McKeown writes and teaches the concepts found in his book "Essentialism," which encourages business professionals to determine what is essential in life, eliminate the non-essential and make execution of the essential as effortless as possible.
Simply reading that sentence may cause anxiety for those who struggle to identify a life mission or priority. But McKeown would tell you that's not a bad thing. In fact, he's a self-described "lost" soul.
“That’s my life every day,” he said. “I think that in a sense there are only two kinds of people in the world. There are people who are lost and then there are people who know they are lost, and you need to be in the second category because as soon as you know you are lost, you are not lost anymore because you know what to do.”
What would you do if you could do anything?
Nearly 20 years ago, McKeown was a recently returned LDS missionary. His life plan had always been to return to his motherland in England, study law and become a barrister. But during a trip to Utah, he found himself sitting outside the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, rethinking his whole life.
It was during a time when McKeown felt a keen desire to "do whatever God wants me to do." For some reason, his life plan had become less appealing and he craved "a better adventure or a different adventure."
McKeown was in Utah visiting a friend when he had the opportunity meet with Elder Gerald N. Lund in the Church Office Building. Following their meeting, McKeown sat down with a piece of paper and asked a question: “What would you do if you could do anything?”
“If you didn’t have to stay doing what you’re doing? If you could dream big, if you could dream differently, what would you dream?” McKeown remembers asking in a moment of introspection. “And what I noticed when I was done wasn’t what I had written on the list but what I hadn’t written on the list, which was law school.”
During McKeown's time as a missionary, motivational speaker and author Stephen Covey came to his mission twice to speak. McKeown believes Covey’s talks had “planted a seed” and he began to consider “lead(ing) a different life altogether, where you get to teach professionally and try to make an impact that way.”
McKeown ended up obtaining a print journalism degree from Brigham Young University with the intention of pursuing a career in teaching and writing. He then earned a master's degree in business administration from Stanford. This alternate path — or “different adventure” — led him to working with Silicon Valley companies, which ultimately led to his writing “Essentialism.”
But this would be skipping a few key parts of McKeown’s story.
The column that never was
As a student at BYU, McKeown aspired to be a columnist for the school's student newspaper, the Daily Universe. He wrote approximately 200 columns in advance. However, when the first column appeared in print, it was not what he expected.
Confused, McKeown met with the newspaper’s advisers, who explained that they were canceling the column. “We just don’t do columns. We don’t do columnists,” they said.
Frustrated, McKeown began to complain to a friend on the way home when he suddenly had an impression similar to that described by Elder Hugh B. Brown in the famous talk “God is the Gardener.”
“You just leave this alone and you will see this will all work out," he heard. "This will work for your good. This will be fine."
One of the people who read the one column that was published was McKeown’s future wife. Although they had never met, Anna Worthen recognized his name as a fellow teacher at the Missionary Training Center in Provo. A few days later when McKeown misplaced his scriptures, she returned them to his classroom with a note saying that she read his column. The two married in August 2000. They are the parents of four children.
The road to essentialism
In addition to working with Silicon Valley businesses, an experience with the birth of one of his children helped inspire McKeown to write “Essentialism.” A few days prior to his daughter’s birth, McKeown’s colleague commented that Friday would be a bad time for his wife to have a baby because the two were scheduled to be in a meeting together. The baby was born on Thursday, and McKeown ended up leaving the hospital hours after his wife gave birth to a healthy 7-pound, 3-ounce little girl in order to attend the meeting.
“The client will respect you for making the decision to be here,” McKeown recalled his colleague saying. But McKeown quickly realized he’d made “a fool’s bargain.”
As his book's cover flap description reads, "Essentialism is more than a time-management strategy or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution toward the things that really matter."
The opposite of essentialism is what McKeown calls "non-essentialism."
The history of non-essentialism
According to McKeown, “non-essentialism is this idea that everything has to be done and that you have to do it all. Everything is equally important so therefore I have to try to do it all. That’s an idea — if I can do it all, I can have it all.”
It's an idea that McKeown says began to emerge following the Industrial Revolution.
“The word 'priority' came into the English language in the 1400s and it was, at that time, singular; the prior thing, one thing," McKeown said. "It stayed singular for the next 500 years so it was only in response to the Industrial Revolution that people started using the term 'priorities,' but what does that word even mean? Can you really have very, very many, very first before all other things? You can’t. The whole point of the word, the reason that word is useful is it’s saying first, one. So that sort of signals this shift that was happening in the Industrial Revolution, which was a shift toward machines and efficiency.”
The second generation of non-essentialism began to emerge after World War II, when McKeown says “there was a very deliberate effort made by some government leaders to make consumerism the antidote to the mourning of this massively damaging war that the whole western world had just gone through.” The result was a “race of stuff," McKeown said.
The third generation is the one in which we are now living. McKeown believes that in the last 10 years, “we’ve gone from being connected to being hyper-connected.”
“Keeping up with the Joneses used to be the people you could physically see,” McKeown said. “So if your house was not as nice as your next-door neighbor’s, maybe you felt comparison with that but that was it. ... Now, it’s everybody all over the world. ... You’re going to see the best of their world so that is what takes this thing into hyperdrive.”
Essentialism through a gospel lens
In speaking with the Deseret News, McKeown, who currently serves as an LDS bishop in California, discussed essentialism from a gospel perspective. As he describes these principles through a gospel lens, with his British accent still very much intact, McKeown is able to seamlessly transport the concept of essentialism out of the corporate world and into the personal lives of Latter-day Saints. McKeown presents the three mindsets of essentialism from the perspective of three degrees of glory and uses examples from the lives of Jesus Christ and LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson to demonstrate the importance of mastering essentialism.
This culture of non-essentialism is so persuasive that McKeown says it may even affect the way Latter-day Saints read scripture.
“I might suddenly, if I put on these non-essentialist glasses ... I might see just those stories that say, ‘You’ve got to do more.’ I might ignore all of the scriptures that talk about meditation,” McKeown said. “... We don’t talk about meditation. We’re too busy doing everything else. Now, are we trying to do everything because it’s written in the scriptures or because a mindset over the last couple hundred years has become so ubiquitous that we wouldn’t be able to discern clearly what is even written there in plain sight?”
McKeown says that a Latter-day Saint may understand the principles of essentialism from a gospel perspective when presented through the doctrine of progression: the three degrees of glory.
With a clear understanding of these mindsets, one can then look at the examples of those whose lives demonstrated essentialism. For example, McKeown says Jesus Christ went around deconstructing unnecessary non-essentialism around the law. He taught the people what really mattered both in the things he taught and the way he lived.
“It is breathtaking to me what he didn’t do in his earthly ministry,” McKeown said. “You think about all of the places, from his birth until his death, all the places he didn’t visit, all the people he didn’t heal. ... What did he do? A 40-day fast out in the wilderness. Why did he do that? Why was he off on the boat? He’s trying to create space to figure out what does Heavenly Father want from him.
“He seemed to feel no obligation to do everything popular now. Instead, his whole focus, his whole intent was his Father’s will, at his Father’s time, for his Father’s purposes and reasons. That’s it.”
In his travels, McKeown has found the decision to lead an essentialist lifestyle is even more counter-cultural than he realized when he wrote the book.
“You’ve got to start saying 'yes' when other people are saying 'no,'" he said. "You have to start saying 'no' when other people are saying 'yes.'"
One way McKeown has recently tried to implement essentialism in his own life is by bringing at least one of his children, who are homeschooled, on business trips with him.
“Not only are my children having these special memories, but their presence changes my experiences," he said. "...These are things I wouldn’t even think to do, I wouldn’t even think to ask about.”
Still, McKeown says it's important that we don’t misunderstand the ultimate priority.
“The priority isn’t family and it isn’t church,” he said. “The priority is to figure out what God wants us to do and to do it.
“Christ didn’t say to be attached to your family and your church. He said, ‘I am the way.’ ‘I am the vine and ye are the branches.’”
He cites as an example President Monson’s experience of sitting in a church meeting as a young bishop and feeling prompted to visit an elderly member of his ward in the hospital. Members of the LDS Church recognize the story. President Monson stayed in the meeting and immediately went to the hospital, only to be told by a nurse that “the patient was calling your name just before he passed.” That night, President Monson vowed that he would never delay acting on a prompting. McKeown calls these “divine trade-offs” and says the work of making the right choice in these instances is “the work of life.”
“The nature of the plan is that we cannot do it all. ... If there were no trade-offs, there would be no need for agency,” he said. “I just have to figure out from the Lord what he wants me to do, what my errand from the Lord is.”
He explains that God doesn't leave his children alone in discerning these priorities but has provided tools for discovering them. The key lies in one's having "a broken heart and a contrite spirit," in admitting that you are lost and being willing to ask for directions with an intent to act.
“As we admit we’re lost, and we ask the more beautiful question, as we ask better questions, as we wrestle with him, ‘What do you want? Where do you want me to be? When do you want me to be there? I’ll go tomorrow or I’ll stay where I am tomorrow. I’ll stay where I am for 10 years if that’s what you want me to do.
“So if you can get in that second category, then you know what to do. You just have to face it, admit it and then you’re going to be on your knees. And then you’re going to be in the temple and then you’re going to be reading scriptures and writing in a journal and then you’re going to be asking that question because it’s so painful not to have an answer. ...That takes courage. That takes humility. And that’s what to do, go to Him.”