomy. It ended with the premature birth of Isaac Newton on Christmas Day. Born weighing just three pounds, Newton was described by his mother as small enough to fit in a quart pot. He was expected to live only a few days.
Instead, he lived, and he went on to study at Trinity College Cambridge and also to author what became known as Philosopher Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or often just Principia for short, among other contributions. This extraordinary document codified the three laws of motion as well as the law of universal gravitation, the principles that formed the foundation of the entire field of physics.
These principles explained how physical objects moved through the world. They described the motion of planets in our solar system. They were critical in fueling the scientific revolution and the industrial revolutions that followed. It is no exaggeration to say that they changed the world. Without them, we couldn’t have built the automobile, invented the jet plane, or put a man on the moon.
Of course, Newton’s writings didn’t offer step-by-step instructions for how to build an automotive engine, a jet plane, or a spacecraft. Instead, they offered something far more valuable, a set of principles that could later be applied to automotive engineering, aeronautics, space travel, and much, much more.
As our lives become increasingly busy, overwhelming, and fast-paced, it’s tempting to seek out instructions or methods that we can apply to a problem right away. However, this can sometimes be a mistake because a method may be used once to solve a specific type of problem, but principles can be applied broadly and repeatedly. At their best, they are universal and timeless. Specific methods, in other words, produce only linear results.
If it’s residual results we’re after, we must look to principles. In fact, the word Principia means first principles, fundamental beginnings, or elements. So first principles are like the building blocks of knowledge. Once you understand them correctly, you can apply them hundreds of times.
As Harrington Emerson, the American efficiency engineer known for his pioneering contributions to the field of management, said, “As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods ignoring principles is sure to have trouble.”
What I just shared is an excerpt from page 155 in Effortless. But now I want to connect the dots between that and something I wrote in Essentialism because there’s no Principe Mathematica without Newton having created space to think and to think deeply and to try to discern principles that could apply to many, many different situations.
One executive I know is intelligent. He’s driven, but he’s constantly distracted. At any given time, he will have Twitter, Gmail, Facebook, and multiple IM conversations going all at once. In an effort to create a distraction-free space, he once tried having his executive assistant pull all of the internet cables on his computer, but he still found too many ways to get online. So when he was struggling to complete a particularly big project, he resorted to a desperate measure. He gave his phone away, and he went to a motel with no internet access. After eight weeks of almost solitary confinement, he was able to get the project done.
To me, it is a little sad that this executive was driven to such measures. Yet, while his methods may have been extreme, I can’t argue with his intention. He knew that making his highest point of contribution on a task required that he create this space for unencumbered thought.
Think back to Sir Isaac Newton. He spent two years working on what became Principe Mathematica. His famous writings on universal gravitation on the three laws of motion. This period again, of almost solitary confinement, proved critical to what became a true breakthrough that shaped scientific thinking for now, more than the last 300 years.
As Richard S. Westfall has written, “In the age of his celebrity, Newton was asked how he had discovered the law of universal gravitation. By thinking on it continually was the reply. What he thought on. he thought on continually, which is to say exclusively or nearly exclusively.” In other words, Newton created space for intense concentration, and this uninterrupted space enabled him to explore the essential elements of the universe.
My journey to Cambridge is really inspired by Newton. I have come to Cambridge to think, to step back, to look deeper, to ask new questions, and to search out their answers. My favorite place to be in Cambridge is in the library at Queens College, where I have that greatest and rarest privilege of modern life, the space to think. And while my whole life is not like this still, there are these moments where I’m sitting there rounded by this rarest beauty.
I was there just the other day listening to Vivaldi and reflecting on how could music of this kind come to and through a mind of a single individual. And I find sitting there that it’s just a gift to be able to sit safely thinking, reading, and writing. It’s not at all obvious that such a place would exist, and it’s not obvious to me that it always will. And as I sat there, I was again drawn to thinking about you and how grateful I am for you. Because even as you are listening to this, it’s obvious that you are making a trade-off, that you are investing in yourself.
So many people I speak to will say that the essential thing they’re not investing in is personal development. It’s an area of relative neglect, and here you are investing in it between all the meetings you go to, all the email you respond to, all the slack channel conversations, navigating all the team dysfunctions that modern corporations seem to breed. There can be very little time left to really think even less, to really understand, and I can completely relate.
I am on this pilgrimage cause I am appalled at how much I do not know, and I am determined to do something about it. I am on a mission, as you know, to understand myself, other people, and the world as deeply, accurately, and rapidly as possible. And I am hoping you will join me on this journey because in a place that creates space for thinking, at least for me, I have been drawn to reading recently the three great philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, because I don’t think it’s even possible to understand the world we live in without understanding them.
And sometimes, we just rush along, living out of our inboxes, reacting to the latest text or drama, and we can sense the shallowness of our interactions, our thinking, and our conversations. Or do we, as I have had, some space to think and to think about these great philosophers and their ideas or to think about Sir Isaac Newton and how he lived and how he operated? And then, to go from that and to return to YouTube or Twitter, I am suddenly able to see with fresh eyes the difference in tone and depth in the dialogue, or rather the pitiful shallowness of so much of it.
And so I wonder here, what would happen if you traded off 20 minutes of doom scrolling every day for 20 minutes of reading and thinking about something substantive, something essential? Now maybe you just think, I’m just too busy for doing that. There’s no way for me to try and carve that time out. But no matter how busy you think you are, you can carve out time and space to think.
Jeff Weiner, the former CEO of LinkedIn, for example, took what I think is a pretty radical choice to schedule up to two hours of blank space on his calendar every day. Now he divided them up into 30-minute increments where he schedules nothing. And it’s a simple practice he developed when back-to-back meetings left him with little time to process what was going on around him. And at first, he told me it felt like an indulgence, a waste of time. But eventually, he found it to be his single most valuable productivity tool. He sees it as the primary way he can ensure he is in charge of his day instead of being at the mercy of it.
He explained it to me this way. He said, “I do recall one particular day when by virtue of the circumstances, I was either on conference calls or in meetings nonstop from 5:00 AM until 9:00 PM And at the end of the day, I remember how frustrated I felt by the thought that I was not in control of my schedule that day, rather it was in control of me. However, that frustration immediately gave way to a sense of gratitude, given it was the only day I could recall feeling like that since taking my current role.
For Jeff, at least, creating space to think is more than a practice; it is part of a broader philosophy. He has seen the effects of the undisciplined pursuit of more on organizations and in the lives of individuals. So for him, it’s not a slogan or a buzz phrase; it’s a philosophy, a lifestyle.
Have you ever felt like you were too busy living to think about life? You don’t have to go to Cambridge, you don’t have to be Sir Isaac Newton. You don’t have to be the CEO of LinkedIn to be able to do something about this. Start in the smallest possible way, block some time, block some blank space, go on a walk, getaway, and make it repetitive so that you can create space to really think.
What’s one thing that stood out to you in today’s episode? What is one thing you can do about it immediately? I mean, in the next few minutes in your life. What can you do to create space to think? And who is someone you can bring with you on this journey who can listen to this episode together with you, who can help you and you help them to be able to actually create space, to think and contribute at a higher level?
Do yourself a favor and utilize all of the resources that I’m putting together to help you to detect and design and then to live a life that really matters. Subscribe to this podcast. Read Essentialism. Read Effortless. Get other people to read both of those with you. Sign up for the Academy, for the One Minute Wednesday newsletter. And if you want to join a live dialogue, you can do that on LinkedIn with me as well. Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time.