Christian Essentialism

Just last week, I finished reading Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, a book I received as a birthday gift earlier this year. I had heard an interview with McKeown on the Art of Manliness podcast last year, and the idea of “essentialism” had hit a chord with me right at the time I was considering dumbing down my phone and simplifying life. The book also came on the heels of the first read-through of Deep Work by Cal Newport, and it seemed like a good follow-on, albeit with some repetition.

I dove into the book with a lot of excitement early on, often blocking off an entire hour for my lunch break in an empty meeting room, and pushing through entire chapters. Along the way, I somehow lost the regular schedule I had in reading this book over my lunch break1, and losing that momentum somehow contributed to loosing interest. But I was glad to finish it up this past week, and I felt it would be worthwhile to digest my learning by seeking to apply what I had read to life.

High-Level Impressions

Overall, my impression of Essentialism was that the book had a great thesis, but much of the content was “fluff”, or “suds” instead of deep, challenging ideas. McKeown cites a number of interesting anecdotal stories to back up his points, and even quotes other books (like Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit). I also felt like he was trying to be everything to everyone, especially in his last chapter where he compared Jesus to Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, John the Baptist, and the Quakers, essentially stating that they were all “good essentialists”. Although I strongly disagree with that sort of sentiment, the reference hit home on one of my main takeaways from the book.

My Big Takeaways

Somewhere in the middle of reading the book, I really wanted to figure out what my essential focus should be. Throughout the first few chapters, I picked up the idea that essentialism was about what you wanted from your career or from life. Like choosing what made you feel good and happy, and that was the goal. As I thought about this, I realized that (as a Christian) my essentialism goal had to be Jesus Christ. Of all the things I could focus on and keep as the center of my attention, two things were at the top: my relationship with Jesus, and the reward of one day being with Him for eternity. After doing all sorts of soul-seeking about my career and my family, and what I wanted to keep as the top priority, this made the most sense. So, that’s my biggest takeaway:

Jesus is the essential for me.

Jesus isn’t just another good person who lived a life of simplicity and helped people. No, He is the Person; the One who made us, who loves us, who died for us, and who rose from the dead and is still alive in Heaven. Jesus is the greatest treasure, and the only person who can satisfy our deepest needs and our greatest desires. I understand that the author might have been aiming at a little more practical areas (such as those career aspirations, teams or product goals), but I feel it would be shortsighted to make my essential focus something so trivial as an aspect of my job or a hobby that I like. Those things will change, yet Jesus never changes and He’s worth infinitely more than any of those things could be. However, there are probably areas of my life where I could “zoom in” and apply the essentialism mindset to those aspects, under the umbrella of finding my focus and joy and satisfaction in glorifying and knowing Christ.

A diagram from the book about focusing our energy in one direction
A diagram from the book about focusing our energy in one direction

Practical Application

So how can this be applied practically? In the book, McKeown listed four major parts:

  1. Essence – What is the core mind-set of an Essentialist?
  2. Explore – How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?
  3. Eliminate – How can we cut out the trivial many?
  4. Execute – How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

I feel like it’s been long enough since I read the first section, that I might want to go back and pick up the “core mind-set” again. But discerning what’s most important, I feel like I have the super high-level view, and now I need to dig in to the practical day-to-day aspects of this. What jumps out now are two main areas: Eliminate and Execute, or as I’ve started to think about them:

  1. What do I need to say “no” to?
  2. What should I prioritize in my life?

This is the main area I’m pondering right now, and will probably continue to be the focus of my writing here on the blog for a bit. I have some ideas of what should fit in the Eliminate/”No” category, including mindless entertainment and selfishness. But for the Execute/”prioritize” category, I’m struggling not to just make up a list of Christian disciplines that are good to do. Instead, I want to build real, tangible appetites in my life, and rest-of-my-life habits that will only drive me closer to my Savior and Lord. This is the regular battle of the day, and it’s echoed in scripture by Paul, who sounds a lot like an Essentialist himself:

No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.
– 2 Timothy 2:3-4 ESV

Not only does Paul use the analogy of a soldier who avoids getting “entangled”2 in civilian pursuits (or things that aren’t essential to his goal), but he also uses a sports/athlete analogy:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
– 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV

Perhaps there is a reason to focus on disciplines and self control as I study my essential goals. There’s definitely plenty to apply right now in my season of life. God has given me a limited amount of time to effectively use for His kingdom, and I want to use it wisely.

Would I read Essentialism again? I’m not sure – much of the book felt like a repetition of things I’ve already heard and read elsewhere, but the overall theme and idea is still a good one: to find a single focus and latch on to it; cut out what detracts from that essential goal and prioritize the execution. Overall, I’m glad I read the book, and I’ll be referring to it more often over the next week or so.

  1. Losing a regular schedule in reading seems to set me back on continuity, and makes it much harder to finish a book. I’m thinking of experimenting with pushing all the way through a book with a regular reading schedule to see if that helps.
  2. Entangled is and even better word to describe how the “trivial many” can capture our attention and make it almost impossible to focus on the “vital few”.