1 Big idea to think about

  • We are in the midst of a paradigm shift for how people work and how people flourish. We are exhausted, burned out, and struggling with the realities of the extended pandemic. Many people are beginning to question the culture of overwork where busyness was worn as a badge of honor, and instead forging new paths to success focused on progress over perfection and quality over quantity.

2 ways you can apply this

  • Don’t compete in a race you don’t want to win. Know what you value.
  • Value progress over perfection. Begin new projects with a “zero draft”

3 Questions to ask

  • What is my motivation for pursuing the projects I am pursuing?
  • Do I have projects I have not begun because I am focused on perfection over continual improvement?
  • What is one change I can make that will make my work more effortless?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • Don’t compete in a race you don’t want to win (1:50)
  • The importance of knowing what you want to do and why you want to do it (4:19)
  • Shifting from perfectionism to continual improvement (8:34)
  • The power of creating a “zero draft” (10:00)
  • Creating a new paradigm for how people work and how people flourish (14:27)

Connect with Greg McKeown

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Greg McKeown

Greg McKeown  0:05  

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 What’s Essential podcast. I use this episode, this opportunity to talk directly with you that I love so much to answer some questions that a Brazilian newspaper had sent to me something amazing is happening in Brazil with both effortless and essentialism. And you see it elsewhere as well in various community forums, that there’s just a whole hub of enthusiasm for these ideas there and that they’re being embraced in a disproportionate and exciting way. And the questions that they presented to me were so interesting and thoughtful. I didn’t get through all of them in the first episode. And so I just wanted to continue today with answering the questions that they presented. 

And let’s, let’s get into it, in your book, effortless. You talk about this culture, in which everything works 24 hours a day, and some people just don’t know how to relax? 

Well, that’s true. Today, with mobile phones and social media, we have the feeling that we don’t turn off because we’re connected all the time. Yes. If we disconnect, we have the feeling that we won’t be able to compete with a person who does the opposite. How can we change that perception? One answer that question is, don’t compete at a race, you don’t want to win. What I mean is, don’t win in the wrong race. I once went to an event with some of the most senior leaders in some of the major corporations in the United States. It was an interesting setting, because they took us into this very impressive hotel. And there were these almost secret pathways, alleys, almost into this one grand room, kind of library room, something you might see in a Jane Austen movie. And that’s where everybody was gathered about 40 or 50 leaders. And as the time we spent together went on, a sensed something under the surface. And it was that, as they talked about some of their regrets, as one of the people were vulnerable about his relationship with his teenage son and how strained it was, I suddenly had that feeling. 

This is a group of people who have won at the wrong game. That they made it to the top of something that really was a questionable achievement. You don’t want to win the I spent more time in my inbox than anybody else race. You don’t want your tombstone to read. He checked email, you don’t want to be the person who wins the record for the most zoom, eat, sleep, repeat lifestyle, like that. This is not the award that you want. What you do want, I think, is to do great work. And the key for trying to negotiate that in a culture that may be emphasizing other more busyness themes, is to communicate about what you’re trying to do and why. You’ve got to reveal your intent. This is the priority project that I am working on. And this is the reason that it matters so much, because A, B and C. And this is why it’s in the best interest of the team, why it’s in the best interest of the company, why it’s in the best interest of my manager. So I’m carving out time to spend on it. You’ve got to create space for it protect that time.

There’s a process that I teach when I’m working in workshops with teams, and I provide a series of 12 steps for identifying something that’s essential for eliminating something that’s not and for making it more effortless to make that trade-off. It says quite a simple process. 

Then step two in the process is, why does this matter so much?

I have people think about the answers, I have them, write them down. And then sometimes, I’ll surprise the group by saying, Okay, we’re going to take a break right now. And I want you to phone the person that you’ve also previously identified who you need to speak to about this change. And before you do, we’re going to practice it right here. And we’ll have people stand up and explain to them that what they’ve written down what they thought was just a plan for themselves, has now become a script. And all they have to do is use that as a script, stand up and practice the phone conversation they’re about to have, in here’s what’s most interesting about watching people do it and I have seen this so many times, it has become a thing of real curiosity for me. People will stand, they have written these words out, they have it in front of them, they just have to use it verbatim. And they literally, to a person skip. Number two, it’s written right in front of them, they explain what they’re trying to do, and then they just jump on to, what change they’re going to make, and maybe how they need the other person’s support and so on. They’ll go through everything else, all the other 11 answers, and they just skip number two, they don’t explain that they’re skipping it. They don’t say, Oh, listen, I you know, I’m just gonna not do number two, that they don’t acknowledge it, they just don’t share it. And that’s, that’s such a shame, because you can talk about almost any subject with almost anyone, if they know your motive. If they know why you’re doing it. Top performers are not your busiest people in most organizations. Busy only takes you so far. Yeah, these top performers, of course, they have a good work ethic. Yes, fine. But what distinguishes them is their ability to focus on what matters and especially to do that consistently, over time. 

So that’s really the, the vision to develop for yourself, it’s not to become the busiest person, well done, you won, you are now the busiest person in the whole world. This, this is no prize at all. Instead, it is to be the most valuable person that you possibly can. And that’s the vision of being an essentialist, someone who’s really focused on the things that matter most, so that you do create far more value. But you do it without burning out. 

Alright, the next question here. You also say in the book effortless, that we need to release ourselves from the pressure of always doing everything perfectly? How do you incorporate that idea in a society and in a work environment that does not accept mistakes? Should the change come from people or from companies? And in what way? 

Well, there’s a lot in those questions. We need to shift from perfectionism, that is the idea that everything has to be perfect now and move to continual improvement. And that is really different. Perfectionism makes it harder for people to start harder for people to make progress and harder for people to complete projects. So perfectionism is a troublesome enemy.

What I’m advocating in Effortless. This idea of the courage to be rubbish means that you’re encouraging yourself but in this context, your employees, your team members, to begin to take action. It’s not an excuse for poor performance. It’s not an anti excellence message. It’s rethinking the way to get to excellence. 

That’d be one of the phrases I love from the book is the idea of creating a zero draft, not even a first draft, zero draft. You know, it’s it’s, you know, even as you’re creating it, it’s not going to be good. It is rubbish. It’s, it’s not even a first draft. It’s less than that. But you welcome it with what we could call the vision of revision. I’ve just begun some new research. And I’ve been working with some marvelous professors at a world class educational institute. And they approached this with me with the idea that the only way to get something great was to start with something bad and make it less bad. Like, these weren’t contradictory ideas to them. Of course, you just have to start badly. It was built into the process, the process was revision, we’re going to go through this a bunch of time, so just get something to begin with. There was no pressure, I felt no pressure, that the first version had to be perfect. It had to be put together, it had to have everything thought through that they they made me so comfortable, to be able to just begin, and it reminds me of a philosopher, Piet Hein, who wrote this, he said, The Road to wisdom, well, it’s plain and simple to express, and, and earn again, but less and less and less. You could rewrite that, the road to excellence. Well, it’s plain and simple to express, to, and, and again, but less and less unless you build it into your mental model of excellence. You want continual improvement, as the only path, especially in a reality, a world that is perpetually changing, not just that’s perpetually changing. But a world that is provided tools that make continual improvements, so much more doable. That’s what technology does at its best. That’s what digitization makes it plausible that you can start something and edit it and transform it and change it that a website that you start with won’t be the one that you end with that you can keep modifying it over time, the entire agile movement is really built on that premise as well that you can continually improve.

So who makes these changes managers and individuals will, will seriously we’ll embrace this eventually. What you want is progress over perfection. Instead of trying to write the great American novel, you know, the first draft, you write words on a page, as Margaret Atwood said, a word after word, after a word is power. 

Okay, let’s move on to another question here. In 2020, Brazil registered a record for granting Social Security sickness benefits due to mental and behavioral disorders. We know that investing in workers mental health promotes an increase in productivity. Do you believe that the corporate world already recognizes this aspect? How can we move forward? 

Another thoughtful question. Okay, I think at the heart of this, corporations have had a bad paradigm about the relationship between overwork, performance and mental health. They have operated out of an industrial age mindset, where people are managed, like machines, like cogs within, you know, within this system, and I love the metaphor of thinking about that paradigm like bloodletting. 

Okay, a quick history lesson here for for those not so familiar with bloodletting, bloodletting began 3000 years ago. But it’s only been recently, the late 19th century, that it was discredited as a treatment for at least most ailments. This was adopted originally in Egypt, was included in, in Greece in Rome. It became really popular medieval times and into into Europe. And it was, it was born out of The mental model of how the body works well, which was wrong. And we can’t get into all of it right now, but, but there are some pretty fascinating examples. If you go back and study bloodletting, King Charles the Second, he had a seizure. And because people that were treating him, his, his doctors, his, his medical staff, were thinking about all maladies through this limited paradigm that they had, they, they took something like 24 pints of blood out of him or something unbelievable. It’s pretty clear. Now at least in hindsight, that that bloodletting you know, finished him off, or at least was a major part of weakening his system. 

So this thing they were doing, doesn’t matter what their motives were, if your paradigm is wrong, if your if your mental model about how things work is wrong, then you risk in a sense, the most tragic mistakes of all, because these are the mistakes you make, you can make things worse in your attempt to make them better. That’s why you have to keep learning and keep upgrading your understanding why ongoing education, and challenging yourself to think and to learn and to grow, is so vital, or actually, I’ve given you a British example, but George Washington, there was bloodletting practiced on him before he died? What’s not absolutely sure is that that’s what, you know, to the degree to which that killed him. But it’s, it’s there’s certainly commentators now who believed that that shortened his life, but this is bloodletting. I mean, it didn’t change till it all in Paris’s Dr. Pierre Louis, was scientifically minded physician, and he wanted to study the efficacy of bloodletting. And he examined like the clinical course of 77 patients with acute pneumonia. And he compared the results in patients treated with bloodletting in the early phase, versus the late phase of the illness. I mean, that was the idea. And his conclusion wasn’t just immediately condemning of all the things bloodletting, but he did conclude that the effect in the procedure was much less than was commonly believed. And he did that through this comparison, subsequent studies by Louis Pasteur who are perhaps more famous by others in their, you know, their era confirmed the validity of that new scientific methods, that that’s why we slowly got out of bloodletting, other than just for a very few select conditions. 

Well, you know, that’s an aside an illustration of something I think that’s happening in corporations currently, the still, even now, it’s like corporations are just waking up to the limitations of the paradigm of overwork, no pain, no game is not something as an idea that’s limited to the gym. It’s something that can still permeate this celebration of the 24/7, non-stop cycle of work. It’s wrong. It is counterproductive, as bloodletting was, but in the same way, that bloodletting went on for so long, 3000 years, in a similar way, it’s going to take time for these shifts to take place. Now. I don’t mean, it’s going to take 3000 years. No, we’re not at that point at all. We’re more like, at the point and it’s one of the reasons I’m going at lengths to talk about it. We’re more like this period, where Dr. Louis comes along. And there’s this tipping point. You’re we’re at a point where many leaders in many organizations who used to play not even lip service to mental health I mean, it was just, you know, just at the periphery, suddenly are willing to invest in wellness programs, wellness conversations, events, the trying to now look at policies and so on. Like it’s changing there’s the pandemic has sped up A few different themes that sped up digitization. And it has sped up the awareness of this issue. And those are probably, you know, related at some degree. 

I was just talking to somebody just today, in fact, they were giving me the description of their organization. It’s a global brand. They’re working with, you know, they have hired if anyone has ever hired, hit squad, as my brother Justin is named for it to hard-working, intelligent, talented people. And they are also investing in well-being. And that’s why I’m involved with them. She was describing she went to some lengths to describe what kinds of people they have, which was so helpful to me. And then she said, I mean, we work 24/7 here, and then she caught herself. And it wasn’t that she was worrying that she was misrepresenting something to me, it was that she caught the language to go what why am I saying that it isn’t 24/7. And I don’t want to reinforce the paradigm that that is what you have to do to be successful. She said, that’s not quite right, I shouldn’t say that, as if I’m encouraging that. And that little encounter feels like an example of this shift. It’s one person at a time it’s one, catch yourself, or that’s not the right way to say that I shouldn’t seem like I’m rewarding it, insisting that that’s the path of success. And as we catch ourselves, in our own interactions with other people, then we can start to dislocate this old way of working the bloodletting way of management, and instead, bring forward a truer, healthier paradigm for how people work and help people flourish. The old way might have been work harder, the new way, is make it more effortless. 

And there we have it, that’s a wrap, we’ve come to that time, again, the end of the show, and I just can’t help or say it. Thank you. Thank you for listening, thanks for being a part of this conversation today. For engaging on the subjects that can make a belief, a real difference in your life in the life of the people that matter most to you, the people on your team, the people who you influence. And in fact, if you can think of somebody right now who could benefit listening to the conversation that we just had, please send this to them, please let them know, please share it in your own social media community. And if you want to go one step further, to reinvest back into the community. I’d love for you to take a moment to write a review on Apple Podcasts.

The steps are simple. That will take you to end-to-end, less than really a couple of minutes. And then once you’re done, take a photograph and email it directly to me send it to info at Greg mcewen.com For a chance to win an annual membership and all-access pass to all of the content at the essentialism Academy, which you can learn about@essentialism.com Again, thank you for listening. Today as in every day ask yourself what’s essential

Greg McKeown


  • Hosted by Greg McKeown
  • Produced by Greg McKeown Team
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