SMDS Book Review: Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

By Greg McKeown

Audio Release 2014

Full disclosure, I downloaded an audio version of this book. Sometimes audio performance impacts the way one perceives a book, so I’ll always try to let you know the medium by which I absorbed a text. Realistically, I try to reserve my reading time for scholarly texts, so if it’s not a history book, it’s probably something I downloaded off of Audible.com.

I downloaded Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less to get me through the long trip from Tampa, Florida to Orange County, California. I’m pretty Type A, and this book is basically about unlearning all of the more detrimental elements of that personality. McKeown refers to it as “majoring in minor activities,” a phrase I really enjoy, and something I feel I’ve done a lot of in my life. This book is about learning how to prioritize and say no. I’ve never been good at protecting my time or saying no, so this felt like a must read for me.

At numerous points in the book, McKeown acknowledges the possibility that his readers might be nonplussed by his methods, and he was right to do so. On the one hand, I feel I learned quite a lot reading Essentialism, on the other hand, “the way of the essentialist” doesn’t sound exceptionally appealing to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s important to say no. Reading this book only further reinforced that doing so is an act of courage I very much need to integrate into my life. But there are two really significant concerns this book raised for me:

  • Essentialists sound like assholes.
  • Essentialism breeds inequitable workloads.

I’m not suggesting here that saying no makes one an asshole, but you wouldn’t know it based on McKeown’s examples:

A senior member of a company skips the mandatory weekly meeting because he has better things to do… then asks the folks who had to sit through it “What did I miss?”

A dude who’s addicted to social media moves into a motel and lives in total isolation for eight weeks to finish a major project.

The author of this book had an auto-response on his email for eight months that said, essentially, “I’m writing a book, so I can’t be bothered to respond to you. Sorry.”

A couple decide to forego having friends, since they couldn’t balance having friends and having great relationships with their children, for some unspecified reason.

The number of times the phrases “his coworkers weren’t very happy” and “luckily, he didn’t get fired” show up in Essentialism simply boggle my mind.

Self-actualization means different things to different people. All of the folks listed above—especially McKeown—believe their lives to be better for cutting out the non-essential. Thing is, their version of “the non-essential” seems almost pathologically self-centered. Put another way, this brand of self-actualization sounds incredibly lonely. I like being part of a community, even when that community puts demands on my time that I’d rather not deal with. I like being a team player. There’s a difference between being a good person and being a doormat, and that’s the middle ground I seek. If being an essentialist means alienating other people while simultaneously expecting better of them (because, let’s face it, I do), it’s not for me.

Then there’s the other problem I see with this book: it’s clearly written for businesspeople, not academics, and doesn’t acknowledge at all that the tactics it advocates frequently mean forcing non-essential activities on other people.

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This illustration very acurately captures the power dynamic this book advocates, and I’d rather avoid.

While I read Essentialism, I couldn’t help but think about the dynamics of your average academic department. Every single faculty member has a vested interest in doing their research, and—with the notable exception of those who aspire to administrative positions—nobody wants to spend their time on the minutiae that comes with working in the academy. Sure, maybe there’s one committee you’re really hot to join… but you’re never going to hear a professor say “What I really want is to do is serve the Department. Teaching and research are secondary.”

More than most, nerds like me see what happens when “the way of the essentialist” takes hold in an organization like an academic department, a unit that—while certainly a cog in a larger corporate machine–doesn’t have quite as rigid a hierarchical structure. Your Department Chair can’t fire you, for example. As a result, you have some professors working twelve to fifteen hour days just to keep the department from falling apart, while others are so uninvolved in the day-to-day that you couldn’t give an accurate physical description to a sketch artist. Some faculty members advise more graduate students than is, well, advisable, while others have never advised anyone. (It’s worth noting at this point that, at least in my experience, tenure has nothing to do with this dynamic.) Some graduate students are everywhere doing everything all the time, while others drop off the radar completely. For every person in a department who doesn’t pull their weight, somebody else gets saddled with the responsibility.

Here’s the kicker: more often than not, the folks picking up the academic essentialist’s slack are women.

There are several reasons for this. We womenfolk are expected to be nurturing. We’re expected to be good administrators. We’re expected to care. We’re also, statistically speaking, more likely to be graduate students or junior faculty. Essentialism, then, is a form of privilege, and I’m not sure it’s a form of privilege we should be encouraging people to embrace.

But what’s the alternative? To be honest, I’m not completely sure. This past year I spent so much time on departmental service that my scholarship suffered. This year, I’m going to work really hard to say no at least twice as often as I say yes. I’ve even moved my desk out of a high traffic area, so I’ll be less visible. But I’m still going to make sure I’m doing things to help my colleagues and my department on a regular basis. United we stand, right? I want to be a great scholar, but I also want to be a great citizen, colleague, and friend. When I’m not those things, I’m not happy.

So there you have it. This is a great book for helping you sort out your priorities and think through the mechanics of saying no. It’s great for learning about how to journal, the importance of sleep and play, and other concrete strategies for improving your health, creativity, energy level… etc. But make sure you read Essentialism with a critical eye, because—if you’re like me—the last thing you want is to be playful, creative, well-rested asshole.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

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