Greg McKeown: An interview by Bob Morris


McKeown, GregGreg McKeown is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. His writing has appeared or been covered by Fast Company, Fortune, HuffPost, Politico,Inc. Magazine and Harvard Business Review. He has also been interviewed on numerous television and radio shows including NPR and NBC. McKeown is the CEO of THIS, Inc. where his clients include Adobe, Apple, Airbnb, Google, Facebook, Pixar, Salesforce.com, Symantec, Twitter, VMware and Yahoo!.

Greg is an accomplished public speaker. He has spoken to hundreds of audiences around the world including in Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, China, England, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States. Highlights include speaking at SXSW, interviewing Al Gore at the Annual Conference of the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland and receiving a personal invitation from Haakon, Crown Prince of Norway, to speak to his Annual Innovation Conference.

In 2012 Greg was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Originally from London, he now lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and their four children. He graduated with an MBA from Stanford University.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Greg.

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Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

McKeown: It happened years ago, one day after our precious daughter was born, healthy and happy at 7 pounds, 3 ounces. What should have been one of most serene days of my life was filled with tension. Even as my beautiful new baby lay in my wife’s tired arms, I was on the phone and on email with work, and I was feeling pressure to go to a client meeting.

My colleague had written, “Friday between 1-2 would be a bad time to have a baby because I need you to come be at this meeting with X.” It was now Friday and though I was pretty certain (or at least I hoped) the email had been written jest, I still felt pressure to attend.

Instinctively, I knew what to do. It was clearly a time to be there for my wife and newborn child. So when asked whether I planned to attend the meeting, I said with all the conviction I could muster…

“Yes.”

To my shame, while my wife lay in the hospital with our hours-old baby, I went to the meeting. Afterward, my colleague said, “The client will respect you for making the decision to be here.” But the look on the clients’ faces did not evince respect. Instead, they mirrored how I felt. What was I doing there?! I had said “yes” simply to please, and in doing so disrespected my family, my integrity, and even the client relationship.

As it turned out, exactly nothing came of the client meeting. But even if it had, surely I would have made a fool’s bargain. In trying to keep everyone happy I had pleased no one and sacrificed what mattered most. On reflection I discovered this important lesson: If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

McKeown: My undergraduate was in journalism which is one of the only majors that teaches you how to ask the right questions. Almost all formal education teaches you how to find the right answer. That’s good as far as it goes. But to ask the right question is a higher and more valuable skill.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

McKeown: I love the film Gandhi. He is an Essentialist and the film captures this. With singleness of purpose—to achieve independence for the Indian people—he eliminated everything else from his life.

He called the process, “Reducing himself to zero.” He dressed in his own homespun cloth (khadi) and inspired his followers to do the same. He spent three years not reading any newspapers because he found that their contents added only nonessential confusion to his life. He spent 35 years experimenting with simplifying his diet. He spent a day each week without speaking. It would be an understatement to see he eschewed consumerism: when he died he owned less than ten items. He intentionally never held a political position of any kind and yet became, officially within India, the Father of the Nation.

And his contribution extended well beyond India. As General George C. Marshall, the American Secretary of State said on the occasion of Gandhi’s passing, “Mahatma Gandhi had become the spokesman for the conscience of mankind, a man who made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires.” And Albert Einstein added, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” It is impossible to argue with the statement that Gandhi lived a life that really mattered or that his ability to focus on what was essential and eschew the nonessential was critical to his success.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

McKeown: Can I cheat and point to an essay rather than a book? It was written by Tennessee Williams and was first published in The New York Times and tells the story of his experience following the release of his widely acclaimed play The Glass Menagerie. The piece is called, and contains his thesis in the title, “The Catastrophe of Success.” He describes how his life changed after the success of the play and how he became distracted from the essentials that led to his success in the first place.

For more than 15 years I have been obsessed with a single question: “Why do otherwise capable people and teams not breakthrough to the next level?” The answer, as Williams beautifully captures, is success. It’s a counterintuitive answer: one that is hidden in plain sight. Success can become a catalyst for failure if it leads to what Jim Collins called “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” The key is to become successful at success. The antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less, but better.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Greg cordially invites you to check out the resources at his website and LinkedIn.

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