Book review: Essentialism

This is a rather weird and rant-ish book review as I experienced this book twice – in the traditional paper format in February 2015 and as an audiobook now – and my two experiences do not align. Like, at all.

Wanting to write a review was part of the reason why I went back to it: I remembered it as this key influence towards minimalism in all areas of life and mindfulness. It seemed a perfect fit for my book review section. But! Now it seemed so vapid, class-biased, context-ignorant, and so purposefully tweet-able… So bear with me while I gather the pieces. First a rant about all that irritated me so much this time around (but not so much four years ago, apparently) and then the saveable bits.

The premise of the whole Essentialism thing is so basic it fits on a napkin and doesn’t need a book: figure out what makes sense to you and stick to it – while maintaining some mental health – and ignore all else. Boom! Revolutionary indeed. Also, very far from of the realities of most people’s lives… The author also provides lost of diagrams for the diagram-minded, like so:

First of all, the author: Greg McKeown. How is being ‘public speaker, leadership and business consultant, and New York Times Bestselling Author’ anything? What have you done with your life really, Greg? According to the book, some horrible time in the corporate America missing out on the birth of his child while attending useless meetings and then a mind-blowing MBA at Stanford. And then he set up exploring this revolutionary idea that multitasking is bullshit and humans are purposeful, creative beings who need play and rest. And we live in such shit world that such ‘research’ makes you a bestselling author.

For the same price you also get the personal touch in the form of a typical self-help narrative: I was horrible and then googled some researched the topic, now I’m converted…. How does one becomes a productivity expert, anyway? Well, Greg has become one by talking to some people and throwing lots of quotes at you. So many quotes of so many people that wouldn’t really get along. You get a wide selection of random wisdom nuggets from Mother Theresa, Steven King, Steve Jobs, Gandhi, Ken Robinson and all the TED shit, the usual suspects bound to please every audience. Oh, and the Bibles. All the Bibles… I am not impressed by his reading list, you can have the same message but in XIX form by Thoreau and Emerson.

Even Margaret gets dragged into this… I’m pretty sure she would not be a fan of Greg’s work.

The audience… Well, this is an airport book for a stranded mid-level corporate cog who’s looking for meaning or the serial extroverted entrepreneur who needs a reminder them that they can’t be in all things. This is very class- and industry specific. This is for the children who grew up being told that they could be anything… and Greg keeps affirming that (with a caveat that one thing at a time, please).

And gender specific too, at least as long as we are being realistic about the traditional burden of care work. Who is doing the community and care work while the essentialists are pursuing that single goal? Being an essentialist works as long as you are surrounded by nonessentialists that go on making this (social) world happen for you to be an extravagant genius in…

This made me think about another work-productivity-self-improvement airport book I read even longer ago (and now I’m scared to go back and reread it), Seth Godin’s Linchpin. Because all I remember from that one, apart from a brief lay introduction to brain stuff, was the advice to build your success on not only ‘not being a dick’ but by being actively nice to people. Empathy and such, you know.

Instead, McKeown endorses this quote from Peter Drucker to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: ‘Productivity in my experience consists of not doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work that Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.’ Is it me being weird or the ‘not doing anything that helps the work of other people’ is more than creepy?

The writing style hurt my ears this time. Greg divides all people in two groups, the essentialists and the nonessentialists (see the odious diagram above). It is a constant flow of ‘these do so, but the other the very opposite’. Who are those people? On what basis are you dividing and categorizing people? Unclear, as no serious original research is presented… Feels like Nassim Taleb’s stuff but without the style and those very selected references that makes Taleb enjoyable. Funny story, I had a similar falling out with Taleb too: loved Antifragile but I’m never going back to his stuff after Skin in the Game. At least that wasn’t about the same book…

It is a very warped take on the individual-in-a-system. Greg disparages the (admittedly soul crushing) structures – school, job, society, industrial revolution, military discipline, the XX corporation – without ever even suggesting psychological reasons or profiles. This critique is very unusual coming from me as a sociologist but blaming only the structure and then giving advice how you can hack it assumes that (a) all people want more or less the same and that (b) nobody thrives in those rigid systems.

And the individual part is very, very individual. This is very refined productivity porn – hidden under the dubious notion of ‘your fullest potential’ – for the corporate people. Life can be designed if only you want to. Be deliberate in life hacking or your life will be shit… Greg tries to infuse it with a soul (and some stories about people dedicating some time to their beloved ones, because it’s, you know, revolutionary) but it just withers and dies there…

And now, the reminders that were valid even the second time around:
(yep, you have heard it all already, yep, several times everywhere, I know)

Priority as a noun was first used only in the singular, and that is how it makes sense. Then it becomes muddled and complicated, though, because we contain multitudes instead of just one single wish… but this might help to bring you back to the reality when making one of those infinite to-do lists.

And, following that priority bit, as every other mindfulness ABC will tell you, the space and time for that priority has to be consciously sought and planned for. Deliberation, deliberation, deliberation. Yep, back to the productivity porn we go… but also to the idea that play and rest has to be planned for, especially if you are surrounded by the ethos of not playing (or sleeping) at all such as Academia or the high-flying corporate world.

Distractions are very powerful + the value of boredom and empty moments! Always having a distraction around (the phone! the audiobooks! the people! Netflix!) robs us of the opportunity to just sit there with our shit and think… and doodle… and write… and see stuff springing up.

Journaling and self-exploration is a good thing. Do it!

You are allowed to change your mind. Having a certain education or profession, well, specialization, doesn’t mean that you cannot turn around and pursue something else. You can.

Play! Sleep and rest! These were the key to me liking it so much the first time, I think. I was just entering Academia where people bragged about staying late and working on Sundays, so this was a very nice permission to do my own thing. Like sleeping a lot. Like starting to organize events that I wanted to attend because nobody else was doing that. Like starting a blog that would’ve liked to read… So, in a way, thanks, Greg!


First of all, I shouldn’t be reviewing infuriating books. Or minimalism / tidying books in general… I had thought of going through all that’s out there but that could get ugly very soon. So, unless I stumble across something very good, no more book reviews of the ‘take a long hard look at your stuff’. I am so over that point that I have nothing very good to say about people churning out more and more books saying just that.

Have you read Essentialism? Did you like it? Have you had a similar experience on devouring something starry eyed and then going back to it some time after only to find it very different and not so inspirational at all? We could perfectly – as with me and this very book – apply the esoteric thinking of ‘the thing came to me when I needed it’ and proceed to the endeavors relevant to us right now ♥

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