Episode 60: Essentialism

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Welcome back to the podcast! If you’re new here, welcome, welcome, glad you’re here! Every tenth episode here I spotlight a book, author, teacher, or something that has contributed to my journey and learning. Last time I offered my insight on Marie Kondo and her work on learning how to spark joy but instead of cleaning your physical space and your surroundings I used her teaching to talk about how to spark joy from a mental standpoint in your mental space.

And today I’m bringing to you the work of Greg Mckowen. He’s the author of Essentialism and I think it goes so beautifully with Marie Kondo’s work and offers new insight and depth to be able to create a life of what really matters and what really creates love, joy, and fulfillment.

I’m not going to talk about the entire book because I want you to read it and get your own take from it but I do want to spotlight some things that stood out to me and how you can apply these concepts to create a life rich with what’s essential and meaningful to you.

The essentialist life that Mckowen is offering you is also the path to a confident life.

Confidence is synonymous with certainty.

When you know what’s essential it’s really easy to say no to what’s not.

When you know yourself and who you are you also know what’s not in alignment with your identity.

In his book, he segments the book into three sections. His 3 E’s to living an essentialists life. They are:

Exploring what’s most essential to you.

Eliminate what’s not essential.

And Execute – go and do now that you know what’s important and essential. 

We tend to overcomplicate things all the time.

We add more mental drama because we’re not clear about what’s essential and most important to us so in these moments it can seem like everything is important or urgent and then we’re confused because we don’t know what to choose or what to do or how to do it.

So his first E – explore what’s most essential to you is really the key that gives your vehicle it’s power to move. Your car is capable of many amazing things but without that starter, that main source of energy it won’t do anything or go anywhere. 

So exploring and taking the time to step back and ask yourself what do I value? What’s most important to me? What lights me up inside? What’s essential?

Spending time on these areas will help you clean up and eliminate the rest of the unnecessary drama.

McKowen says,  “The non-essentialist has a vague, general vision or mission statement.”

Is this you? 

Do you know what your vision or mission statement is? Or do you assume that you know what you value and what you’re working towards? When we think like that, we just assume we know – it’s kind of vague and when it’s vague it’s not at the forefront of your mind and it can let in a lot of doubts, insecurities, and worry. The opposite of confidence and certainty. 

But the essentialist has a strategy that is concrete and inspirational…they make ONE decision (one mission statement) that eliminates 1,000’s of later decisions.

I love that so much because but for most of us, myself for a long time too I lacked that clear vision not only for ourselves but for our family members, friends, and community. And without that main goal, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed so we end up saying yes to everyone else and feeling tired, spent, and burnt out.

And having that mission statement, knowing what’s essential really helps you clear out the drama and the clutter. 

When you have a vision you’re able to see what’s not in alignment with who you are and what you’re working towards.

It all starts with deciding what’s most essential to you.

What’s most essential isn’t going to be trivial matters but building character and offering love and kindness with yourself and in your connections with others.

What is your vision? 

What is your mission statement?

This is powerful work because once you have this in place, this framework everything else falls into place.

Let me give you an example of this: I was recently talking to a friend of mine about homeschooling. As many of you know we’ve been homeschooling for 13 years and we’ve learned quite a bit along the way. She was telling me that she was feeling overwhelmed by all the choices out there and just not knowing what to and I, not quite understanding where she was coming from was spouting off recourses that we like that was just adding fuel to the fire. Like, here’s more options to be overwhelmed by.

So I stopped and just told her how I start the planning process each year. It’s really easy. I said I just start with the standards and from there I can see the topics to cover and once I have those I can narrow in on how I want that concept taught or what would be best for that child. 

I don’t have to sift through 1000 resources on ecology when that year we’re learning about the human body. It’s easy to say no to everything else when you have a framework. In that moment, it was like a light bulb went off and she was so grateful because that simple start offered her a plan and vision for their school year. 

Without a plan everything is overwhelming. So when you have a framework,  a blueprint (which is just simply asking the question what’s most essential here?), moving forward then is easy. When you know what you want you also know what you don’t want and it provides a filter to weed out what’s not essential.

So make sure you dedicate some time to creating a mission statement for yourself. Get clear on your vision first. 

I’m going to share mine in an upcoming podcast but my life’s motto, mission statement, vision is something I adopted from Dita Von Tesse several years ago who said,

“I just want to make everything around me beautiful. That will be my life”

So that’s what I do. If it’s not lovely, virtuous, praiseworthy, of good report, or beautiful then it’s not for me. It’s not what I want to aim towards. This includes conversations, media I consume, what I wear, how I parent, how I show up in life, how I try to see others, and who I want to become. It’s a motto and mission statement that applies to every area of my being. It doesn’t mean I’m perfect at it. Sometimes I for sure try to overcomplicate it but it’s my vision and what I continue to strive towards.

Mckowen says, “When we are unclear about our real purpose in life – in other words when we don’t have a clear sense of our goals, our aspirations, and 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-essentials like a nicer car or house or even intangibles like the number of our followers on Twitter or the way we look in our Facebook photos. 

As a result, we neglect activities that are truly essential, like spending time with our loved ones, or nurturing our spirit, or taking care of our health.” 

Ask yourself what’s most essential to you and then eliminate the rest.

When you know what you want, what you’re creating, and what your vision is you’ll notice something else really powerful. You’ll also notice that you’re able to move forward in a more confident fashion. Confidence is certainty and when you’re certain of what you want you move forward confidently.

They go hand in hand.

So his second E is climate what’s not essential. This is tough for a lot of people for many reasons. We’re afraid of what others think, we’re afraid we’ll hurt their feelings, we’re afraid we’ll be missing out on something, we’re afraid of an uncomfortable feeling or conversation. 

But here’s why I love this approach because it’s not focused on THEM. It’s entirely inward. It’s easy to say no to things when you know first and foremost what you’re saying YES to.

I’m a huge advocate for saying YES first. 

No feels restrictive and limiting. It’s really difficult for many of us to say especially to those we love but when you can change your focus and perspective to what you’re saying YES to, it’s a whole different ballgame.

When you separate out what’s essential for you, what matters most to you and you say YES to that, then it’s really easy to say no to everything else. It offers you freedom backed with certainty and confidence where FOMO isn’t an issue because you already know what’s most important and lasting for you.

One thing he offers, one self-check you can do is think, “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no”

And I know you’ve felt that relief of saying no when you really didn’t want to do it in the first place, right? 

Mckowen says, “There is tremendous freedom in learning that we can eliminate the nonessentials, that we are no longer controlled by other people’s agendas,”

So asks yourself, What am I saying yes to? And If I’m saying yes to that, what am I saying no to?

And usually, we’re saying no to ourselves, to our family, to what’s most essential and often times we regret spending that time on things that aren’t in alignment with what we love and value most. 

McKowen says, “The life of an Essentialist is a life lived without regret. If you have correctly identified what really matters, if you invest your time and energy in it, then it is difficult to regret the choices you make. You become proud of the life you have chosen to live.” 

You’ll never regret choosing the essentialist life because it’s completely centered on what’s essential, most important, and lasting. This will always include your core values, the people you love and care about most, the hobbies, activities, and projects that are closest to your heart and that you’re passionate about.

Saying no is a beautiful thing when you know what you’re saying yes to. 

We were asked several years ago to participate in this homeschool co-op. It was a pretty big group and a huge endeavor. It would be fun but it would also take a huge chunk of time out of our lives and more mentally straining because of what my part of the bargain would be. But this group wanted us and made a compelling argument but I just knew that it wasn’t in alignment with vision and what we were creating at home, what I was offering my kids already. So we said no and it was uncomfortable because they couldn’t understand why. To them it was a huge win-win in fact, we received some negative comments even after a significant time had passed. 

But all that was okay because I knew what I was saying yes to and I knew I would never regret that time spent on what was essential for us.

McKowen says, “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.” 

I like that. I like walking a different path and it’s easy to walk this path because you know what’s important. You know that this is a path of meaning and great joy.

It’s okay to be different. To say no and more importantly to say YES to you and to what’s or Who’s essential in your life. 

His last E is learning to execute what’s essential in a way that makes this life effortless. It’s like the how of it all. The first E – Explore is really the what of it all, the second E – eliminate is focussed on the Why of it all, and now the last E – execute is focused on the How of it.

It’s really important that you do these in order – you can’t get to the how without having a plan or vision first. You can’t get the why without knowing what it is first. So with these two in place now you can find actionable ways to make this a way of life.

One thing he mentions throughout the book is this saying, “Less but better”

We again like to overcomplicate things and I think when we do that we stray from what’s essential. So how can we move forward doing less but better?

We’re huge fans of the Great British Baking Show and there’s this lovely baker on there who consistently is doing more and more and more than asked and she gets reprimanded on it all the time. The judges tell her if you focused on what we asked you’d have had time to finish and make this better and I love her because I think I tend to do that quite a bit too.

I don’t want to just plan something, I want to go above and beyond but sometimes it has me straying from what’s essential and taking more time away from who is essential in my life. So I’m trying to be better about adopting the phrase, “less but better” into my life too. 

Let’s all try this together.

Poet and author Henry David Thoreau said, “I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day…so simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real”

In each day when you start to feel overwhelmed it’s a beautiful opportunity to focus on less but better. What’s the most important and essential? How can I do that – how can I focus on doing less but making it better?

Just remember all of this falls under your vision and mission statement. Think about your vision – the what, the why, and for your how – how can you implement less but better?

It’s such a beautiful concept because when you narrow in your focus you’re able to create certainty and confidence in that area instead of trying to be everything to everyone at every second of the day.  

Think about what’s essential – with your family it might be connection and creating love for your family. So instead of trying to do more, planning huge outings, elaborate family home evenings (which I’m not knocking btw), constant activities maybe it’s just to do less – read together, stay home, be present – do less but do that less better. Instead of being home and trying to orchestrate huge activities, you’re home and more importantly, you’re present.

For homeschooling, since there’s a lot of new homeschoolers out there we can adopt this into your school year. For us our mission and vision is just to establish the practice of learning to love learning. Instead of trying to teach them to love everything, every subject, every standard, and checklist. We focus on less but better. We focus on learning to love learning and then from there everything else falls into place.

One of my amazing clients shared this experience she had. She was creating these amazing and extravagant activities for her kids and they just weren’t invested so she tried harder and did more, created more and it was frustrating and upsetting. So when she changed her focus on creating an environment of connection she stopped trying to do everything on her own and just had a conversation with her kids. The kids lit up and shared what they’d love to be in charge of. They were able to create connection by starting with less. You don’t have to do it all. Do less – but better. 

She stopped doing it all and just listened and she listened with the intent to hear them, to connect with them. 

Her vision, elimination of non-essentials, and execution created something that is lasting, more meaningful, and important to her and her kids.

The more you adopt and implement an essentialist life the more confident you’ll feel going into your future. It creates certainty and fulfillment.

You gain confidence in being able to walk a different path and to be a trailblazer for others to follow. You bring clarity into your life as you hone in on what’s essential and most important. You’re able to create and appreciate more joy in your life as you do less but better. 

Let me close with this from McKowen, “The life of an essentialist is a life of meaning. It is a life that really matters…It is a life lived without regret. If you have correctly identified what really matters,  if you invest your time and energy in it, then it is difficult to regret then the choice you make. You become proud of the life you have chosen to live. Will you choose to live a life of purpose and meaning, or will you look back on your one single life with twinges of regret? If you take one thing away from this…I hope you will remember this: Whatever decision or challenge or crossroads you face in your life, simply ask yourself, “what is essential?” Eliminate everything else. If you are ready to look inside yourself for the answer to this question, then you are ready to commit to the way the essentialist.”

Make sure to check out the book. I could easily talk about this in multiple episodes. It’s just really incredible and timely for right now I believe. Okay you guys, talk to you next time!


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