Janis McKay

Essentialism (BOOK POST)

Janis McKay

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
June 25, 2018

There are a number of books written by and for musicians addressing topics such as performance anxiety, practicing and auditioning techniques, musicianship, technical information that applies to specific instruments or voices, and the like. Some classics include The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green, A Soprano on Her Head by Eloise Ristad, Sound in Motion by David McGill, The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser, and various books on body mapping and the Alexander technique such as Oboemotions by my colleague Stephen Caplan. I would recommend them to anyone who wants to have a career in music.

However, there is useful information found in books not written for musicians, particularly in the business section of the bookstore. These works are generally off the beaten path for us and it is difficult to make the time to seek them out. After all, who has time to read when there is so much practicing to do? My favorite thing to do is to read, much more than practicing (which is another story) and I have found a number of books that are worth studying written by and for people in other fields. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown is one of my favorites, recommended to me by Scott Faulkner, principal bass of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra and former Executive Director for the Reno Chamber Orchestra.  This book was life changing for me and I recommend it to anyone who will listen (and to many who won’t!) McKeown wants to help the reader determine how to make their highest contribution to the world and presents strategies to eliminate obstacles standing in the way of that objective.

The central problem the author addresses is spreading oneself too thin, taking on more tasks than can be handled well. McKeown writes about the importance of finding the most important thing in life and focusing time and resources on that. The “way of the Essentialist” is “the relentless pursuit of less but better.” The word “discipline” in the title is critical to this philosophy. You must have the discipline to say no to anything that is not part of your main life objective. This will mean saying no to a number of things that you want to do, things that you are good at doing, things that you enjoy doing, and things that other people want you to do. The discipline is in making the difficult choice of what to let go. This is no simple task, and yet it is so important. You are literally seeking to discover the meaning of your own life.

Many people have written about what the dying have to say when they look back on their lives. So much of the time, they wished that they had the courage to live a life that was true to themselves; they wished they had not spent so much of their life doing what others expected of them. They wished that they had not wasted time on tasks that seem, in the end, essentially meaningless.

To get started, ask yourself what inspires you, what are your talents, and most importantly, what meets a significant need in the world. Once you have taken the time to decide how you can make your highest contribution, you will have to make hard decisions that will result in real trade-offs. Here are some of his introductory points that I found most thought provoking, the reasons to become an Essentialist:

•    “Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contributions towards the things that really matter.”
•    “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
•    “Almost everything is noise and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.”

McKeown first gives some general strategies set yourself up for success. Some alone time every day is important, time when you are unavailable and inaccessible. Really listening when others speak and not just thinking about what you will say next is crucial to finding out what is truly important. Keeping a journal is a way to work out your thoughts and keep track of your progress. Unstructured time is necessary too, time to relax and allow your mind to float where it wants to go. Another baseline strategy is getting enough sleep, or in McKeown’s words “protecting the asset.” He writes: “The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. If we under-invest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution.” 

So, how do we then separate the “trivial many” from the “essential few?” First clarify whether an opportunity or request is really exactly what you are looking for-say yes to only the top 10%. Ask yourself, “If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?” If you can only be excellent at one thing, what would that be and how will you know that you have succeeded?

Learn the power of saying no. McKeown reminds the reader that “No is a complete sentence.” Cut your losses when you have to, don’t just continue doing something that isn’t working out of habit. McKeown also suggests applying the business concept “zero-based budgeting” when trying to whittle down your commitments. Start from scratch as though all previous commitments are gone and then ask yourself what you would add today. Wait and observe before hitting reply or adding your two cents worth to the conversation—some problems will resolve themselves without you.

Edit and limit the tasks you will take on and establish clear boundaries, especially those between work and family. McKeown says, “Boundaries are a little like the walls of a sandcastle. The second we let one fall over, the rest of them come crashing down.” Another strategy: Any time that you feel a “twinge of resentment” about a request, favor, or opportunity, use it as a barometer to discover what your boundaries are.

Once you have separated out the essential few, McKeown offers some ideas to help youaccomplish these goals:
•    Create a buffer plan for the unexpected.
•    Practice extreme preparation.
•    Add 50% to your time estimate before you start.
•    Remove any obstacles in the way. Ask yourself, “What is stopping me from getting this done?”
•     “Done is better than perfect.”

The importance of establishing a routine cannot be overstated. Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles because the brain has less to do, fewer decisions to make. Michael Phelps has an unchanging routine for race days. He arrives two hours early, stretches in specific patterns, puts in earphones and does not speak unnecessarily until after the race, puts on his race suit 45 minutes beforehand, does 600-800 meters in the warm-up pool, and sits alone in the ready room 10 minutes before the race. When called, he goes to his block and goes through an exact stretching routine, steps on the block from the left side, and dries the block itself. His coach explained: “If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before competitions, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step…the actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories.”

Creative people should find what routines work the best and discover how they are most comfortable navigating the world. This allows them to focus on the most important things, not the “trivial many.” In practice, this involves eliminating non-essential habits, such as checking social media immediately when you wake up. Give yourself a “cue” to remember the behavior that you want to establish instead. Do the hardest task first, not the simplest or fastest. Choose to focus on the activity at hand, not the past or the future, and especially not on what others are doing. Other choices might include spending a day without social media or electronic devices, having a “news fast” for a designated period of time, spending a day without talking, or getting up an hour earlier to accomplish a specific task during a set time.

In summary, many of the ideas that are contained in this book have direct and practical implications for us as musicians and as people. Using routines for practice sessions, for concerts and other performances, and for audition days is a sports strategy that also works for us. Extreme preparation, getting enough sleep—these are concepts that already resonate. 

The most difficult challenge is ascertaining what our highest contribution should be and how to make that happen in a culture that puts emphasis on excelling in multiple areas. As a college professor and a professional musician, how do I choose? Should I focus on teaching students, on preparing classes, on practicing, on writing and research, on university service, on taking auditions, on making a reputation by touring or publications? The list goes on and on. Establishing the essential few from the trivial many is still a work in progress for me. Reading this book has at least made me pay more attention to the commitments I take on now, and that can only help.