While reading the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown, I realized that its teachings apply to many of my experiences in life, including my internship and especially my life as a parent. Regarding my internship, I found it rather odd that the mentality that is pushed on us as interns is to always say yes to every task that is asked of us. Yet, the book teaches us to first evaluate the situation, determine if it can fit into the time we have, and finally to conclude whether it can contribute to our long-term goals. This seems very contradictory to me. But, that is just the surface impression. The central and underlying theme of Essentialism was to prioritize the things in your life, so when you encounter opportunity – which we all frequently do – we could have the tools to take a step back and evaluate the situation to determine what will serve our needs best.
A lesson that resonated with me while reading Essentialism was that it is ok to say no. In fact, it is often times preferential to say no because it allows us time to consider and evaluate the costs and benefits of each decision we make. Another lesson was that “less is better” (McKeown, 2014). McKeown eloquently added that this means more than “occasionally giving a nod to the principle. It means pursuing it in a disciplined way” (McKeown, 2014).
McKeown stated that initially, we are prone to always say yes to tasks and projects that we are asked to participate in. He then elaborated further stating that after some time, we come to the realization that in order to lead a fulfilling and satisfying life, we need to be able to say no. This was important to me because I too have come to this realization over the years of my adulthood. When I was younger, I never wanted to say no. I wanted to participate in everything because I didn’t want to miss out. But as I grew older and more mature, and more importantly, after the birth of my daughter, Kira, I soon realized that the expectations I was setting for myself were those that rivaled the capabilities of a superhero – which unfortunately, I was not.
When I was younger, I grew up in Edina, MN – a city whose residents have long been referred to as “cake-eaters.” This term came from Marie Antoinette, who heartlessly proclaimed (about her starving subjects), “let them eat cake.” She wanted their love and admiration, but also wanted her “cake” and extravagant lifestyle. Hence, the term “cake-eaters.” Growing up, I remember that rival schools would refer to us this way because they viewed us, our lives, and our access to opportunities as people that strived for having it all, doing it all, and wanting it all. This however, was something that is not only unhealthy (mentally and nutritionally), but impossible. The standards set by that connotation drove me and other students to hold internal expectations that were unobtainable.
After Kira was born, I was faced with countless decisions: go back to college, go out with friends, save money for a trip, pay for daycare, etc. This really jolted me into reevaluating my life and what was important to me. The choices I made came with consequences either way – miss out on fun with friends, miss out on school, miss out on spending time with my daughter, etc. To sort through this realization for the need to prioritize and, as McKeown stated, think of the long-term goals and how my decisions could contribute to those goals, I came to not only accept that there were always going to be losses in one form or another, but also to appreciate the fact that I was in full control of the choices I made. I determined that my daughter and husband were most essential to me, just like McKeown when he determined that what was essential to him was “wrestling with [his] children on the trampoline instead of going to a networking event” (McKeown, 2014). My education was essential to me. My future and that of my family were essential. After these essential aspects of my life, came the less important things. So, I chose to cut out much of my previous social life and activities because they did not serve my long-term goals.
While studying Philosophy at ASU, I have been able to read works by numerous philosophers. One in particular stood out to me as I read Essentialism: Martha C. Nussbaum. She has written many essays on emotions and theories on how to lead the best possible life. In her essay “Human Functioning and Social Justice,” she described essentialism similarly to McKeown. She said, “one version of such a historically grounded empirical essentialism – which, since it takes its stand within human experience, I shall now call ‘internalist’ essentialism” (Nussbaum, 1992). It is this ‘internal essentialism’ that I feel embodies what McKeown signifies in his writing. While referring to the process of becoming an essentialist, she added that “[w]e are not pretending to discover some value-neutral facts about ourselves, independently of all evaluation; instead, we are conducting an especially probing and basic sort of evaluative inquiry” (Nussbaum, 1992). Through this process, we are able to root out the essential aspects of our life and devote our energy and resources to them, first and foremost.
Both Nussbaum and McKeown really seemed to offer valid and inspiring insight into what it takes to be successful and happy in life. As I stated earlier, the process of embracing and becoming an essentialist requires that you step back and reevaluate your priorities to determine what can contribute to your long-term goals in life. Determine what matters to you and anything extra that happens to work out within the gaps is just an extra, a bonus. While referring to the fact that we cannot sufficiently satisfy one need by taking from another, Nussbaum adds that “[t]his limits the trade-offs that it will be reasonable to make, and thus limits the applicability of quantitative cost-benefit analysis” (Nussbaum, 1992). McKeown would agree that the evaluative steps necessary require such an analysis. And he would add that by eliminating the non-essential, we are on course to lead our best possible life.
McKeown, G. (2014). Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (1st ed.). New York: Crown Business.
Nussbaum, M. C. (1992, May). Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism. Political Theory, 20(2), 202-246. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/192002