“Essentialism” and The Four-Burner Stove

Four-Burner Stove

Last month, a package arrived with a book I never ordered. Titled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, it was a gift from a client, let’s call her Melissa. (All names were changed throughout this piece to protect my clients’ privacy.) She had read my previous column, “How I Plan To Live Better By Doing Less,” in which I pledged to do less and reclaim my sanity in 2015. And we had recently discussed the weight of all the things we must do, “should” do and want to do.

“Do I need to read another book that tells me it’s not about getting more done but knowing what is truly important and doing just that?” I thought. But Melissa had found it valuable, so I tossed it in my giant bag and, a few weeks ago, began reading it while on my way to meet another client, whom I’ll call Sam.

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Sam asked about the book. I was only in the first chapter, but I shared with her the little diagram below. The diagram shows two scenarios: One where a ball of energy, expended into 12 directions, is unable to move forward. Another ball of energy is channeled into a single direction, a single arrow, which allows it to propel itself forward.

Diagram from Greg McKeown’s
book Essentialism
(Click to enlarge.)

Sam’s eyes twinkled like a mischievous boy. “One arrow? Ok, let me guess,” she said. “It’s written by a single guy with no kids and no problems.”

I cracked up. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I first picked up the book, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the author, Greg McKeown, was someone who seemed to care a whole lot about his relationship with his wife and kids—just as much as he did about his professional accomplishments.

Sam and I talked about how this diagram would need to change to resonate with working moms who continually find themselves at crossroads, being pulled in the direction of their kids and the growing list of demands they come with; the jobs they love and/or need; their almost always neglected husbands or partners, whom they know are ticking time bombs if they continue to be ignored; and a myriad of commitments, wishes, and wants. So often their health, both physical and mental, is what that gets sidelined. These are just the bare minimum number of directions that pull at our cores and take our energy.

So Sam and I pondered together: Could it be possible to channel that ball of energy into four or five directions, not 12? But not just one either, as McKeown suggests and we found to be naïve and unrealistic? Then, could these 4 or 5 arrows align with her priorities so that they are all moving in concert in the same direction, with each priority supporting the others? Perhaps you could have a job that is true to your values and sense of purpose that also supports your financial situation and family needs. Your partner is supportive of your job, and your kids are raised to understand and appreciate a working mom—or something like that? Is that the same as one arrow? We were not so sure.

So I read on. I did not personally find the concepts in Essentialism so revolutionary, but the book is thoughtful, well written and it has stayed with me. I believe that it’s a book with the potential to help a lot of people, especially those who haven’t had a chance to pause and reflect on how busy we have all made ourselves in our pursuit of happiness in all aspects of our lives, right now, right here. Here are the parts of McKeown’s book that I keep coming back to.

Priority is meant to be singular. McKeown says that the original word “priority” showed up in the dictionary in the 1400s as a singular noun. Apparently, it wasn’t until the 1900s that the word morphed into its current plural form, frequently showing up on nonprofit strategic plans in the context of “our top 8 priorities.” If you can’t recall your priorities because there are too many, they cannot be your priorities.

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The most compelling description in the book, for me, was “successful people in the quiet pain of trying desperately to do everything, perfectly, now.” If you have been there, if you are there now, know that you are not alone. And that you can choose to do less now.

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If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will, according to their agenda. This happens to me all the time. If I don’t decide at the beginning of each year, each month and each week what I must do and what I want to do, my calendar magically fills with all the things I couldn’t say no to. All of a sudden, my life has been prioritized by other people, working on what was on their agendas.

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The Latin root of the word decision —cis or cid—literally means to cut, to kill. It is not enough to decide what you find to be most important. Once you have your priorities, you have to shed, or cut out, actively the ones that are “not important.”  It would be easy if all the “unimportant” things were truly unimportant, unattractive things. But the chances are, they will be mostly wonderful things you would like to do if you had a little more time, if you slept a little less, perhaps. We keep picking up and piling good stuff on our plates without taking away the stuff that’s already there. Our plates feel flimsy, unable to hold the mountain of things that are getting cold, dripping down the sides, becoming a big burden.

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Four-Burner StoveThe four burner stove. McKeown borrows an anecdote from David Sedaris’ essay in The New Yorker called “Laugh, Kookaburra.”  In it, Sedaris’ friend describes what she heard in a management class: “Imagine a four-burner stove. One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health and the fourth is your work. In order to be successful, you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.”

Supporting your community, volunteering, learning—these things do not even have a place on this stove. It is hard for me to shake off this image of the stove. McKewon says this:

What I am suggesting is that when faced with a decision where one option prioritizes family and another prioritizes friends, health or work, we need to be prepared to ask, “Which problem do you want?” Trade-offs are not something to be ignored or decried. They are something to be embraced and made deliberately, strategically and thoughtfully.

A man wrote this book

When I was living with a big job with small babies, a long commute and an extended family that needed a lot of support, I was bewildered by young men and women in their twenties who only needed to wake up in time for work every morning, yet wanted to discuss “work-life-balance” with me. What were they balancing?, I wondered.

But having had more time to reflect on this, I appreciate those who seek to build a fulfilling life outside of work, not because there’s a baby crying for breast milk, but because they want to live a centered, happy life. This is especially tricky for us nonprofiteers, who have chosen work that fulfills us beyond financially. We are not supposed to, we do not need to reserve our personal time to seek happiness and meaning in life. How many of us have spent evenings and weekends “volunteering” for the organizations we work for full-time?

And I feel kinship with fathers who love and excel in their careers and want to find a way to build lives that honor their family as much as their jobs. Just as it was tough for women to be the first women in their work field, I think that it is tough for men to be the first in their workplace to ask for a paternity leave or be the one to leave work early for after school duties. I appreciate that because this book was written by a man, it will be read by more men and encourage more people, not just women, to think about what is really important.

I feel bittersweet that because the book is written by a successful man, it is considered a business book, a management book and a leadership book. “Essentialism is good for business,” people will say.  And that is good. A similar book written by a successful woman, I’m guessing, would be filed under “work-life-balance.” She would be going on The Today Show at 10am with a panel of working moms to answer the question: “Can women have it all?”

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My final thoughts

As much as I love, believe and endorse everything McKeown is saying, I also believe that sometimes you have to have all four burners going. If I had practiced essentialism in my 20s, I would have had to wait until my 40s to have my first child. Or, I would have had to leave my dream job of being an executive director of the organization I loved as soon as my husband’s work took him to Kentucky few months after I took the job. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing, at least for those couple of years when everything was happening all at once. Sometimes life is messy, crazy and feels out of control, and I think that’s okay; at least for a little while. What this book reminded me is that you — and I — always have a choice. We don’t have to be stuck, continuing to live out a life prioritized by everyone else.