As a college student, I believe that the difficulty of our job is always in the framework of being rewarded by either an authority figure or a grade. Instead of focusing on the pleasure of working, we end up stressed and exhausted trying to meet the next deadline. We tend to live in the moment, signing up for a plethora of events and striving to accomplish everything all at the same time. Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, wants to challenge this kind of lifestyle. McKeown defines essentialism as “a disciplined, systematic approach to determine our highest point of contribution, so that executing the importing stuff becomes easier — if not effortless.”
Having read McKeown’s book, I find the arguments he makes quite compelling and their implications quite intriguing. What I found particularly fascinating, however, was the fact that throughout his book McKeown encourages people to “play” more often. Anything we do for the simple joy of doing it, rather than as a means to an end, is how the author defines “play.” At first I thought his advice was counterproductive; how can one achieve more by granting oneself more time to play? Yet after I thought about the soulless, static way that social institutions like schools and universities encourage us to do work, I realized that McKeown’s suggestions were right; there really is something wrong with the way we do work.
Looking back at my high school experience, it is easy to see why a student could be led to a lifestyle of stress. My teachers would constantly remind me that, “hard work pays off.” Be careful, though; it’s not “work pays off,” it’s “hard work pays off.” Now that is one of many clichéd phrases that have always confused me. We keep throwing the word “hard” in everything we do to the point that our work is meaningless if it is not difficult. As the famous artist Ze Frank once said, “Our definition of work is often quite different from our experience of work. When we think about hard work, we think about our experience of doing work, and specifically about our tolerance for doing things that are uncomfortable, because without the discomfort why would it be hard?” We are bombarded with lengthy assignments and pushed to stick to the established ways of doing work, which eventually worsens our individual experience of doing work.
On top of that, we are told that in order to be successful — yet another cliché — we have to give up on social gatherings, video games and many other daily habits in order to focus solely on our work. McKeown, however, argues that boosting our productivity requires us to take some time to enjoy our activities.
In order to plan, to prioritize and to decide on the goals that we need to achieve, we need to be as alert and focused as possible. Play, according to the principles of Essentialism, can increase brain elasticity, adaptability and creative breakthroughs, as well as fuel exploration. The best way to achieve such benefits is not by overworking, overthinking and overanalyzing, but by taking some time off.
Many Forbes 500 corporations have realized the tremendous benefits of productive break-taking and have already begun integrating play in their workspaces. The CEO of Twitter, for example, promotes play through comedy; he instigated an improv class at the company.
I think that we should introduce more play in education, too. Sir Ken Robinson, whose life’s work is focused on the study of creativity in schools, has observed that instead of fueling creativity through play, schools stick to conventional techniques, thereby killing any kind of creative ability. The word school is derived from the Greek word schole, meaning “leisure.” I firmly believe that it is time we have a paradigm shift in our education system by introducing this kind of leisure in our daily activities.
By applying an essentialist approach to education and keeping everything in moderation, we can balance heavy workloads with numerous play sessions. Doing so will lead students to a healthier, stress-free lifestyle, whilst also boosting their creative abilities and their passion for work.