Since I’ve begun writing about and training others in lean communication, I tend to see more and more around me through a lean lens, which is why Essentialism by Greg McKeown is a book that has gripped my attention so tightly. McKeown does not mention lean in his book, but it’s exactly the same philosophy: figure out what’s important and then cut out everything that does not directly contribute to that. That’s why Essentialism is not like most how-to books that tell you how to get more things done; it’s about how to get more important things done better.
One of its key tenets is the application of the design philosophy of Dieter Rams: less but better. It’s an apt term because pursuing essentialism is about living by design, not default. That word design is key, because, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Finding Flow, everything we do in life we do for one of three reasons: we want to, we have to, or we have nothing better to do—and we spend about a third of our time in each. To put it in design terms, we design the first third, someone else designs the second for us, and the rest is simply default.
That last third is completely under our control, but it takes vigilance and discipline. The second third is also much more under our control than we might think, although it takes courage to tell others no. But we don’t have to go to every meeting, reply to every email, or agree to every task that’s handed to us. By saying no, you may disappoint others initially, but they will respect you more, and you will have more room to focus on what’s essential to yourself or your higher purpose.
It matters for two reasons. First, people feel best when they are doing the things they want to do, which is no surprise. What is surprising is that doing things because you have to, actually makes you feel better than doing things because you have nothing better to do. So, taking control of your actions will make you better off right now. Second, if you are disciplined in choosing important work that contributes to your own or others’ well-being, you—and they—will be better off in the future as well.
The best test of any book is not what you learn, but what you do differently as a result. You many not learn any deep secrets that you don’t already know in some form or another from reading Essentialism, but McKeown has a way of making you look at familiar ideas in a completely fresh way that stops you in your tracks and makes you think. I’m sure everyone who reads it will connect with something different, but for me it was a simple but powerful question: “What’s Important Now?”
For me, just asking that question every time I find myself drifting into the “nothing better to do” mode, or decide whether to agree to someone’s request, goes a long way to changing the proportions of activity—and the results that come from that.
So if you want to take lean thinking beyond lean communication and apply it to your life, it’s essential that you read this book.
This blog post could change your life—maybe even prolong it.
If you get stage fright before a presentation (and who doesn’t?), if you are under stress (and who isn’t?), if you think stress is bad for you (and who doesn’t?), then I strongly recommend that you read and take to heart the central message of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, by Kelly McGonigal.
Whether you think stress is bad for you or good for you, you’re right.
To put that last statement in a less cryptic way: stress can improve your performance, make you stronger, and even make you a more caring person—as long as you believe it can. In fact, the best way to succeed in stressful situations is not to try to reduce your stress, but to embrace it as a resource to propel enhanced performance.
I realize that sounds like superficial motivational hooey, brought to you by the same people who tell you that you can do anything you set your mind to, but McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford, backs up her assertions with extensive research and a few eye-opening studies.
In some ways, The Upside of Stress does not tell us anything new. We’ve all heard the meme that what does not kill you makes you stronger, and I have long been telling students in my presentations classes that anxiety before a speech means that you care and that you are gearing up for superior performance. So, yes, we have heard some of this before, but this is the first book I’ve come across that backs that up with research and explains the biology behind these ideas.
What is also new is that we learn that there is more than one possible response to stress. We’ve been taught that stress is caused by the activation of the fight or flight response in our minds and bodies. That response is a natural reaction to threat, which prepares our minds and bodies for superior performance, but it evolved many millennia ago in a far different environment than our modern world. So, according to the mismatch theory, our stone-age brains respond to modern circumstances in ways that can hamper performance and over time can severely damage our health.
That makes sense if fight or flight is our only option, but McGonigal explains that there are actually three different possible responses to stressful situations. Besides the familiar threat response, we can have a challenge response or a tend-and-befriend response. Although both possible responses are equally important to well-being, my focus in this blog is on the challenge response.
The difference between the threat response and the challenge response lies in our estimation of our ability to meet the situation that faces us. When we’re fearing for our life, our body does the sensible thing: it goes into defensive mode and sends out hormones that cause a lot of changes; one of the most important is that it constricts blood vessels around our heart, because it might reduce blood loss in the event of severe injury. When we’re not in fear, different hormones cause the blood vessels to relax, which allows for greater blood flow and more energy to rise to the challenge and drives better performance, not to mention being better for us in the long run.
Evoking the challenge response does not reduce stress, but it does make the stress work in our favor. In studies, it has been shown that simply informing people that stress can help them perform better, can lead to improved performance on standardized tests, for example. One reason may be that the threat response narrows our attention and places greater focus on signs that things are going badly, but the challenge response opens our attention to more positive possibilities and opportunities. In numerous studies, those primed to generating a challenge response through prior education led to better performance. Even better, the benefits tend to last far beyond the initial priming.
So, how do you generate the challenge response? The most obvious first step is to avoid the threat response by creating the conditions so that you are not actually in danger. If you are well prepared for a presentation, you should take comfort in the fact that you are equipped to handle any difficult questions that might come up. (Or as I tell my students, if you’re nervous because you haven’t prepared well, you deserve to be!)
You can also activate the challenge response by viewing the stressful situation as an opportunity for learning and growth. As I’ve written before, this mastery mindset has been shown to improve performance in several different areas, including sales.
Actually, you’ve already completed one of the most important things you can do to generate the challenge response and benefit from stress: simply by reading this article, you are more likely to bring a different mindset to your next stressful situation!
The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, carries an important message – one that is directed toward women but can also resonate with many men. Unfortunately, the message is often oversold and supported by questionable research.
The book’s key message is that women in general have and exhibit less confidence than men in general, and this holds them back in so many fields because confidence is strongly correlated to achievement and influence. It’s so pervasive that even some the most successful women in the world, such as Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, and Monique Curry of the WNBA, suffer from it. As Curry puts it, while even the lowliest benchwarmer on the men’s team has as an ego as big as the starters, even the women stars can easily get their confidence shaken.
This general lack of confidence is enormously costly, because women in general ask for less in salary negotiations and tend to make failure a self-fulfilling prophecy by not even applying for positions or entering contests unless they are highly certain to succeed.
The book makes a persuasive case that both nature and nurture contribute to womens’ lower confidence levels, and in its sixth chapter details several recommendations for a “cure”. The key recommendation they give, is “When in doubt, act.” Most importantly, women are urged to fail fast, to take action despite their hesitation, and if they fail, learn from it and move on. They are taught to reframe negative thoughts with positive alternative explanations, and to focus on acting and speaking up not for themselves, but on behalf of others.
One technique readers are explicitly told not to us is “fake it “til you make it”, because supposedly that quickly becomes obvious to others. That’s rather ironic, because the authors seem to have ignored that advice in some of their statements. Here’s one example. They relate experiments with 15,000 sets of twins in Britain that found that student’s self-perceived ability rating was an even more important predictor of achievement than IQ, and draw the conclusion this conclusion: “Put simply, confidence trumps IQ in predicting success.”
In reading books of this type, I’ve developed the habit of taking sweeping statements like that with a grain of salt, so I turned to their footnotes to read the original citation. The paper had nothing to do with the assertions made in the book (and I read through it twice because of my own lack of confidence).
That said, should you read this book? If you are a woman who finds it distasteful that less-qualified men are getting promotions because they speak up more in meetings and tend towards overconfidence in their conclusions, this book will help you by letting you see it’s OK to be more like them, and that you are not alone. In fact, if you’re a man who feels the same way, you can also profit from this book, because the prescriptions will probably work for anyone. If you’re a man who doesn’t lack confidence, but you have a daughter, you definitely should read it, and buy her a copy also.
On the other hand, I am quite confident that you could also get almost as much out of reading this article in The Atlantic, which summarizes the book quite nicely