1 Big idea to think about

  • Achieving something truly excellent requires having a clear sense of purpose and direction. 

2 ways you can apply this

  • Use this simple structure to create an essential intent: verb + population + outcome + date.
  • Write down the answer to this question: How will I know when I’m done?

3 Questions to ask

  • What is it that I do as a person?
  • Who do I do it for?
  • What is the outcome I care more about than anything else?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • Going from pretty clear to really clear (4:35)
  • 2 Common patterns that affect teams and individuals who lack clarity of purpose (7:17)
  • How to achieve clarity of purpose in our teams and personal life (11:35)
  • What makes a powerful essential intent? (16:35)
  • A simple structure for creating an essential intent (18:55)
  • Creating an essential intent that can guide your entire life (20:02)

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Greg McKeown

Greg McKeown  0:03  

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. Welcome to the Watson central podcast. 


I am your host, Greg McEwen. And I’m absolutely delighted to be with you to be able to share a moment together. Take a moment to be here to be present. How are you doing? How are you feeling? Particularly this? How clear are you right now? On what’s essential? Are you sort of clear about some of the things that matter to you? Are you feeling unclear completely? Are you feeling lost? About what on Earth you should be focused on, given all the things coming at you? 


Well, whatever your level of clarity is today, this episode has the power of relevancy to you, because you will leave today’s episode, knowing why and how to create an essential intent for you. And also for your team, you’ll be able to make one decision that makes 1000. 


And with that, I want to start with a game. I want to read to you three mission statements from three fortune 500 companies. And I’m going to tell you what the three companies are as well. And your job is to try to match each company with its mission statement. 


Okay, the first mission statement is to be profitable in growth through superior customer service, innovation, quality and commitment. 


Okay, here’s number two. To be the leader in every market we serve to the benefit of our customers and our shareholders


Here is number three. The company’s primary objective is to maximize long-term stockholder value while adhering to the laws of the jurisdictions in which it operates and at all times observing the highest ethical standards. 


Those are the mission statements. Your job is to attach it to one of the three companies. 


The first is AGCO. That’s a chief manufacturer and distributor of agricultural equipment, such as replacement parts, tractors, hey, tools and implements. 


Okay, the second company is Dover Corporation, a manufacturer of equipment such as garbage trucks, and electronic equipment, such as inkjet printers, and circuit board assemblies. 


And number three is Dean Foods Corporation, a food and beverage company.


 Okay, your job is to say which of the mission statements goes with which of the companies? 


And oh, that’s a bit tricky just when you’re hearing them. But, you know, how did you do? If you had absolutely no idea how to solve this puzzle, you’re not alone. Because the largely indistinguishable statements make the task almost impossible. And such vague, inflated mission statements may still be considered best practice in some quarters, but in many cases, they do not achieve what they are intended to achieve. They’re not fit for purpose, which is to inspire their employees with a clear sense of purpose. 


So as we talk about this today, as we talk about how to eliminate nonessentials in order to ensure that you can pour your energies into the activities that are most meaningful to you, the first type of nonessential you’re going to have to learn to eliminate is simply any activity that’s misaligned with what you are intending to achieve. So, you know, that sounds straightforward enough, but to be able to do that, you need to, let’s say it this way, become really clear about what your purpose is in the first place. And that’s where today’s episode comes in. And the shift begins between going from pretty clear to really clear.


You know, people I work with often suggest that their team’s purpose or strategy is pretty clear. As if to say that’s sufficient. But anyone who wears glasses knows there’s a big difference between being pretty clear and really clear. The same thing is true with an individual’s professional strategy, when I asked people, what do you really want out of your career over the next five years? I’m still taken aback by how few people can really answer that question. And that’s because literally, almost nobody seems to be able to answer that question. So, this would all matter less if it were not for the fact that the clarity of purpose so consistently predicts how people do in their jobs or in their life aspirations. 


In working with executive teams, I have been amazed to see what happens when teams are only sort of clear about what they’re trying to achieve rather than really clear. 


For one, there’s this ridiculously heavy price, just in terms of human dynamics. I mean, the fact is, motivation and cooperation deteriorate when there is a lack of purpose. You can train leaders on communication and teamwork and conduct all the 360 feedback reports you want. But if a team does not have clarity of goals and roles, problems will fester and multiply. 


And so this is not just sort of my theory or my you know, reflections on this. In gathering data from more than 500 people about their experience on more than 1000 teams, I have found this simple and consistent reality. When there is a lack of clarity about what the team stands for, and what their goals and roles are people experience, confusion, stress, and frustration. When there is a high level of clarity on the other hand, people thrive. When there is a lack of clarity people waste time, they waste energy on the trivial many, when they have sufficient levels of clarity, they are capable of greater breakthroughs of greater innovation greater than people even realize they ought to have in those areas that are truly vital. 


In my work, I have noticed two common patterns that typically emerge when teams lack clarity of purpose. Okay, here’s the first pattern, it’s the playing politics pattern. In the first pattern, a team becomes overly focused on winning the attention of the manager. The problem is when people don’t know what the end game is, they are unclear about how to win. And as a result, they make up their own game and their own rules and they vie for the managers favor. Instead of focusing their time and energies on making a high level of contribution. They put their effort into games like attempting to look better than their peers, demonstrating their self importance, echoing their managers every idea or sentiment. These kinds of activities are not only non essential, but damaging and counterproductive. 


And we do a similar thing in our personal lives as well. When we’re unclear about our real purpose in life. In other words, when we don’t have a clear sense of our goals, our aspirations, our values, we make up our own social games. We waste time and energies on trying to look good in comparison to other people. We overvalue non essential is like a nicer car or a house or even intangibles like the number of our followers on Twitter, or the way we look in our Facebook photos, or Instagram posts. And as a result, we neglect activities that are truly essential like spending time with our loved ones nurturing our spirit or taking care of our health. The latter is almost always the first go. 


Okay, that’s the first pattern. The second pattern is it’s all good, which of course is bad. In the second pattern, teams without purpose become leaderless. With no direction people pursue the things that advance their own short term interests with little awareness of how their activities contribute to or in some cases derail the long term mission of the team as a whole. So, you know, these are activities that are well intentioned.


Some may even be essential on a personal level. But when people are working in teams, many disparate projects that are at odds with each other, do not add up to the team’s highest level of contribution. So teams like this seem to take five steps back. For each step forward. In the same way, when individuals are involved in too many disparate activities, even good activities, they can fail to achieve their essential mission. And one reason for this is that the activities don’t work in concert, so they don’t add up into a meaningful whole. 


For example, pursuing five different majors, each of them perfectly good does not equal a degree. Likewise, five different jobs in five different industries do not add up to a forward moving career. So without clarity and purpose, pursuing something because it is good is not good enough to make a high level of contribution. 


Ralph Waldo Emerson said it this way, he said the crime which bankrupts men and states is that of job work, declining from your main design to serve a turn here or there. Just listen to that, again, the crime which bankrupts men and states, is that a job work that is declining from your main design to serve a turn here or there. 


So when teams are really clear about their purpose, and their individual roles, it’s just amazing. What happens to team dynamics, formal momentum accelerates, adding up to a higher cumulative contribution of the team as a whole. So it begs a question all of this how do we achieve clarity of purpose on our teams and also in our own personal endeavors. And one way that is vital for us to think about is to create an essential intent. 


To understand what an essential intent is, we may be best served by first establishing what it’s not. I mean, just think about, at first, the average vision and mission statement that you’ve seen inside of your team and organization you’ve worked for, they generally sound inspiration, but they’re so general, that it’s hard for them to actually operate in a useful way in day to day work. Contrast this also with like the average set of values statements, which I’m generally in favor of people creating, nevertheless, they can be sometimes so bland, and also so general, that no one makes a different decision, even when they’re posted up on the wall, in colorful posters, as people walk down the hallway. 


On the other hand, you have quarterly objectives on teams that are often highly concrete, but they’re so bland, they don’t inspire people to make different trade-offs towards a higher purpose down the road. So an essential intent is both inspirational and concrete. It’s both meaningful and measurable. And done rigjt. An essential intent is just one decision that settles 1000 later decisions. It’s like deciding you’re going to become a doctor instead of a lawyer. I mean, one strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next 510 or even 20 years of your life. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus. 


Think of Martha Lane Fox, who was asked by the British Prime Minister at the time to be the United Kingdom’s first digital champion. But she had the opportunity to create a description for this newly created role. And you can just imagine all the vague, uninspired or jargony ways Martha might have tried to explain it, it was a Dilbert comic strip waiting to happen. But instead, Martha and her team came up with this essential intent. To get everyone in the UK online by the end of X date. It was simple, concrete, inspiring, and easily measured. It gave everyone on the team clarity about exactly what they were trying to do so that they could coordinate their actions and energies to eliminate everything else. It empowered everyone on the team, however, junior to push back and say, but does this new idea really help us to achieve our intent, and it enabled them to better harness and support partners to massively accelerate the journey. And even though their full aspiration wasn’t reached by the original date they set, that clarity of purpose enabled them to make a far greater contribution than they could have made under any other circumstances. 


So this is the kind of statement of purpose that we need for our country. In his teams and careers, and also for ourselves. 


So how do we craft a statement of purpose that is both concrete and inspiring, meaningful and memorable? The first thing I would suggest is to stop wordsmithing and start deciding. When developing statements of purpose for your company, your team or even you. There is a tendency to start obsessing about trivial stylistic details, should we use this word or that word. But this makes it all too easy to slip into the meaningless cliches and buzzwords that lead to vague, meaningless statements like the ones I cited at the beginning of this episode. And essential intent doesn’t have to be elegantly crafted. It’s the substance not the style that counts. Instead, ask the more essential question that will inform every future decision you’ll ever make. If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be? The second guideline I’ll suggest is to ask, how will we know when we’re done? 


When it comes to achieving clarity of purpose, inspiration, of course, matters. When we think of inspiration we often think of, of lofty rhetoric. But while rhetoric can certainly inspire, we need to remember that concrete objectives have the power to elevate and aspire as well. So a powerful essential intent inspires people, partially because it’s concrete enough to answer the question, how will we know when we have succeeded? 


This was illustrated brilliantly to me by one of my favorite professors. It’s Bill Mian. He spent 30 years with McKinsey, advising CEOs and senior leaders on strategy. And then went on to teach a class at the Stanford Business School called the strategic management of nonprofits. When I took his class as a graduate student, one of the assignments he gave us was to evaluate the vision and mission statements of nonprofit organizations. So as the class reviewed more than 100 examples, they noticed that some of the most grandiose were actually the least inspiring. For example, one of the nonprofits had the mission to eliminate hunger in the world. But given that there were just five people in the organization, the mission felt like little more than empty words. 


Then out of the cluttered landscape of such sort of loose, idealism, chemists statement, we were all immediately inspired by one that we understood. It was from, let’s say, a slightly unexpected place it was from, from Brad Pitt. who, when he was appalled by the lack of progress in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and started an organization called Make It Right, the essential intent for that organization was to build 150, affordable, green, Storm resistant homes for families living in the Lower Ninth Ward. 


That statement, when we read it, took the air out of the room. The concreteness of the objective made it real, and the realness made it inspiring. It answered the question How will we know when we’ve succeeded? An essential intent applies to so much more than your job description or your company’s mission statement.


 A true essential intent is one that guides your greater sense of purpose and helps you chart your life’s path. A structure that you can use in any essential intent you create a sort of Mad Libs approach to this challenge is the following verb, population, outcome, date. Verb is what is it that you do. Population is the priority, person or group of people that you serve. The outcome is the result you’re trying to produce. And of course, the date is by when you want to do it. That’s a pretty good, rough approach for actually being able to define this with your team. Or of course with yourself with your life. 


I’ve created essential intents of various kinds through my life, I generally think it’s helpful to have something over the next year or two that’s your priority intent or essential intent, the single most important goal, because once you have it, you can orient the rest of your decisions and trade offs around that intent. But a couple of times I have created space to try to answer those questions those parts of the madlib for the totality of my life. Verb, what is it that I do as a person? Who is the priority group of people or person that I do it for? What’s the outcome I care more about than anything else? And then of course, you can question whether you want to have an actual date for that, given that you’re talking about the whole of your life. Whether you apply this in that huge life perspective, whether you apply it to your team, or whether you apply it to your own planning, yes, all of these new year, sentiment the New Year New you thinking, essential intent, can make all the difference in the world.


I should say in advance takes courage takes insight, and foresight, to see which activities and efforts will add up to your single highest point of contribution. It takes asking tough questions. It takes making real trade offs. It takes exercising serious discipline to cut out competing priorities that distract us from our true intention. Yet my experience is that it is worth the effort because with high levels of clarity of purpose can people teams and whole organizations for that matter, fully mobilize and achieve something truly excellent. 


Okay, so let’s summarize this. A non essentialist tends to have vague general vision or mission statements or nothing at all. They’re just reacting to whatever’s coming their way living out of their inbox, and so on a non essentialist if they’re going to have direction, rely on quarterly objectives, but ones that fail to energize or inspire people to take their contribution to the next level, a non essentialist will have a value set, but no guiding principles for implementing them. On the other hand, by contrast, an essentialist has a strategy that is concrete and inspirational, has an intent that is both meaningful and memorable. They make the one decision that eliminates 1000 later decisions. 


This whole subject of essential intent today in this episode, is connected directly to the decisions and trade offs in day to day life. In fact, I got a note just today from a reader and a listener. It’s Becky Hopkins and she wrote this she wrote:


Thank you, Greg, I’ve read your two books. She called them ebooks. Because the letter E essentialism and effortless cover to cover and they are excellent. I have an extremely demanding career, along with a visual disability. But when my dad went into the hospital, I had total peace about where I needed to be. And even though he’s still with us, I have no regrets taking that time to see dad, and helping my mum. Then when we found my best friend collapsed in her home, and she has no family, but as it was, again, easy to shift my priorities. It didn’t take away the important things to do at work. But what you have taught has given me freedom to be totally present wherever I am at the time. And this is so important. It will take me the rest of my life to completely internalized the truths you’ve shared because I was raised in a very high achieving family with high achieving parents, both of them doctorates and are still amazing in their 80s. So I got it honest. But thanks for the writing of these books. I plan to reread them again very soon. God bless you, Anna and the children. 


Well, that’s the spirit of it. That’s the kind of moment intend helps us to have clarity, to give ourselves permission to be able to not do what other people are doing. Just today, I woke up and I had one plan in mind. But when circumstances changed, an opportunity came up. I had to go back to my life’s essential intent to know which decision to make which trade off to make if I had just gone with my existing plan. If I had just allowed the pressures of the day to dictate my schedule. I would have made a different trade off. But instead I had no An absolutely precious morning with my family, making a memory, something that was above the noise above the stresses of the day that when I come to write my journal tonight on though I’ll be including in many years from now, I’ll be grateful I made that trade off. That’s the difference. You need something higher. Something that elevates your mind and your decisions beyond the pressures of your day. 


Well, we’ve come to that time again the end of the show. If you found any value in this episode, then I have a request from you a favor to ask that you please write a review on Apple podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive a signed copy of effortless make it easier to do what matters most. Just send a photo of your review to info at Greg mcewen.com. That’s i n fo at MC K EOW n.com. Enjoy today. Enjoy your week. Enjoy this intro into the new year. And tune in next week to hear an exciting guest on this. What’s the central podcast


Transcribed by https://otter.ai


Greg McKeown


  • Hosted by Greg McKeown
  • Produced by Greg McKeown Team
  • Executive Produced by Greg McKeown