Using Essentialism to Find Your Niche

One of my favorite reads of 2015 was Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, a treatise designed to combat what Jim Collins (of Good to Great fame) referred to as “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” McKeown’s essentialism was created in opposition to Collins’ statement; he has deemed it the “disciplined pursuit of less.” According to McKeown:

It’s about challenging the core assumption of ‘we can have it all’ and ‘I have to do everything’ and replacing it with the pursuit of ‘the right thing, in the right way, at the right time’. It’s about regaining control of our own choices about where to spend our time and energies instead of giving others implicit permission to choose for us. My interest in the book was renewed after watching McKeown during an online event called the Peak Work Performance Summit, a series of online conversations designed to supercharge your year at work through conversations with business leaders and writers. It was nice to see many of the concepts talked out after having internalized them several months ago.

I love the idea of essentialism being a part of finding your niche, because it is a practice that creates space. In a world that has elevated busyness to a value, essentialism is a move that lets an individual decide what is most important, what speaks the most loudly, and what is most worthy of time spent. For those seeking to find a niche, determining where your energy goes (or should go) is an - pardon the pun - essential part of the process.

Amidst my flurry of notes from the session, one thought emerged loudly (with brackets, which in my code means “COME BACK TO THIS!”):

Don’t relate your prioritization skills to Steve Jobs- most of us don’t have the power he did.

The point is a valid one, and is one of the most widely levied critiques of essentialism: is it something that people can do early in their careers? In a world where early career advice often takes on the tone of “say yes to everything,” “seek to learn as much as possible,” and “be a team player,” can early-career professionalism and essentialism coexist?

McKeown concedes: in some cases, no. There is an element of “proof” required to give you the clout to make these sorts of requests. However, once you’ve surpassed that initial “show ‘em what you’ve got” stage, there are ways to be essentialist without being seen as disagreeable, unreliable, or overly demanding: view yourself as an agent of value creation.

A key feature of developing an essentialist mindset is, to be blunt, saying no to things we don’t want to do. Most of us, especially when we’re young and eager to make a good impression, are bad at this. How could we be good at it, when we’re taught not to do it? However, McKeown has a great tip for combating this. Use interactions with supervisors, colleagues, and clients to elevate the areas where you’re strong, energetic, and essential- and shift the conversation toward doing those things, over things that are less essential to you. Prove that you can create more value for the department, the organization, and others, to make a case for yourself. If the adage about our jobs being to make our supervisors (and their supervisors, for that matter!) look good, you making a case for circumstances that allow you to do your best and most essential work is nothing more than you doing what you’re supposed to be doing.

Worded eloquently, with a case made to apply your strengths elsewhere, this practice - and yes, it does have to become a practice - will allow you to carve out a niche for yourself. And isn’t that what this is all about?

Written by: Amma Marfo