Jan 10

“Essentialism”: Cutting Life Down to Size, For the Better

As John Maxwell has written, “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Greg McKeown‘s popular Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (2014) has been called “a smart, concise guide for the overcommitted and under-satisfied” by Publishers Weekly. More of their summary:

Punctuated with zippy, thoughtful one-liners, this guide to doing ‘less but better’ offers strategies for determining what is truly necessary, and shedding what is not. Too many people fall for the having-it-all myth, and would benefit from shifting from a non-essentialist mindset (unable to distinguish and parse out the truly important) to an essentialist one (capable of identifying the goal), contends McKeown. Instead of attempting to achieve everything, readers need to figure out how to do the ‘right thing the right way at the right time.’         

Truly packed with helpful quotes, Essentialism features the following words of wisdom:

Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.

Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners. Knowing that the reality of trade-offs means they can’t possibly pay attention to everything, they listen deliberately for what is not being explicitly stated. They read between the lines.

There should be no shame in admitting to a mistake; after all, we really are only admitting that we are now wiser than we once were.

What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?

Once an Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last twelve weeks of their lives, recorded their most often discussed regrets. At the top of the list: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” 

Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.

McKeown’s Essentialism received the following praise from bestselling motivational author Adam Grant:

Essentialism holds the keys to solving one of the great puzzles of life: how can we do less but accomplish more? A timely, essential read for anyone who feels overcommitted, overloaded, or overworked—in other words, everyone. It has already changed the way that I think about my own priorities, and if more leaders embraced this philosophy, our jobs and our lives would be less stressful and more productive. So drop what you’re doing and read it.

Watch McKeown say more about “the disciplined pursuit of less, but better”:

Nov 16

“Mistakes Were Made”: But Don’t Expect Admissions

Armed with reams of scientific data and loads of real-world anecdotes, Tavris and Aronson explain how politicians, pundits, doctors, lawyers, psychotherapists–and oh yes, the rest of us–come to believe that we are right and reasonable…and why we maintain that dangerous self-deception in the face of glaring evidence to the contrary. Every page sparkles with sharp insight and keen observation. Mistakes were made–but not in this book! Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, reviewing Mistakes Were Made by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

In the always relevant 2007 Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson took on the topic of self-justification. The publisher blurbed, “When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right—a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.”

Roger K. Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, adds that in addition to cognitive dissonance, “pyramid of choice” is another central concept: “When we first deal with a mistake, we are at the top of the pyramid. As we create ever more elaborate fictions that absolve us and restore our sense of self-worth and thereby remove the dissonance, we descend step by step to the base.”

“The authors,” states Miller, “describe a whole toolbox of mental instruments with which we dig the hole deeper and deeper, among them:

  • Ethnocentricism: us against them, or us against those not us.
  • Confirmation bias: finding ways to distort or dismiss evidence that unconfirms our stance.
  • Internalizing beliefs: assuring ourselves that we have always felt a certain way, even when we make 180-degree turns.
  • Source confusion: not being able to distinguish what really happened from subsequent information that crept in from elsewhere…
  • Getting what you want by revising what you had: ‘mis-remembering, for instance, that your childhood was awful, thus distorting how far you have come, to feel better about yourself now’.”

Selected Quotes from Mistakes Were Made:

As fallible human beings, all of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral or stupid. Most of us will never be in a position to make decisions affecting the lives and deaths of millions of people, but whether the consequences of our mistakes are trivial or tragic, on a small scale or a national canvas, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to say, ‘I was wrong; I made a terrible mistake.’ The higher the stakes — emotional, financial, moral — the greater the difficulty.

A president who justifies his actions to the public might be induced to change them. A president who justifies his actions to himself, believing that he has the truth, is impervious to self-correction.

When politicians’ backs are against the wall, they may reluctantly acknowledge error but not their responsibility for it. The phrase “mistakes were made” is such a glaring effort to absolve oneself of culpability that it has become a national joke—what the political journalist Bill Schneider called the “past exonerative” tense.

In the horrifying calculus of self-deception, the greater the pain we inflict on others, the greater the need to justify it to maintain our feelings of decency and self-worth.

Nothing predicts future behavior as much as past impunity.

Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification. 

We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off. This is especially important for people in positions of power.

If mistakes were made, memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else.

Jan 02

Kathryn Schulz: Wrongology In a TED Talk and Book

From Kathryn Schulz, wrongologist:

If we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don’t want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong. The point isn’t to live without any regrets, the point is to not hate ourselves for having them…We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create, and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly — it reminds us that we know we can do better. 

The inability to experience regret is one of the diagnostic characteristics of sociopaths. 

Journalist Kathryn Schulz has been called the world’s leading “wrongologist.” A book with great reviews and a TED talk seem to back up this distinction.

From the synopsis found on the website of her Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (2010):

In Being Wrong, journalist Kathryn Schulz explores why we find it so gratifying to be right and so maddening to be mistaken, and how this attitude toward error corrodes our relationships—whether between family members, colleagues, neighbors, or nations. Along the way, she takes us on a fascinating tour of human fallibility, from wrongful convictions to no-fault divorce, medical mistakes to misadventures at sea, failed prophecies to false memories, ‘I told you so!‘ to ‘Mistakes were made.’ Drawing on thinkers as varied as Augustine, Darwin, Freud, Gertrude Stein, Alan Greenspan, and Groucho Marx, she proposes a new way of looking at wrongness. In this view, error is both a given and a gift – one that can transform our worldviews, our relationships, and, most profoundly, ourselves.

Dwight Garner highlights many noteworthy aspects of Schulz’s book in his review in The New York Times. Some of his points follow (directly quoted from the review):

  • The idea that error can be eradicated, she writes, can lead to frightening and reactionary impulses. (Gulags, purges.)
  • She charts the three stages of our disbelief at other people’s ideas when they differ from our own. (We first assume that they are ignorant, then idiotic, finally evil.)
  • She is epigrammatic. (‘No one plans to end up on the wrong side of history.’)
  • She has gobbled books and culture like Ms. Pac-Man. She’s comfortable with everyone from Jonathan Franzen to Heidegger, and from Pliny the Elder to Beyoncé.
  • Ms. Schulz notes how many of our beliefs are accidents of fate, hinging on things like our places of birth. She is pro argument, pro talking it out. She quotes the comedian Penn Jillette as saying, ‘One of the quickest ways to find out if you are wrong is to state what you believe.’
  • Most of all she is for skepticism. But she also points out that the ability to interrogate our beliefs is (in the words of a writer named William Hirstein), a ‘cognitive luxury.’ It takes time, brains and patience.
  • ‘Error, even though it sometimes feels like despair, is actually much closer in spirit to hope,’ Ms. Schulz writes. ‘We get things wrong because we have an enduring confidence in our own minds; and we face up to that wrongness in the faith that, having learned something, we will get it right next time.’

Similarly, Daniel Gilbert, also in The New York Times, gives his own positive critique and a sampling of Schulz:

  • [Schulz is] a warm, witty and welcome presence who confides in her readers rather than lecturing them. It doesn’t hurt that she combines lucid prose with perfect comic timing.
  • For most of us, errors are like cockroaches: we stomp them the moment we see them and then flush the corpse as fast as we can, never pausing to contemplate the intricate design of nature’s great survivor, never asking what it might reveal beyond itself. Schulz is the patient naturalist who carefully examines the nasty little miracles the rest of us so eagerly discard.
  • (S)he suggests that one reason people are so wildly overconfident in the accuracy of their beliefs is that being wrong has no telltale phenomenology. We know what it feels like to have been wrong in the past, perhaps just seconds ago, but not what it feels like to be wrong in the present, because the instant we realize that what we believe is wrong, we no longer believe it. ‘It does feel like something to be wrong,’ she says. ‘It feels like being right.’
  • When Schulz suggests that memory and imagination are essentially forms of error — the perception of events that aren’t actually happening — we wonder what she could be thinking, and why we didn’t think of it first.

Below, her TED talk: