Why Success Can Become A Catalyst For Failure And How Essentialism Is The Antidote


Who do many smart and capable people end up plateauing, or failing?  They work so hard to achieve a level of success, only to stay stuck in their current state, or worse move backward to where they were.  For my regular readers, you may already know that I have over 20 years of experience leading in a retail environment.


One motto that I have heard whether as a Store Manager, District Manager or Director is, “It’s one thing to beat another leader’s numbers, but another to go up against your own numbers.”


I have seen it many times.  A new leader takes over a store that has had lagging sales, they put the right people in place, create the right processes and kill their first year.  Then they are up against their own numbers in the second year and find themselves struggling.


Greg McKeown, is an international keynote speaker and the best-selling author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.   He’s spoken at events around the world, including South by Southwest, interviewing Al Gore at the World Economic Forum, where he served as a young global leader. Greg has worked with some of the largest and most well-known companies in the world and his work has been featured on Fox, NPR, NBC and much more.


What his experience has taught him may give us the answer as to why you can get stuck in your career, and life.


He recently interviewed with the Success Podcast and shared real strategies for producing breakthrough results, high contribution and personally satisfying work.  Productivity is a topic that I write about often and the concepts taught in his interview and book can significantly improve your productivity.


In the interview, Greg explains that success breeds options and opportunities, which in turn paradoxically undermines the things that led to success, what Jim Collins refers to as the undisciplined pursuit of more.  Imagine a situation where success becomes a catalyst for failure?   The antidote then becomes the disciplined pursuit of less, or to give another term for this, essentialism.


He goes on further to explain that there are three things that must be done as a disciplined pursuit:

  1. We have to create space to explore what is essential
  2. We need to develop the skills to gracefully, courageously and compassionately eliminate the non-essentials
  • We then need to build the routines and the systems to make execution as effortless as possible


It’s a continual process; explore, eliminate, and execute.


The challenge becomes when the forces of success tend to leave us off that cycle.  When success leaves us too little time to consider what is essential.  We become reactive to all the good things that are happening, riding the wave and forgetting to evaluate what we’re doing.


To take us back to my retail example, a leader found in a new role becomes focused on the critical few steps needed to achieve results.  Once results are obtained, it can become easy to enjoy the rewards that success brings only to forget to continue to focus on what brought them the success in the first place.  Instead, they keep adding more focuses on their list confusing not only them but their team.


They become busy but not productive.


Forgetting to take a pause, step back, and evaluate the critical few habits or processes is detrimental to your productivity and success.


Try a little experiment.  Write down everything you do in a single day.  All the tasks, meetings, and discussions you partake in and how much time it took you to do them.  Now, ask yourself this question, “What percentage of what you did throughout the day actually contributed to your most important goals?”  How much time did you spend on tasks that actually helped you to move forward and build momentum?


Chances are, you probably got caught up accomplishing many urgent tasks on your list and maybe even someone else’s list with little to no return.


What Greg does a great job of articulating in his book, “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” was deliberately to try and gather evidence of the problem and also the antidote so that people could start to see what is hidden in plain sight.


Trying to shove it all into your schedule, is not the solution, despite what our culture is telling us.  Continually working in the grind, is not the magic solution.  Instead, ask yourself, is what you are spending your time on producing the reward it promises? Is it producing, is non-essentialism, this pursuit of trying to do everything for everybody without really thinking about it, is that strategy producing breakthrough results, high contribution, personally satisfying and a great contribution to others and really highly meaningful relationships with the people that matter most?


I read Greg’s book and I feel that his interview did a great job summarizing the key messages found in his book.


Other great concepts from the interview that can be found are:


  • Essentialism is not just about eliminating the time wasters, but eliminating the good opportunities too
  • How to combat the social pressure to say yes that constantly makes us over-commit ourselves
  • The importance of becoming more selective in what you go after, including good opportunities, to be able to focus on the MOST IMPORTANT opportunities
  • How “non-essentialism” is the default setting in our lives right now and why it’s impacting our success
  • What science says about being productive
  • You will find out what is the second most highly correlated item that distinguishes TOP Performers from good performers
  • What is the first thing you need to build your essentialist muscle
  • What “First less, then obsess” means for you
  • How to determine if you are falling prey to “Bertolt-Becht Thinking”? (and why that might be dangerous)
  • How to reduce yourself to “zero”
  • The 21 Day Essentialism Challenge


Essentialism is not a new concept but remains popular because of the powerful impact it has had on the lives of many.


For more on Essentialism and Greg’s interview, click the link below to listen.


Essentialism – Get the Mental Clarity to Pursue What Actually Matters with Greg McKeown


Are there any areas in your life where you feel you need to practice a little more essentialism?