As these ideas become emotionally true, they take on the power to change you.
The Greeks had a word, metanoia, that refers to a transformation of the heart. We tend to think of transformations as happening only in the mind. But as the proverb goes, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Once the essence of Essentialism enters our hearts, the way of the Essentialist becomes who we are. We become a different, better version of ourselves.
Once you become an Essentialist, you will find that you aren’t like everybody else. When other people are saying yes, you will find yourself saying no. When other people are doing, you will find yourself thinking. When other people are speaking, you will find yourself listening. When other people are in the spotlight, vying for attention, you will find yourself waiting on the sidelines until it is time to shine.
While other people are padding their résumés and building out their LinkedIn profiles, you will be building a career of meaning. While other people are complaining (read: bragging) about how busy they are, you will just be smiling sympathetically, unable to relate. While other people are living a life of stress and chaos, you will be living a life of impact and fulfillment.
In many ways, to live as an Essentialist in our too-many-things-all-the-time society is an act of quiet revolution.
Living fully as an Essentialist isn’t always easy. In many ways, I still struggle with it myself. I still instinctively want to please people when they ask me to do something, even something I know is Nonessential. When presented with opportunities—especially good opportunities—I still fall into thinking, “I can do both” when I really can’t. I still fight the urge to impulsively check my phone; on my worst days I have wondered if my tombstone will read, “He checked e-mail.” I’ll be the first to admit, the transition doesn’t happen overnight.
Still, over time I have found it gets easier and easier. Saying no feels less uncomfortable. Decisions get much clearer. Eliminating the Nonessentials becomes more natural and instinctive. I feel greater control of my choices, to the point that my life is different. If you open your heart and mind to embrace Essentialism fully, these things will become true for you as well.
Today Essentialism is not just something I do. An Essentialist is something I am steadily becoming. At first it was a few deliberate choices, then it grew into a lifestyle, and then it changed me, at my very core. I continue to discover almost daily that I can do less and less—in order to contribute more.
What being an Essentialist means to me is best illustrated by the little moments. It means:
- Choosing to wrestle with my children on the trampoline instead of going to a networking event.
- Choosing to say no to international client work for the last year in order to write.
- Choosing to set aside a day each week where I don’t check any social media so I can be fully present at home.
- Choosing to spend eight months getting up at 5:00 a.m. every morning and writing till 1:00 p.m. in order to finish this book.
- Choosing to push back a work deadline in order to go camping with my children.
- Choosing not to watch any television or movies when I travel for business so there is time to think and rest.
- Choosing to regularly spend a whole day on that day’s priority, even if it means doing nothing else on my to-do list.
- Choosing to put the novel I am reading on hold because it is not the priority today.
- Choosing to keep a journal almost every day for the last ten years.
- Choosing to say no to a speaking opportunity in order to have a date night with Anna.
- Choosing to exchange time on Facebook for a regular call with my ninety-three-year-old grandfather.
- Choosing to turn down a recent offer to be a lecturer at Stanford since I knew it meant time away from spreading the message of Essentialism through my lectures, and being with family.
The list goes on, but the point I want to make here is that focusing on the essentials is a choice. It is your choice. That in itself is incredibly liberating.
Years ago, after I had quit law school, I was deciding what to do next in my career. With Anna as my sounding board, I explored dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different ideas. Then one day we were driving home and I said, “What if I went to Stanford for my graduate work?” There had been a lot of “What if?” questions like that. Usually the ideas just didn’t stick. But this time I felt a sense of immediate clarity: in that instant, I just knew, even as the words escaped my lips, that this was the essential path for me.
What made me so sure I was on the right path was how the clarity disappeared when I even thought of applying elsewhere. Several times I started the application process for other programs but always stopped after a few minutes. It just didn’t feel right. So I concentrated my efforts only on that single application.
As I waited to hear back from the university, many other opportunities, some quite tempting, presented themselves. I said no to all of them. But despite the uncertainty of not yet knowing whether I had been accepted, I didn’t feel anxious or nervous. Instead, I felt calm, focused, and in control.
I applied only to Stanford—both times. When I finally received my offer the second time around, it couldn’t have been more clear to me that this was the most vital thing for me to be doing. It was the right path at the right time. It was the quiet, personal confirmation of the way of the Essentialist.
Had I not chosen the path of the Essentialist, I might never have pursued the “Stanford or bust” strategy. I might never have written for Harvard Business Review. And I most certainly would never have written the words that you are now reading, absorbing, and hopefully thinking hard about how to integrate into your own life.
Becoming an Essentialist is a long process, but the benefits are endless.