Acting on the Essential: Propelling Theory into Practice
Prioritizing to achieve goals is a cornerstone of success. In scientific careers – especially those driven by extramural funding – giving your science priority over all else is a crucial survival strategy. Yet, even under tenure track pressures and resource limitations, many faculty are lured prematurely into institutional service, heavier than required teaching loads, professional organization roles, and one-time projects. These can undermine steady progress in testing scientific concepts, building the sophistication of one’s research tools and teams, and communicating discoveries.
Searching online for guidance about setting and reaching goals retrieves best sellers and webinars pushing productivity methods for filling every waking minute and working ten times harder than others, alongside coaching advice to follow your bliss and simplifying work and life to achieve flow and balance. Actionable steps framed by research evidence and consideration of personal values rarely coexist in this genre of career self-help.
Bringing both into focus is why we love Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (the first in our annual Conversations book series this year at Vanderbilt). Greg McKeown’s lucid and practical guidance weaves together a balance of encouragement and probing to identify, own, and control your direction with realistic advice about how to implement changes to stay focused on what is essential to your success. He includes just enough of the requisite case examples and research findings from fields like neuropsychology to be convincing without breaking pace.
His practical line up of content asks:
- What is the core mindset of an Essentialist?
- How can we discern the trivial from the vital few?
- How can we cut out the trivial many?
- How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?
His main order of business – bringing focus to the cloud of activities that we feel we have to or need to do – is made to order for faculty in early career and plays just as well to those in mid and later career seeking to be re-energized by sharpening their focus on what is essential, compelling and generative.
He hits the nail on the head so often you come to love the hammer even as you see that what he aiming for is a renovation of how we run our lives. Cliff’s Notes would include these blows:
- The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.
- Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.
- We forget our ability to choose and we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices. Regain your choice.
Necessity of un-committing
- Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.
- Many capable people don’t reach the next level of contribution because they can’t let go of the belief that everything is important.
- The reality is that saying yes to any opportunity by definition requires saying no to several others.
Actions to take
- Be unavailable at times: we need to escape in order to focus.
- Play: it expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore…makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged…helps us to see possibilities we would not otherwise have seen.
- Recognize that if we under-invest in ourselves – our minds, bodies, and spirits – we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contributions.
- Learn that if an opportunity isn’t a clear yes, then it is a clear no.
- Practice until saying “no” gracefully doesn’t have to mean using the word no.
Reflect and refine to shape what is essential to you
- What do you truly want out of your career in the next five years?
- If you could be excellent at only one thing, what would it be?
McKeown’s examples build insights and provide coaching on topics like a repertoire for saying no, how to gauge what is essential, and teaching yourself to uncommit. They provide an actual roadmap, unlike so many books that convey only the theory of success or glimpses of the wins of others.
Before you agree to coordinate the journal club or seminar series or to be on the ballot for the faculty senate or take on a graduate student whose mentor has departed, get this book and dig down to what is essential to you. Then choose to do that.