Welcome everyone. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn to, understand to see if we can’t make a higher contribution In this tiny, pathetically short period of time called life.
Have you ever felt frustrated by the gap between what you feel is essential and your ability to actually execute it? Have you perhaps had that desire for a long time? Maybe it’s years now, but still, your life is busier and less fulfilling than you wish it was. Today I’m going to share with you a story that I think can really help you if you are struggling with this and also a mindset and some actionable advice. By the end of today’s episode, you’ll be able to evaluate all of the things you’ve hired in your life and decide whether to fire them or not. Based upon whether they’re actually helping you design a life that really matters. Let’s get to it.
Your learning in this podcast will be faster, deeper, and more meaningful if you can discuss it with other people, your whole team, and your whole family so that the conversation lives on beyond the structure and limitations of this podcast. How can you turn this episode into a conversation that starts a movement?
Clayton Christensen was a legendary professor at Harvard Business School, a mentor to me, a bold member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the same as I am, and one time I had the chance to extend an invitation to him to come and speak. It was held at a church building with 400 or so people in attendance, many of them from the law school and business school at Stanford with a whole range of faith backgrounds or none at all. Clay was not well by this point in his life. The speech itself was a bit of a challenge, but you could feel the sincerity and the humility on display as he tried to express something that really mattered to the rest of us.
He started with a personal true story recounting a profound dream he had where he was transported into heaven and was met by a guide. The guide led Clay to a sprawling warehouse, and inside were countless shelves stretched into the distance, adorned with books and artifacts of truth. Each of these precious repositories held answers and solutions to the pressing problems faced by humanity on Earth.
The sheer abundance and potential contained within these shelves left Clay awestruck, realizing the untapped resources available for the betterment of humankind. Overwhelmed by the site, Clay questioned the guide expressing both surprise and confusion. He wondered aloud, “Why are these invaluable treasures being kept here in heaven when we so desperately need them down on earth?”
In response, the guide smiled knowingly and beckoned Clay to observe a demonstration of selecting a specific artifact labeled, let’s say, 5,027 from the shelves. The guide proclaims, “This is meant for well, Greg McKeown,” and with a deliberate motion, he cast the artifact down to earth, intended to deliver that answer to the intended recipient.
However, to Clay’s dismay, the artifact passed right through, in this case, me, seemingly unnoticed. So it becomes clear to him that I neither recognized nor acknowledged the presence of the answer. The guide explained it this way. Until people ask the right question, they won’t even be able to see the answer, even if it’s placed right in front of them. Until I’m introspective, until I’m willing to pose the appropriate questions in pursuit of knowledge and understanding, I won’t even see it, even if it is right in front of me, even if it’s thrust upon me.
What do you make of a story like that? That dream left an indelible mark on Clay, but of course, it did on the others of us that got to hear that story. It teaches me at least that true insight and wisdom are not merely about having access to answers but about asking the right questions.
The dream is a reminder that receptive minds, inquisitive spirits, and discerning perspectives are vital for unlocking the transformative power of knowledge. Clay is illuminating the profound connection between asking the right questions and discovering the answers that lie within our reach. He’s encouraging us to embrace curiosity and cultivate a mindset that seeks to unravel the complexities of existence so that we can better access the enlightenment necessary for humanity to really be able to make progress.
Clay went on to describe the role that played in the founder of the church, Joseph Smith’s, curiosity, the serious effort to understand not just what he’s being told but to seek more light, more knowledge beyond that surface. And I’m not saying that you have to believe any of the things I’m describing here, but it certainly reinforced for me the essential role curiosity plays in being able to detect and then design and then execute an essential life.
Just this week, Anna and I went for a lovely morning walk with Bud and Shirley. We talked about so many things as we walked along the streets of Cambridge, as we traced Queens and Kings, and something Bud said stood out to me. Bud runs a really successful investment firm, and he said, referencing, I think, the three I’s that we’ve talked about in this podcast, that is the three characteristics that Warren Buffet uses when selecting people to work with that is integrity, intelligence, and initiative. He said, “Look, when we are hiring people, we can find people that are intelligent. We can find people that have initiative, and even people that are ethically based, people with integrity. We can find those kinds of people too. However, he says, where we get into trouble is with people who have those things, but they fail to be curious.”
Anna said immediately that named something for her.
Jeremy Utley, who teaches at the D School at Stanford and is a longtime friend and collaborator for me, wrote an article in Harvard Business Review, Exploring Curiosity, and in that, he cites some research that found that one of the biggest impacts of the pandemic, by which of course we mean the lockdowns, was a decline in curiosity. And Bud asked the question this way. He said, “Can you coach for curiosity?” And I have some hypotheses on that, but it seems like it’s worthy of real study. Surely it is the whole idea of teaching, of coaching, that you are trying to spark within somebody else a desire to learn more than your sharing. Maybe more than you even know on a subject. So I’m encouraging you here to ask more questions. Yes, to ask more questions about your life, to create space, to be able to even think about your life.
A reference before in Essentialism, the whole idea of the think week that Bill Gates used when he was at Microsoft every six months to just try to connect the dots. I’ve talked before about holding a personal quarterly offsite where you actually get away and try to think about the big picture of your life so the decades don’t just go past without you even realizing you’re making the trade-offs that you’re making. And then, just this week, I read about somebody who taking that idea, has now the practice of a think day once a month, which reminds me of the episode with Matthew McConaughey, in which he talked about the idea of a connect-the-dots-day. And this is exactly what I’m encouraging you to do, is to create space to really think, to get curious.
Anna said something to me just yesterday that seemed so wise, as she so often is. We were talking about something in our own lives where we feel too busy. And she said, “Well, I wouldn’t trust anything that we come up with right now.” In the midst of everything. As if you could come up with a quick-fix answer. Just here’s the solution. And I just loved that.
If we want to actually design a life where the essential things get the primary focus and attention, you can’t just pull an idea out of thin air. You can’t just jump to the answer to the solution. You can’t react your way there. You’ve got to actually spend time understanding how did we get here? We’ve got to understand what are we trying to achieve. We’ve got to evaluate all of the quote-unquote solutions of our lives and see if they’re actually helping us to achieve the deep essentialist intention. And if they aren’t, it’s time to fire those things.
Clayton Christensen, as we discussed last week, didn’t come up with Jobs to be Done, but he’s done, I would argue, more than anyone else in popularizing the idea. But we can apply the Jobs to be Done theory, not just to business context, but to designing a life that really matters.
So in your next think day, do the following, just make a meta list of everything you are doing, all of the commitments, and all the noise in your head, and put it out on Post-it notes. Cover the wall so that you can separate all of those activities from your own head and look at them.
Secondly, identify one, two, and at most three things that really matter. Things that in the very end of your life, you’re going to care about those truly essential things. Not the good things, not even the important things, the vital few. Then really compare the lists.
The first set of Post-It notes, those are all of the activities that you are hiring to help you live a life that really matters. And I want you to evaluate them. Are they helping you to achieve the job to be done in your life? Which of them can you fire? Is there, for example, one thing that, if you eliminated it, it would make achieving those essential few items effortless? And I think it’s probably appropriate. I’ll leave you on that question.
What is one thing that has stood out to you today in this episode? What is one thing you can do immediately right now to apply it? And who can you share this episode with? How can you continue the conversation so that it reinforces all of this learning for you? It helps you to be accountable to detecting, designing, and then delivering a life of highest contribution and meaning. Thank you, and I’ll see you next time.