Essentialism, the bestselling book, viral podcast, and eponymous lifestyle hack, has come to dominate corporate and entrepreneurial parlance. Granted, the notion of prioritizing the “vital few” over the “trivial many” and rejecting “other people’s agenda” in favor of our own, has unique appeal in a culture that’s increasingly burned out, over-committed, and exhausted. But lately, I've whiffed one of the less attractive byproducts of the essentialist movement: It necessarily involves making quick and cursory adjudications that something, someone, is either worth our time or not.
As a personal example, I recently emailed a well-known figure in my industry, seeking to interview him for a project I’m compiling. This person, who was so effusive and charismatic on his social media profiles, was, let’s just say, a bit less friendly in his email correspondence. At one point, he pulled back the curtain for me on his mental process. Was my project, was I, purposeful enough to merit a spot on his calendar? Spoiler alert: Nope. It wasn’t.
This person’s success no doubt stems from his evident adherence to the essentialist practice. And I cannot blame him. Ours is a culture where there is something almost talismanic about rigid adherence to the personal schedule. All we must do, we tell ourselves, is take the right steps, and we will unlock explosive personal and professional success.
I, myself, have walked through seasons where I pulled the automatic-no trigger a bit too enthusiastically in the name of laudably clear priorities. And to be honest, I regret the moments I said no to a seemingly valueless opportunity more than the ones I chose to show up, in spite of myself, with curiosity.
Essentializing our way out of personal growth
Though the essentialist way proceeds from a good place, it doesn’t always hold up when tested by the uncertainties and inconveniences of daily life. Yes, focus is good; prioritizing is helpful; simplicity is soothing. But essentialism’s limits become clear in the realities of a post-pandemic world that involve an inevitable blending of work and family priorities, interruptions, and task-shifting—all things that offend the true essentialist’s rigid adherence to a streamlined and minimalistic agenda.
At its core, essentialism encourages identifying a singular priority and forsaking all else. But doesn’t it take a good bit of trial and error to discover that priority? Is it given to change along with life stages? It’s worth asking: Is anyone so self-assured and in touch with herself that she knows, at first blush, which activities or experiences or obligations will pique her interest, develop her personally, unlock new passions? Not to mention, research shows that “wasting” time can actually foster personal growth. Does essentialism leave room for this type of exploration?
The greater concern is that strict adherence to the essentialist way might lead us to slash and burn opportunities that could help someone else, denying us the opportunity for authentic connection—something that, after two years of pandemic-induced isolation, we’re all starved for.
Like my professional colleague whose vocalized thought process ultimately ended in me not being worth his time, you might end up making someone else feel less than. Worse yet, you might look up one day and realize that you’ve prioritized your way to isolation. Becoming a more productive, focused person can certainly be good, but your schedule isn’t going to be bringing you soup when your entire family contracts Covid or the flu.
Essentialism can morph into anti-intellectualism
When taken too far, the essentialist principle can be reductive at best and anti-intellectual at worst. Focusing so singularly on our own agendas can mean squelching our natural curiosity.
For a work project, I recently interviewed a few dozen professionals who’ve pivoted from law into new industries. In questioning these professionals about the steps they took to land their new positions or build their businesses, I found the common thread running through all of their stories was that there was no plan.
They didn’t wind up in their current roles by creating a vision board or drafting a five-year career roadmap. Their success resulted from their relentless curiosity and willingness to say yes to new opportunities for growth and connection. This is certainly contrary to the essentialist mindset, which encourages taking Occam's razor to extraneous commitments and opportunities that threaten our singular priority.
Feeding the throwaway culture, one priority at a time
Strict adherence to the essentialist way can, by extension, further a culture of treating people as “disposable.” Who are we to say that someone isn’t worthy of our time? Is our own quest for self-realization really more important than tending to the needs of those in our families, communities, and society?
In a recent podcast episode, comedian, author, and mother of six Jen Fulwiler shared a countercultural opinion. Life is best, she posited, when you cook up audacious dreams and goals, but other people constantly interrupt them.
The product of a self-obsessed culture, I found myself struck by her words. I had just been complaining about “not having enough time” to work on various writing projects because my children needed me. What, then, is the point of having professional goals or aspirations if they’re disconnected from other people? Why do we dream, plan, work, and strive if not for the good of those in our proverbial villages? What is the point of big dreams if they’re not shared?
Leaning into a mindset that views others as impositions to our success leads us to idolize our goals and dehumanize the ones who make those goals meaningful in the first place.
Make boundaries . . . but make them reasonable
I am certainly not advocating a life devoid of personal or professional boundaries. Essentialism has a place, particularly for those who are chronically overcommitted. But it’s vital to acknowledge that every cultural mindset or practice has natural limits. Disciples of the essentialist movement might be mega-productive and hyper-focused. They may ascend to dizzying levels of professional success. But alluring as this may seem, it’s worth questioning what we (and others) lose when we take it too far.