1 Big idea to think about

  • Each of us has the power to choose. Too often we give away this power by pretending we don’t have a choice (I have to), or by allowing outside voices too much influence on our decision-making process. Approaching decisions by saying, “I choose to because…” recognizes our power to choose and helps us understand why we make the choices we make.

2 ways you can apply this

  • Recognize the power of choice in your life. Instead of saying “I have to”, try saying “I choose to do this because…”. This allows you to explore and understand the real reasons you do things. 
  • Help nurture the power of choice in others. Give children options and allow them to choose. Be slow to offer your opinion or advice to a partner or friend. Instead, help them explore the options they have.  

3 Questions to ask

  • Why am I making the choice I am making?
  • Am I allowing outside voices to have too much influence on my decision-making process?
  • How can I nurture the power of choice in others?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • The 3 major assumptions of Essentialism (3:37)
  • Making the change from “I have to” to “I choose to because…” (4:56)
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment and the ability to choose (6:52)
  • Knowing why you do what you do helps you better navigate your choices  (11:00)
  • The danger in outsourcing your decision-making ability (15:23)
  • The importance of being guided by deep convictions (18:20)
  • Nurturing the power of choice in your own family (19:00)

Links You’ll Love from the Episode

The Stanford Prison Experiment

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Greg McKeown, Anna McKeown

Greg McKeown  0:04  

Come with me on an exploration of self-discovery. On this podcast, we decipher what really matters as we unravel the chaos of day-to-day work, to learn how to build an essential life.


Back by popular demand, we have Anna McEwen. Who, of course, is my wife, but also, by far the most popular guest I have on the water central podcast welcome again to the show. True. It’s true, but you don’t deserve it to be true right now, because you just did something very cruel to me.


Anna McKeown  0:43  

Which is that you? He brought in a container of M&Ms.


Greg McKeown  0:49  

And that wasn’t it? You know, like, even as you put them on my desk, it wasn’t like, Oh, this is uh, this is a nice offering. It wasn’t even oh, here’s a peace offering for you. This was I don’t want to eat any more of these. So you can and that’s what you did. And, and, and it’s working very well because I’m doing it. This is very wrong view.


Anna McKeown  1:12  

Yes, it is. And you’re almost 100% Right. Actually, I was gorging myself on dark chocolate-covered peanut butter cups, and I didn’t want to be alone. And so I brought in your great temptation, and


Greg McKeown  1:28  

No, but that’s what I felt a little bit better worse than you’re making that out to be because what that means and I didn’t realize this until now is that you kept the good. The good chocolate for yourself and brought me the fake false sugar. That’s why we still have them. That’s why we still had


Anna McKeown  1:48  

You always find me the chocolate covered. The dark chocolate peanut butter cup. So I actually thought those were for me,


Greg McKeown  1:55  

Actually, they are for you. Now they are for you. But the reason we still have these M&Ms, not that anybody listening to this has to agree with us. Because you know, people have their things but to me, just normal m&ms, not peanut m&ms. I mean, just normal m&ms. Well, let’s say it this way, I don’t see them as essential. Yes, that’s might be the way I’d like to say that.


Anna McKeown  2:18  

I do have a little bit of a beef with you, though, because you are the one who buys these treats. And I do not buy them because I know I really struggled to resist them. I’m not really taking responsibility, am I I’m blaming you complete


Greg McKeown  2:33  

And, and just building on that for a second. The payoff I get when I buy these things for you is instant and very sincere, it is that there is in the moment, there is close to joy in you when I bring them to you, you feel loved you feel taken care of. But you’re saying using responsibility makes me think that you’re trying to help us get on subject because that is what we want to talk about today. So this brings us close to the subject that is at hand, which is the mindset of essentialism. It’s made up of at least three major assumptions. And, without any of these three, essentialism is not even possible. Okay, so what are the three? 


Anna McKeown  3:30  

Yes, they are, it’s all important. It is all important versus only a few things matter. How can I fit in? I should probably say number two is how can I fit it all in? Versus what are the trade offs? And number three, I have to versus I choose to?


Greg McKeown  3:51  

I have to eat the M&Ms You brought in? 


Anna McKeown  3:54  

Yes, I have to eat the dark chocolate-covered peanut butter cups that Greg has bought me out of love and care. I didn’t want the consequences.


Greg McKeown  4:05  

Well, this is well actually that gets to the heart of it, isn’t it? It’s, I mean, that idea. You know, let’s focus on the last one. The idea that I have to versus I choose to this other language I didn’t have at the time I was writing essentialism, but it’s better which is to say instead of I have to, I choose to because and then fill in the blank. So you know, I choose to I don’t know how far we can go with this m&m strategy, but I choose to eat these because you know they’re here in front of me


Anna McKeown  4:46  

giving this a shot. I choose to eat this dark chocolate-covered peanut butter cup because I’m tired. I want to reward for all of my hard work. And I know that this shot of sugar is going to give me some quick dopamine. And yeah, I might be slightly addicted. Is that a good answer?


Greg McKeown  5:09  

Well, I like it. Because what? What it does once you start answering the question of why you’re doing something, I choose to do it because you can test your hypothesis, you can think about it, you can, you can replace it, you can do something where you simply say I have to. It’s, it’s like the end of your inquiry. So why are you doing that way, I just have to I have to go to that meeting. It’s the end of a conversation rather than the beginning of it. So I choose to, because allows you to start exploring what the real reasons are. And you don’t get to just excuse yourself because of some mysterious, undefined, cause that’s making you do it as if you aren’t an agent in your own life. So I think that’s, I think that’s what’s at the heart of this. When I think more deeply about the subject, it takes me back to a story. I remember learning from Phil Zimbardo Denton. Now the story that made Phil Zimbardo famous, as you know, and it is the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was a roleplay. And assimilation. I mean, it was it’s a bit unthinkable now, it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t be possible now. And I don’t suppose it was really fully allowed even back then. But it was held at Stanford University, is the summer of 1971. It was intended to examine the effects of situational variables on participants reactions and behaviors. It was a two-week simulation of a prison environment, randomly assigned, some people were guards, and some people were inmates. And what they found within a ridiculously short period of time, is that the gods became brutal. Controlling, willing to use intimidation, compulsion, and all sorts of awful tactics and strategies to keep the students these inmates now in their place, and completely subservient. They it was a shocking experiment on so many levels. Everybody involved in it could have just at any point at all, walked away, and just gone. Well, no, I don’t want to be part of this experiment anymore. The inmates could have done it, the gods could have done it. And they didn’t. Once they had been given the rules of the roleplay. They just went along with it. and on it went to the point of it go. The experiment was scheduled to last one to two weeks, but ultimately had to be terminated on only the sixth day of the experiment, because it all escalated out of hand when the prisoners were forced to endure cruel and dehumanizing abuse at the hands of their peers. Wow. It’s such a crazy story. But here’s what Phil said to me, that I thought was really especially interesting is that the only person in the entire experiment from beginning to end who actually raised a concern to him about this not being ethical, this not being right, was his girlfriend. Everybody else involved went along with it. You might say, what I wouldn’t capitulate to that. But the data does not support that. To put yourself for example, in Nazi Germany, and to say to yourself, as I think most of us do, if we had been there, we would not have gone down that road, we would not have supported, you know, we’d have been Schindler. We want that to be true. And it’s certainly much easier for us to imagine ourselves in that heroic role. But the probability that is true is infinitely small. We, you know, statistically, we would have been with the oppressors, not standing up against them. And so maybe this all seems overly dramatic, but, to me, it is a vitally important idea to remember our ability to choose but also, I mean for us, as parents for any role As a leader, to be able to help other people develop. And remember, their ability to choose, and to be able to choose, even if it’s not popular, and even if it’s not what everyone else is doing, and all the rest of it. Okay, your thoughts, the


Anna McKeown  10:18  

one that comes to the forefront is, it’s so important to know why we’re doing things. I’m going to really, you know, draw upon my experience, as a mom, that’s where I’ve been living the past 18 years, and it’s really easy to do what everyone else is doing. I think it’s tempting just to do that in our daily lives and in parenting, and such as to on knowingly just flow with the culture. And


Greg McKeown  10:58  

and I want to build on that for a second, because I think you’re so right about that we want and the data supports this, we want to go with the crowd. And that’s completely different orientation towards decisions than to go, let’s say with your conscience, regardless of what the crowd is doing. And I can pay you a compliment on this because I think you are much, much better at this than the, you know, the average person, and better than me at it, too. I see in you this, let’s say inflexibility around doing things just because other people are doing them if like, you really have to wrestle it down for yourself to say, Does this seem the right thing for me? Does this seem the right thing for my family, and if other people are doing it, something different will find for them, but I’m not going to compete in a race that I’m not even interested in running in the first place.


Anna McKeown  12:07  

Well, thank you. I mean, that is high praise. I want things to have a purpose. So coming back to the original point that it’s so important to know the why of why we’re doing things, the why of the choices we’re making. That phrase you gave in the beginning, Greg, I choose to because


Greg McKeown  12:29  

and now let’s just take a moment for an ad break. And now, back to our conversation. Yes, I choose to because to work, to get clear on the why you’re really doing something and not the way that you would put on a billboard, or, or put on a vision statement or a mission statement, not not for other people. But to get honest about this, to at least not lie to yourself, about why so that you can better navigate the choices you’re making. This pressure to go with the crowd is so deeply human. But I do also see it as especially intense right now, because the amount of voices that you hear just the crowd in social media, for example, is so loud FOMO is so strong. And so if you’re not careful if you outsource your executive function of your thinking, to all of these are the voices and the loudest voices and the most critical voices and the angriest voices and the most judgmental voices, I mean, all of that, that can make up the raucous voices of the web, then, then, you’re not going to be able to actually get guidance from inside. And I mean, I’m dealing with this right now, as I continue to work on this next book. Because the temptation I have is to ask lots of other people, people, I trust people who are smart people who are thoughtful, even people who have my best interests at heart. So, you know, in a sense, it’s a good group of people to go to.


Anna McKeown  14:42  

And it’s a good practice to, reach out to those who trust I mean, you process things in conversation that’s a very useful and productive form of exploration for you. But I understand what you’re saying that ultimately, you’re the one who makes choice. You’re the one who lives with the consequence. You’re the one who is writing the book. Well, so you better have a why, and really know what you’re about, well,


Greg McKeown  15:11  

why am I going to those people? I choose to go to these people because I want their input and insight to make the ideas better. Is that really why? Or am I going to them in this particular moment? Because I don’t want to take responsibility for this decision.


Anna McKeown  15:31  

Yeah, that’s a really good point. I think another reason that we sometimes look outward, is because we’re afraid. We’re afraid that this unchartered territory not going with the flow is unsafe is going to produce the consequences that we don’t want. Nobody else is doing it. So there’s probably a reason no one else is doing it. There’s a reason everyone is doing this other thing.


Greg McKeown  16:00  

Gandhi wrote that a no at from the deepest conviction is better than a yes, merely uttered, to please or worse to avoid trouble. And I think that there is something inspirational in that for all of us that, that we get honest about why we’re doing something. And if it’s simply to please, it’s not a good enough reason. And if it’s simply to avoid trouble, that might be a worst reason. And that doesn’t mean we should do things to cause trouble. Of course, that’s ludicrous to but that we get back to deep convictions within ourselves that we feel a right, regardless of what other people say, regardless of what else is going on around us to take responsibility for the choices that we’re making.


Anna McKeown  16:50  

Yeah, I love that quote from Gandhi. And it, it makes me wonder how unintentionally, we do that as parents to our children, that we kind of train them or conditioned them to utter that, yes, just to please. And, and I get it, I mean, we, we want to teach our children to be responsible to be to turn their assignments in on time, those are good skills and the right skills to learn. But a few years ago, I listened to a speaker Madeline Levine, I think it’s how you say her license. Last Name, she wrote the price of privilege. And she talked about the difference between youth in this modern-day versus I want to say in the 50s, or 60s, and the one of the biggest differences she noticed was that youth today really want to please their parents, they’re less autonomous. Back, then, they were ready to get out of the house and make their own way in the world. And now, their biggest fear is to disappoint their parents. And so I think it’s just important to nurture the power of choice in your own family. And that can start with toddlers, and giving them choices as much as possible. I think they’re happier anyway, they feel more connected to you, and you’re like, Oh, hey, do should we leave in five minutes? Or should we leave right now? Or do you want the orange slices or apple slices for your lunch, you know, or with your lunch and just giving them choices, it probably sounds really silly and unnecessary, but it’s, I think it’s really valuable to their ability to choose and, and the things that you learn about them the relationship that you foster, and then as they grow older, recognizing that trusting that our children do have an internal compass that they do have the ability to choose a path that might be different than them, what we’ve planned out for them. And to allow some space to discuss those types of things. There’s lots of roads to good schools. There’s not just one path. And I know that’s probably speaking to a particular group of, of parents of high you know, highly academic focused on that but but I think there’s such value in exploring that with our kids, children, allowing them the space to, to choose for themselves starting while they’re while they’re with us.


Greg McKeown  19:40  

And now let’s just take a moment for an ad break. And now, back to our conversation. If we’re not careful, as parents, we can get into all the coddling as teachers we create this fairy structured org NYSED sometimes confusing educational experience, then someone’s on a race to get to college to get a job and, and this is the race to nowhere that you’re referencing, you suddenly get into your mid-30s, or whatever, and you just don’t? What am I even supposed to be doing? Like, how did I even get here and, and, and the why of what you’re doing has been skipped. It’s all just been checking a box, to get to the next thing to get to the next thing, instead of what really is my way. I love what you’re saying that. Okay, so help us to bring this all together and give us a final thought that helps to wrap together this theme of having the mindset necessary to be an essentialist by focusing on choosing to do things because instead of just, I have to do them.


Anna McKeown  21:04  

But I’m going to take away from this conversation and I welcome anyone else who wants to do it as well, I’m going to really ask myself why I’m doing what I’m doing in my life. I’m going to look at my choices that I’ve already made, maybe the commitments that we’re already doing, and the choices that I make in the day-to-day and really think about the why behind it.


Greg McKeown  21:33  

I choose to do this because Anna, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us. I always feel enlightened by the conversations


Anna McKeown  21:42  

are Thank you. It’s always a pleasure to spend a few uninterrupted minutes with you.


Greg McKeown  21:48  

And thank you everybody who’s listening to the show again today. Really, thank you for listening to the what’s essential podcast for choosing to be here because you want to live a more central life, because you want to do those things that matter most and to make those things that matter most as easy as possible so that you can do them. Thank you for being on the journey through this whole what’s essential adventure, from the middle of the pandemic when we created the show. With no audio to speak of the world is falling apart, or at least it felt like it was and thank you for being a part of it. I would encourage you to think of someone who might find today’s conversation useful and share this podcast with them. If you want to continue to build the momentum of this show, is to go and write a review on Apple iTunes. You can write a review in literally one minute. But it’s disproportionately important because it’s key to being able to bring in the best guests to be on this show. To show my appreciation. I am selecting one person every month at random from the comments that are shared to receive an annual membership to the essentialism Academy. Again, thank you.

Greg McKeown


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