Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

I read Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, and I got some good ideas out of it.I suppose at it’s heart it’s about making decisions. “Less but better”. It’s a tough one to pull quotes from. Some of the best parts were a few graphics here and there. This was important:

Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles.

I also like this idea of an “essential intent”. That is, some idea that’s both somewhat inspirational but also concrete. It gets you motivated… and you also know when you’re done. “Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions”.

Maybe the most immediately practical part was a section on sayning “no”, where appeared this lovely bit of conversational judo:

Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.” For example, “You are welcome to borow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” By this you are also saying, “I won’t be able to drive you.” You are saying what you will not do, but you are couching it in terms of what you are willing to do. This is a particularly good way to navigate a request you would like to support somewhat but cannot throw your full weight behind. I particularly like this construct because it also expresses a respect for the other person’s ability to choose, as well as your own. It reminds both parties of the choices they have.

And this section on sleeping:

The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies, an dour spirits, we damage the very tool we nee to make our highest contribution. One of the most common ways people – especially ambitious, successful people – damage this asset is through a lack of sleep. […] While there are clearly people who can survive on fewer hours of sleep, I’ve found that most of them are just so used to being tired they have forgotten what it really feels like to be fully rested.

Guilty as charged. Reminded me, I realized this over Christmas vacation recently, when my previously typical 6-6.5 hours of sleep each day ballooned to 10-11 when I didn’t have any constraints. I felt like a different human being and now I’m all about that 8hrs every day. Worth a read.

Basin and Range

I read John McPhee’s Basin and Range, and really liked it. He’s just a ridiculously great writer. Big chunks of the book tie in with a road trip he takes with a geologist named Deffeyes. They stop a lot and look at rocks.

Deffeyes said, “Let’s Richter the situation,” and he got out and crossed the road. With his hammer, he chipped at the rock, puzzled the cut. He scraped the rock and dropped acid on the scrapings. Tilted by the western breeze, the snow was dipping sixty degrees east. The bedding planes were dipping twenty degrees east; and the stripes of Deffeyes’ knitted cap were dipping fifty degrees north. The cap had a big tassel, and with his gray-wisped hair coming out from under in a curly mélange he looked like an exaggerated efl. He said he thought he knew what had cause “that big goober” in the rock, and it was almost certainly not a manifestation of some major tectonic event – merely local violence, a cashier shot in a grab raid, an item for an inside page.

There’s a lot of neat historical parallels, like how geology’s growing understanding of deep time put humanity in our place, just like over in biology, natural selection was having a similar effect. It’s 300 pages about rocks, y’all. This is one book of a four-part series collected in Annals of the Former World and I’m very, very tempted.

Filed under: John McPhee.

Out Stealing Horses

I read the first 1/3 or so of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, but then I came to a chapter where I predicted what was going to happen within the first couple pages. When my prediction turned out to be right, I tried to press on but interest dwindled too quicky. Lovely writing about nature, though. I like this, too:

Time is important to me now, I tell myself. Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it up by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking.

The Man Who Knew Too Much

I read GK Chesterton’s story collection The Man Who Knew Too Much, and it was a lifesaver. I picked this book on instinct right before I took off on a flight. When I was doing my final packing the morning of my trip, none of the books on my nightstand felt right. All the books at the airport looked dumb. It was a crisis. Then I remembered Project Gutenberg. I skimmed through some of the top/popular lists, clicked on some names I recognized, and a few seconds later I had a handful of options ready for travel. A good collection of fun, cynical mysteries, usually with some laconic or mordant humor. There’s usually some corruption at the heart of things. If you ever find yourself in a pinch, Gutenberg has you covered.


I read Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral, and thought it was worthwhile. A 19th century engineer coordinates the construction of a giant continent-spanning triangle built as a signal to Martian civilization. There’s a faint kinship with Euphoria (which I loved), in its blending the romance, science, and exploration.


I read Kim Kardashian West’s book Selfish, and can’t help but like her more. (I’ve never watched the TV shows, and only know the bare sketches of her bio and place in culture at the moment.) I think any book of portraits of just one subject would have a similar effect. Just another human gettin’ by.

Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack

I read Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack and had felt many feelings. Overall a bit dry and academic. If you were obsessed with games of the era (I’m guilty), you probably know too much industry history to find anything new here in the first half, and you’re already sold on the cultural import. The second half focuses more on the music itself, and digs into music theory a bit more… but if you know a good bit about music already, it also feels like… just not enough. It still made me very nostalgic, though, and for a while I convinced myself I need to buy a Wii U or something.


I read Lily King’s Euphoria, and loved it. A love triangle among anthropologists on assignment in the jungles of New Guinea! Loosely based on/inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, who seems fascinating after doing a bit of side reading. Finding lovely turns of phrase like this is one of the reasons I read:

One woman had bright gold hair, the other eyelashes like black ferns.

Dark Places

I read Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, but I didn’t finish. It’s really into being dark, and it leans so hard on its ugly rawness that it seems a little… insecure? Let this not dissuade you from reading or watching Gone Girl, though. That one. That’s the stuff.

Train Dreams

I read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and enjoyed it. Short and sharp. I like the “scenes from a life” method here. Hits some highlights, not strictly chronological, plenty of asides and characters that aren’t strictly relevant to any plot (such as it is), but add color and fragrance to the story. Parts of it based around the Pacific Northwest logging scene reminded me of The Golden Spruce.


I read Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, and there’s a crazy Oulipian experiment going on here. Once you realize the constraint that makes this book strange and different, you can’t help but be impressed that it was 1) written and 2) translated well (shout-out to Deep Vellum). It’s a story of the narrator’s obsession and romance, “caught up in a love that was always uncompleting itself”. I enjoyed it.

The Inner Game of Tennis

I read Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, and really enjoyed it. It’s one of those “hub” books you come across every so often, where you realize there are spokes sticking out into a bunch of other stuff that’s been on your mind lately.

Gallwey’s working theory here is about the internal dichotomy between “Self 1” and “Self 2” in performance. Self 1 is that voice inside, that part of you that “knows” how to do things, that instructs, urges, reprimands, exhorts. Self 2 is the one that does things. Given that Self 1 is so eager to “try hard” and correct and evaluate, successful practice and performance is about building trust for Self 2 and learning through practice and simple observation.

Letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them.

Mindfulness! There’s a flip side of that, too – Self 1 can be too pleased with itself when things are going well. Self-congratulations also takes you out of the moment. I really like this section, about avoiding criticism as we learn:

When plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless”. We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential.

Another interesting bit:

If you think you are controlled by a habit, then you will feel you have to try to break it. […] There is no need to fight old habits. Start new ones.

And I thought this was nicely phrased…

Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested.

Focus isn’t something we do, it’s something that results.

I also like one final section on the games that people play aside from the actual game itself. We each tend to embrace different goals within the game: to be perfect, to be better than the other guy, to appear to be great, to bond, to learn, to be challenged, etc. Each of these motivations influence and contaminate and distract us from performance to some degree.

Very highly recommended!

Some other related posts around here: Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time. Nervous is good. Performance vs. editing. In order to have your best performance you have to be relaxed. That eye-on-the-object look. Reality not maybe is zen. Festina lente. Willing to be shit at things. Forever the 5-year-old of something. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you.