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Divine Trade-Offs and the Sacred Yes: A Conversation with Greg McKeown
Divine Trade-Offs and the Sacred Yes: A Conversation with Greg McKeown

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For this conversation, we spoke with Greg McKeown, the New York Times-bestselling author of the books Essentialism and Effortless, the latter of which was just released earlier this year. When we read both Essentialism and Effortless, we knew we wanted to have Greg on the podcast. Everything he wrote in these books seemed immediately applicable; not just in our lives or careers, but even towards our membership in the Church.

Greg is also a Latter-day Saint, and he was able to talk with us about how the concepts of his books apply to issues that are often on the minds of fellow church members—things like callings, raising families, and managing work/life balance.

Greg’s writing has appeared or been covered by The New York Times, Fast Company, Fortune, HuffPost, Politico, Inc. Magazine, and the Harvard Business Review. He’s also appeared on many television and radio programs, including NPR, NBC, and Fox. Greg is originally from London, England, and now lives in Calabasas, California with his wife, Anna, and their four children. He did his graduate work at Stanford University.

Tim Chaves: Okay. Greg McKeown, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Greg McKeown: It’s so great to be with you. Thank you for having me.

Tim Chaves: Of course, it’s our pleasure. I thought I’d start maybe with a little anecdote. I was recently talking to a friend who is just a little bit older, about my parents’ age. And I was applying some of the things that I learned reading the book Essentialism and trying to softly say no to something. And what’s funny is this is the same friend that recommended the book to me in the first place. He could tell tell what I was doing. And he said, “You’re too young to figure this out. This is going to change your life.”

And the funny thing is, too, Aubrey and I, we’ve been speaking about the book Essentialism and the book Effortless quite a bit in the past few weeks. And what’s amazing is, I think, with both of these books, you really have narrowed down on something that is far beyond what you might expect reading a typical business book or leadership book or whatever and there’s something key about reclaiming your humanity even with these books. And so, I really can’t thank you enough for writing these, for being here, and we’re super excited to discuss them.

Greg McKeown: Yeah. And I like to just riff on that for one second, which is that I didn’t feel like I was trying to answer business questions in these books. I felt like I was trying to answer human questions, which also have relevance in business. And I have observed lots of them in business, but I think they are human questions. And I like how you framed it. Especially recently, I felt a sort of let’s call it a sort of renaissance type sensation in my life that’s grown out of a spiritual journey. And so, I feel hungrier than ever in my life to read deeply out of the best books, let’s say, from humanity to understand more of it.

I read that President Hinckley said in a talk at BYU called the four imperatives of education, I was just recently reading it because I was quoting him and I thought, well, am I quoting him correctly? And I went back and read it and he says that he feels appalled at how little he knows. And he’s, I think, in the first presidency by this point and he’s, of course, read a lot and traveled a lot and learned a lot. I mean, he’s one of the most educated people at this point. But what he feels is appalled at what he doesn’t know. And I feel that so vividly now. And so I feel an extension of what you’re observing, to learn and to learn about humanity and to learn more about who we are. And you have to read more deeply to even be able to begin that journey. So you find me in the middle of that right now.

Tim Chaves: That’s awesome. One of the things we’ve been exploring on this podcast recently is that sort of same idea like, obviously, not all truth can be found in any one place, any one religion. And just on a recent episode, we explored with a writer named Michael Wilcox, several ideas from some of these amazing faith traditions out of the Quran, out of the Bhagavad Gita, those sorts of things. And it was amazing to see how a lot of the best ideas from those traditions echoed very strongly with our own. And what’s amazing is your book isn’t a religious book but it does feel like it really tapped into something that goes beyond just tips and tricks. It really felt like there’s a wisdom here that’s sort of being resurfaced and read language into our modern day.

Greg McKeown: Well, thank you. And I could keep riffing on this for a long time.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Greg McKeown: But I don’t want to derail us either.

Aubrey Chaves: Well, we’re kind of touching on the thesis of the book, which is that when you say yes to something, you are by definition saying no to something else. Well, if I had to sum up Essentialism, that was really the message that I think I took. You feel like you’re choosing your priorities but if you’re always yes, then someone else’s ordered your life for you. And that means that you have to say no to things that might actually be more important to you, but you’ve run out of bandwidth. So I wanted you to talk about this, though, especially in the Latter-day Saint context, because I think we have a lot of demands that come straight from the church.

And those are things that can be really fulfilling, but I think it might be hard for some people to draw a line and figure out what actually feels essential to them even in this one single column of church service. So we have these long lists of things that we would like to add to our life, like studying come follow me and doing family home evening and showing up for activities and serving in our calling. And so, I felt like immediately the first big question is how do you decide what is essential? And more specifically, how do you decide what’s essential in this very important area of your life, which is your church service?

Greg McKeown: Yeah. I feel like there are two different things you shared that I just want to just address each of them. I think that the first was about the thesis of essentialism. And you said if you say yes to something, you’re saying no to something else, right? That was the gist of it. And you’re you’re right but I think it understates the point. Because what the thesis really is and it’s become clearer to me recently in my life, that it’s not that when you say yes to something you say no to something, and that is progress. If you can psychologically get there, then you’re further ahead than what we often do, which is just look at something, is this good? Is this a good thing? And if it’s a good thing, then we need to do it.

So it’s just good equals yes. As soon as you say, well, a yes equals or no, then now you’re being more sensible about it, you’re being more thoughtful about it because you say, well, okay, it’s not whether it’s good, it’s whether it’s better than this other thing I would be doing instead. But then really where it starts to become, I think, almost shocking is where you say no. Every time you say yes, you are saying no not to 10 things or 100 things but everything. That’s the point. Every yes is no to everything else that you could possibly be doing right now.

And suddenly, now you’re in the territory of divine tradeoffs. The full expansion of scripture, ancient and modern, is at least one way to read it is that the endless story of tradeoffs. I mean, the word we would normally use course is agency, but it just gives a different frame to this, that every yes is a no to every other option in that moment. And suddenly the scriptures are full, it’s not like you have to look for a page here or there, like the totality of scripture is this, is people trying to make the right tradeoffs, trying to choose a divine tradeoff that God wants them to make over some other thing that may not make sense, that may be culturally unacceptable, that maybe make you unpopular, that make all of this.

So that’s more of the thesis, it’s like you choosing, and of course we have language with this from President Oaks in his good, better, best talk that put it into our least entire permission, permission to think like this, gave us language that we could use across the church. Is this the best possible thing we could be doing in this moment? That’s the goal. Extrapolating further from that, like so, so Jesus Christ, of course, is so many things and far beyond what I’m about to say but he’s also an ultimate essentialist. And one of the things that meant or means is that he wasn’t doing everything that was good.

There were so many things and, in fact, if you read scripture is his life again, the gospels again, one of the things that’s breathtaking to me is what he didn’t do and all the places he didn’t go, the patience with which he lived that life. He felt the pressure. He was fully aware of what the Jewish people at the time were expecting, or many of the Jewish people were expecting of him to be. He was aware of his own disciples going well, “Hold on. Why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t you doing that? Why aren’t you helping me? Why aren’t you saving my brother who just died?”

All of those pressures are immense, greater on him than on anyone. And yet he shows this patience to do what, not everything perfectly now, not everything… Well, we shouldn’t say perfectly, it is perfectly with him, but not everything popular now. But instead, what his father wants, when his father wants it, how his father wants it, that’s the criterion for his decision making. And so from there as we take him as the ultimate ideal of what a person should be, we’ve got to make the same criteria in ours.

It’s the Lord’s will, and the Lord’s way at the Lord’s timing, that is our singular obligation. All the other obligations are significantly secondary. And, of course, that can be a challenge. But that’s the orientation. And so, your question about, well, how do you navigate leaving and come follow me and all of these other things, I think President Benson said it this way that if we put God first in our lives, if we make him the priority, then it starts to put everything else. The less important thing is either drop out of our lives or take their proper place.

And so, although it might seem a subtle distinction, I think it’s a really important distinction that we put God first, and the church and family are really important but they’re secondary. And with that, I’m not suggesting that the presumption is what people should do, family leaving or come follow me, it almost certainly the opposite, in fact, will happen. But it will happen for different reasons. And that really, really matters. So, if I’m doing come follow me because, well, the bishops asked me to do it, I could be very resentful about that eventually because it’s costing me something and it’s irritating in some way and even didn’t go well again, and look at the church, look what it’s doing.

And you could start to have, I think, some friction there. But as soon as I am really aligned with the Lord, if I am confident that the Lord today wants me to do this thing, the orientation will change. As part of this renaissance experience I’m having that I came across an amazing example of this with Michelangelo when he was painting the Sistine Chapel, the great masterpieces of all time, what’s not often known is that when he was first asked to do that, he had not want to do it at all, which is actually understatement. I mean, he refused to do it. He was so frustrated that Julius was asking him to do it.

And he said, “Look, I’m a sculptor, I’m not a painter. I don’t even know how to do this work.” And he just had no interest in it. And eventually, it was locked in there at times, you have to do this and then eventually he ran off. He’s like a disobedient child in primary or something. He literally runs away. Or Jonah’s story, it’s a Jonah story, runs away, will not do this thing. And then what happens for Michelangelo is that he has a regulatory experience that changes him. And so he comes back. And now he can hear the music, so to speak. He has a vision of what he’s doing, why he’s doing it. He comes back voluntarily. He pours himself into this for four years. He completes the project including that the most iconic part of that chapel ceiling is God’s finger touching Adam’s.

And that was done in this post-world. And the way he even painted deity and painted out and was different than the work he’d done previously, the vision had changed it. So I think that’s so important. If we’re sort of just doing the church thing, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think we can miss all of the alignment, the vision, the life spring that God can give us to give us the energy to do things and why we’re doing them and the richness of the experience that we won’t get any of, hardly any of relatively speaking will be like Michelangelo 1.0 instead of the 2.0 version. So, thank you for your patience of me extrapolating that.

Aubrey Chaves: Oh, that’s so helpful.

Greg McKeown: I think that’s how I would see your question.

Aubrey Chaves: This reminds me a lot of when you talk about priorities, that we use this word priorities to mean all the things that we’re going to do today. And you talked about how this word originally really just meant one thing, like what is one thing that you’re going to focus on. And that has totally changed. I’m such a list person and I really like my long list to cross off. But I have totally converted to this idea, like there is one thing that I’m going to get done today. But it creates so much momentum that I get more done than when I had a long to-do list. But there’s something about like that focus that just really, really creates a positive energy and I get more done anyway, because I’m so focused.

Greg McKeown: So it just extends that when we say it as a life question, what is the priority? What is the priority for our lives? And the clearer we get on that and, of course, that can be upgraded and changed as we change as we learn. But the clearer we can get on that, everything you just said about the daily basis suddenly can be true for the whole life, where we actually live an essential life. And you look at someone like maybe President Nelson, and I’m not trying to verify him in any way to speak so positively about him. But I think he is what an essentialist looks like.

I mean, I think the way that he’s lived his life that you can look at the results of it, somebody recently said, well, it’s almost like he’s lived 10 lifetimes in one. And I think there’s truth to that, because there’s no fad in it, that he just removed all of these other things. And one of the ways he does that is by how present he is, which is, I think, observable to anybody like to all of us, whenever we observe him talking to somebody, there’s a sort of weightlessness to it because in that moment, he is fully there. And then the next moment, he is fully there. And so, yeah, I mean, I think that it’s a daily phenomenon. That’s how we live essentialism. But it can add up to live an essential life. I mean, what is there could be better.

Tim Chaves: Yeah, I love that. And we definitely want to get into Effortless as well. But I do have another question that’s come up as you’ve spoken about this, which is the concept of calling specifically. So it’s one thing when we’re talking about come follow me or ministering, or whatever it is, where there’s no real explicit buy in and I think along with that, it’s like there’s an acknowledgement that at the end of the day, it is your choice to get into these things with them or at any given moment to make them your priority.

With a calling, it’s a little bit different, where you’re sitting across from someone and they say, we’ve decided to extend this calling to you or I’ve been inspired to extend this calling to you. And sometimes I’ve had the experience at least where I’m not feeling the inspiration on that they may have been feeling. And it doesn’t feel like on my own that I would have come up with that thing as one of my essential few things that are going to make it onto my list of what I’m actually going to spend my life doing right now.

I’ve had the experience where I’ve had a couple different experiences where initially maybe I didn’t feel that way but then it ended up being really doing. I’ve had the other side of the experience, too, where I felt like I’m going to say yes just because I feel like I have to say yes. And then it did sort of lead to a period of resentment as I dragged it out and never really truly bought in. And so I’m curious how you think about this concept, the concept of essentialism, as it applies to church callings? And is there a way to reconcile these ideas that potentially this is inspiration, and therefore you should say yes, because there’s a plan bigger than you understand? And on the other side, you’re entitled to inspiration, and maybe you feel like the answer is no.

Greg McKeown: Yeah. I mean, Oaks talked about this where he said there’s two positive revelation and they create a sort of balance, a dynamic equilibrium. One is through a priesthood authority where calling is being extended to you. And then the second is revelation to you where you have the right to receive revelation and they’re both necessary. So if you only do the first, then there is a problem because you’re not using your own agency fully. In a sense you can’t be all in. But to go second is also if you only do the second then you can quite quickly become a law unto yourself and there isn’t something helping to give you foundation and structure to your thinking.

So it’s definitely both that I think is important. I mean, for me, one of the phrases that impacted me was from Elder Packer at the time. And he said, “I said early in my life, I got on my knees and I said to God, you don’t have to take anything from me because it’s already all yours.” And so after that, it was like, in a sense, he made everything easier after that. It doesn’t mean his life was easy but everything was easier than it would have been, because the decision’s already made, his one-time decision. And he’s all in.

And so, I come calling from that perspective, I would say, that like I’m already in. So you can’t take anything away from me because I’m all in. And the one and I think really important caveat to that is that we believe in counsel, in the church. That is the system, not just the policy system of today but the council from we believe quite uniquely in councils in heaven, and then that’s modeled here and we need to have councils in family and councils in the ward and councils, I mean, it’s a council system. And so is the calling process.

So I as I say, my default is already the way it is for the reasons I’ve set, not because of any other reason, though, those reasons matter, it’s not out of social pressure, doing it for social pressure and not doing it because, well, what will someone think of me if I don’t do this? The decisions are different, big strategic tradeoff you bet your life so to speak, give it all to him and say, okay, I just trust that you will do so much more with this than I’ll do alone. And then I think you always have the right to share information. That’s what the counsel process means.

I have an obligation to. Let me just share what’s going on in my life. Let me just explain some of the responsibilities that I have, some of the pressures that I have. These things, Elder Packer said that you have to have inspiration and information. And they’re both part of the process. And so, I think that’s the orientation I think that has worked at least best for me is I’m all in, presumably, yes, and let’s talk, let’s make sure that this council.

And when I was serving as bishop, there were times when people would share information, it was my job to try to make sure that there was enough safety for people to be able to share things so that you would learn things. And sometimes that wasn’t what happened and you find out later information that would have been so helpful to have and you might have made a different decision if you’d had different information. And so, it’s really the responsibility to try and make sure on both parties that there’s inspiration and information flow.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. Well, this is a chapter that I have gone back to over and over where you list specific ways. So let’s move away from church callings. So let’s say you’re in any sort of situation where you realize the thing you’re being asked to do is not one of your essential things and you want to say no. I love this chapter where you give some really concrete ways to say no, because we have this idea that saying no is rude, that you can be selfless and say yes and please someone and you get a little bit of a hi when you say yes, because it’s like this instant connection and they’re happy and you are happy that they’re happy.

And then the resentment sinks in and it might be something that lasts for years depending on the extent of the commitment. And so, I love this chapter about graceful ways to say no. So I’d love for you to talk about that. But before you even get into how you could say no, would you talk about what’s your method for the pause. Maybe you don’t have to pause anymore, but if you know that you’re just a yes person that when someone makes a request, your go to answer is yes, and then you regret it, what can be your pause and what should your thoughts look like for a second before you make any commitment?

Greg McKeown: Yeah. I mean, I know of somebody personally who many, many years ago when they were first convert to the church would go to church and would be grabbed by maybe five different people somewhere in the corridor. “Oh, will you help us with this? Can you do this? Can you do the other?” Yes, yes, yes to all of it. And then she get home and she had lots of young children at the time and she’d just be completely overwhelmed that the church became an overwhelming experience every week because she was a person that make things happen.

And so just be given more and more from everybody and finally learned the sentence, “Let me just check my calendar and get back to you.” And that was a pause. And that served very, very well, because then, I mean, it’s just from an organization point of view, it’s good. You actually do check your calendar. You said, can I actually do that? Is that reasonable? What am I giving up to do it? Is this the actual right use of my time? I have many callings. And so, I think that that’s one way to do a pause. That’s helpful.

You’re out from under their spells. There’s something that happens when you’re standing in front of somebody and you want to do what they want. So I think that that’s been really helpful for me, too, like just step away from the situation. Whatever they ask, I’m going to say I’m not sure yet, or I’m going to check my calendar, or I don’t know yet. And something about just like a breath when I’m not face to face is enough to really rethink is this something that I want to work into?

Greg McKeown: Well, and this is why, again, the priority, the strategic priority matters so much, because it may be that that good thing you’re being asked to do is that you are being asked without anyone knowing to give up time from your children who need your attention. And that’s not a good tradeoff. And the Lord does not want that tradeoff right now. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to come to. Now you just have to make sure, we all have to make sure that we’re doing that that is the Lord’s will not just our short-term perspective speaking.

But the pause, I think, it’s perfectly reasonable thing to do. Think of Jesus when the angry mob is there, we have to kill the woman caught in adultery and that classic moment where he doesn’t answer them, and instead draws on the ground. I mean, it’s a powerful pause. That’s what he’s doing. I don’t have to answer. You can ask me. I don’t have to answer. I can wait. I can be sure I’m getting the right answer. Why did he go out onto the boat away from people sometimes? We might think of that as being not very Christian, what, to get away from people for a while.

Because we sometimes use the word Christian as meaning just anything good, a Christian man, a Christian woman just do anything good. It’s like, well, actually, Jesus didn’t just do anything good. He’s taking a lot of time to make sure get revelation, what am I actually asked to do? What is my unique mission? Because I can’t just do what other people want. I can’t just do whatever ideas just pop into mind. I need to choose the right things. And so he’s creating not just momentary pause but sometimes 40 days and 40 nights of it, to make sure that he’s fully aligned with his father.

Tim Chaves: Even after a moment of pause, one of the things that sometimes keeps me saying yes is the fear of disappointing people. Could you address for me but for others that are feeling that? How do you respond to that particular fear?

Greg McKeown: Well, I mean, I struggle with it myself. And so, I’m very sympathetic to the struggle. And I mean, I think the key point here is maybe to clarify that I didn’t write a book about saying no to everyone and everything without really thinking about it. That’d be a different book. That would be a book called noism.

Tim Chaves: Yeah.

Greg McKeown: And this is essentialism. And so that’s the key distinction is what’s the biggest yes, what is the yes I’m supposed to do? I’ve got to get my errand from the Lord and then unapologetically smilingly do that thing. And if he needs to build the ship, he has no idea how to do that. Why would he? Why would any of us know how to do that? We’re just starting off. He doesn’t know how to do it. But he had to make all sorts of tradeoffs in order to do it. That was the big yes. So he had to say no to all sorts of other things in order to do it.

And so, I think that the key to worry about disappointing people is knowing the biggest, clearest yes so you don’t get into this false notion of I can do it all. In fact sometimes I’ve summarized it this way. Just recently, the language for it is bombastic language but we need to stop lying that we can do it all. Because culturally, the idea of yes, yes, I can do yes to everything sounds good and kind and Christian, we could do it all, but actually we’re violating one of the 10 commandments in saying yes to everything and everyone and all the time.

It’s like, no, you can’t do it all. You have to make tradeoffs. So if you can do it all, what’s the point? What’s the point in agency? What’s the point in coming here? What’s the point in the great test of life? If you can just do it all, then there is no test. You can just do everything. The whole point is that you must weigh up this option versus all of these options. You must weigh them up and try to find a path of the right sacrifice, the right thing to do. And that is the test of life, the challenge of life to figure out in these circumstances, what’s important right now in these circumstances, what’s essential, what is just good or needs to be pushed aside so that I can actually do the thing that matters most. That’s the test.

Aubrey Chaves: Go ahead, Tim.

Tim Chaves: No, no. I was going to move on to the Effortless.

Aubrey Chaves: Okay. Yeah, me too. I was just going to say. So you begin Effortless with this you’re kind of in this state Essentialism has been a huge success and you’re living these essential habits and finding that your schedule is still just overflowing. And so Effortless is sort of this it’s the next step. It’s like, okay, now you’re not lazy, like you whittled down all of the essential things and you still are pushing the boundaries of your workday. And so Effortless is how to do all of these essential things in a way that’s easier. And I really love this book because it’s exciting. It feels so motivating and there’s something you can start doing right now but just immediately makes your life feel like you can breathe a little bit. So would you talk just more about that time in your life how you realized there was still this need, there was more to write?

Greg McKeown: Yeah. I mean, I was being more selective than I’d ever been. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t have been more selective but I was saying no to significant opportunities. I was saying no to writing a new book, I was saying no to a class that I co-designed at Stanford, I was saying no to workshop business. I mean, these were big things I’m not doing and still there was more than I could do. My responsibilities have grown. I’ve got four children by this point. I’m traveling to events where everybody you’re meeting wants to talk about what I already want to talk about.

So, it’s quite an important change because everything looks like the stuff you would definitely want to say yes to. And so I’m still being more and more selective, still turning down way more opportunities than I expected I would ever have to, but I can feel a theory breaking. All right. And the theory is the big rocks theory. Well, it’s still true, the big rocks theory but there’s a weakness to it. The big rocks theory we’ve seen before. I’m sure we’ve all seen it before where the idea is if you put the sand in a container, then the small rocks, then the big rocks, they don’t fit. But if you put the big rocks in first, then the sand, then it all fits. It’s a geometric thing and it works.

But I found myself saying but what if you just have too many big rocks? What do you do? How do you solve that when you’ve got the container, you’ve got these rocks, and they’re all important, what do you put down? You put health down? Well, it’s essential but I just can’t do it. A lot of people do that. They do put the health down and they said, well, maybe I’ve got so many responsibilities, I’m going to going to put my marriage down. And a lot of people do put their marriage down, so to speak. The big important things just get put down or even maybe somebody said, well, church is just too much overwhelming, I’ll just put church down, and they take the whole essential thing and they put it aside.

And in the midst of already feeling that, then I had a family emergency where one of my daughters suddenly became extremely, extremely sick at that time, an undiagnosed condition. We assumed neurological but neurologists left, right, and center just couldn’t tell us anything about what was going on. And so, that just took the whole thing to a whole another level. And you say, okay, well, what do you do? What is the answer in that situation? You have the essentials. You now have another essential on top of this that’s even more vital.

And as we prayed and tried to work out what to do, one of the things that became clear… Well, practically what became clear was to read a talk by Gordon B. Hinckley. It’s called Cultivating an Attitude of Happiness and Optimism, I think is the title. And I felt prompted to read or listen to that every day, which is a lot. You’ve read it once, two, three, four times, but it was like every day, every day, every day. And so I did it almost every day for maybe the next four months, as we were going through this extremity with our daughter. And I felt like a rewiring in my brain or my soul or something. And what was happening in that rewiring was the discovery of a second path.

There are two paths in life but there are two paths of execution, there are two ways to try and do things. And he was trying to articulate or at least somehow through the portal of those words, there was this discovery of a different path. And the scriptures are full of this language. But trust in the Lord with all thine heart, lean not unto thine own understanding, in all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths, that’s interesting language at the end. There is a different path. And I will guide you on it. And so that was one of these great discoveries.

As I was listening to that, there’s two parts. One path is so heavy and maybe so full of anxiety and so alone that you’re going to burn out before you get to the end of the road. That’s a problem. It’s a very serious problem. There will be people listening to this who know just what I’m talking about, that they are burned out already or about to be. And they’re exhausted, teetering right on the edge of exhaustion. And they think that’s the only path and there’s another path. I mean, to me, it’s as important, as important as our mission in life is.

In fact, there’s an true amazing letter that was sent to I think it was George Albert Smith who was… I’m pretty sure I’m getting this right that he was pretty well known to suffer from depression and massive depressive episodes. And he had an uncle who was a doctor who wrote a letter to him in the midst of one of these episodes. And you can see the whole letter, the whole list of letters in the historical record. And in it he says, I know that you’ve committed your whole life to the church. Wouldn’t the church be better paid if you could give yourself over the course of a whole lifetime, rather than burned out, is my words now, burned up and burned out and used up and finished all in one burst?

And that to me is a great illustration that there’s a lot of people who are on the first path who are one way to think of it is trying to be Christians but without Christ, trying to do it through that own scrupulosity. I will save myself. I will do all of these things. I will make it happen. And if it’s not working, if they feel and if they start to feel anxious and can’t see the results they want to see, they think the answer is to do even more. It’s more self-sacrifice. I will do this. The only righteous path is that sort of slave-like type experience. And I think that a lot of very good and very studious and good members of church struggle, because they think that’s the only path. And when it’s not working, they just think, well, I’m not doing enough of it and I’ll push even harder.

And there is an alternative path. It’s true that in scripture there are examples where ease is seen as can be a negative thing. But there’s not that many references actually to the use of ease in scripture but most of them are positive. Ease and easy. And right there in the Sermon on the Mount, Lord himself says, my yoke is easy, my burden is light. Well, is it? I mean, that’s dramatic stuff. Do we believe that? Is that true? Is that what the experience is? How many people are like Michelangelo still, doing it the first way is hard and it’s burdensome and it’s stressful and it’s awful, run away from it, it’s just too much. And there’s this other path, this other way of being where the Lord not only clears the path before us, so he actually eliminates things sometimes for us, and says don’t even bother with that, that’s not even important enough.

But otherwise, sometimes he says, I’ll make you stronger so it feels easier. But either way, it’s this path. And that’s really what we discovered in what turned out to be a two-year journey with our daughter, who was so sick that there really was the second part. And if I had to summarize the experience, although sometimes there was plenty of pain along the way, I would say, I don’t use the word lightly, it was joy. There was joy and there really was joy in that experience. And that’s what I think opened up to me in this repetition of President Hinckley’s chapter.

Tim Chaves: Yeah. I love that. I feel like, I mean, kind of like you’re implying at least culturally we do have some language that implies to me that life should be hard that this is a test and we need to endure to the end and we need to put our shoulders to the wheel and all that stuff. But I love that you bring up the words of Jesus which I think trumps everything that if we take on his yoke, then it should be easy. I mean, that feels like permission for me to let things flow in my life a little bit more and not always just be pushing so hard.

Greg McKeown: Yeah, it’s personal anxiety versus trusting, one way to frame it. It’s what does the Lord want me to do? I mean, you asked the question about calling earlier on and specifically about accepting or not accepting them. But let’s just say doing them, how are we going about it? Are we doing it through being overly anxious? Now of course, if you’re doing nothing, we’ll do something. Okay, fine. If the course we’re supposed to do something but we’re not supposed to, there’s multiple references about this and general conference about that magnifying your calling means simplifying. He said to magnify your calling means to do it.

Tim Chaves: I remember that. Yes. Love that.

Greg McKeown: Right. The problem is sometimes you’re communicating a certain message to a large audience of people. And the problem is people hear messages differently. So the inherent problem is very hard to overcome the problem, actually. Because if you say to a group of people, listen, we just need you to get on and do more in your callings, who’s listening? The problem is the risk is the only people listening are the people already doing it. So they go on, I guess I must not be doing enough, we’re going to do more. Somebody I was working with at BYU, a manager at BYU who is teaching these ideas to at an event and we talked afterwards, she said she’s the kind of person who was up till 4 a.m. in the morning, photo-shopping for young men’s and women’s activity the next day.

So she’s the kind of person who she feels guilty if she even eats lunch. Not if she takes time for lunch but if she eats it. Because if self-sacrifice is good, then total self-sacrifice must be better, first path talking. I said, well, listen, go for it, why don’t you just at least try an experiment to invert this situation and just ask how could this be effortless? Just at least ask it. Could there be some inspiration that might come if you ask a different question? Again, it’s a call from a professor asking her to record his class for the semester. And she jumps into that first kind of perfectionist, overachiever, scrupulosity type path.

She says, oh, I’m going to wow him. We’re going to have multiple cameras. Have a whole crew in there. We’ll edit altogether. We’ll have intros and outros. We’ll have music. We’ll make it really special. She remembers this like new question comes back to her mind. Okay. Let’s just actually figure out what really is required? What if we focus a little more, who is this for? Oh, it’s for one student. How much does he need? Well, he’ll be just missing a few classes because of athletic commitment. Well, could we have somebody maybe use an iPhone to just record it whenever he misses and send it to him? Oh, yeah. Professor, delighted, so happy with that solution.

He’d been overcomplicating it, too. So he’s like, yeah, great. Problem solved, we’ll do that. She gets off the phone. It’s taken 10 minutes of conversation, saving four months of time for her and an entire team. And that to me is at least one really important answer to the question of what do you do if you’ve got too many big rocks? It’s like what if some of those rocks, what if actually they’d like covered in moss? What if they’re covered with complexity, they don’t need to be there? President Nelson said in last general conference, we listened to it, he talked about being outside the Salt Lake temple that his office overlooks all that transformation that’s going on there.

And he’s watched as they’ve pulled out these old tree roots and piping and all of it. And he uses it. He expressly says it’s like a metaphor for us, what are all this stuff that we need to remove that we can pull out of our lives, so we don’t have a place for them anymore, we don’t need to be burdened by them anymore? And over-complexity is one of those deep roots we can pull away from that the Lord wants to simplify our path. And if we trust him, then he will, he’ll lead us in this alternative path. And I think it is an easier path. At least it’s not as hard as we would make it on our own.

Aubrey Chaves: One of the lines that I keep always hearing in my head now is that we can’t overestimate how unimportant almost everything is or something like that.

Greg McKeown: Yeah.

Aubrey Chaves: And I think I’m really guilty of that, like just making things so complicated. And even in the complication, I’m trying to simplify and simplify, and a lot of times the answer really is to just wipe the whole thing, take out steps completely. And I love the illustration where you showed like pushing a boulder down the hill instead of up the hill and asking that first question like what if this were actually just so easy, like what if it were easy? It might just be on a completely different page, just so simple. Maybe there’s only one step instead of eight, and maybe this doesn’t even need a meeting, and maybe see the text message.

Greg McKeown: Yeah.

Aubrey Chaves: And I think those boulders get a lot smaller, just with that one single question. Oh, go ahead.

Greg McKeown: I just was thinking about one fail… Well, probably was a bit of a fail. I remember really emphasizing at one time home teaching when I was bishop, and then it moved to a new ward and it was called as elder back on, then it was still home teaching, and I just learned a lot about the approach. The first time it was sort of right from the beginning, okay, well, let’s just do 100%, we’re going to get there, let’s make it happen. It was quite a top down, probably quite heavy focus. I thought I was just focusing what I was focusing.

But I don’t think I took the effortless path to achieving the goal. I think I was doing the right thing but probably in the wrong way. Because not exactly the same responsibility but responsibility for still the same function, I’d learned a little about that process. And so we just did exactly opposite small and simple means of great things brought to pass. That’s what we believe. That’s the principle but do we it? And we said, listen, let’s not change anything, we’re not going to announce any big thing. We’re just going to say, “Hey, listen, let’s just celebrate every win that we possibly can.” Anytime anyone’s doing anything rather than to make a big fuss about it, we’re going to just try and follow up with a few people each month, and we just build momentum.

And so within about eight or nine months, we were reaching every single person. We were always 95% or above. We just didn’t miss anyone. And that doesn’t mean we did everyone on the list, I mean, of the assigned people. But it felt so effortless in comparison. And so, I feel like that’s another illustration of the point. It’s like the right thing can be done in the wrong way. And so, the right way, I think, is as important as the thing, really, I think that’s important. I am the way, the way I do things matters, not just what to do. And that’s true for our lives to discover that a way to live less trained as one of my wife’s most inspirational leaders put it once, she said don’t force anything.

Tim Chaves: I love that.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Tim Chaves: Greg, I know we’re getting just about the end here. But maybe as we sort of sign off, if you could speak maybe directly to the listeners that are hearing this and thinking about that one big, huge, stressful thing in their life that’s not feeling effortless at all. What’s the first step to take or the first couple of steps that they can do today to start to get on that more effortless path?

Greg McKeown: Yeah. Okay. So I got caught in Storm Ida, whenever that was. Time of recording is like a week or two ago. And I’m in the airport, you cannot fly out. You can’t drive out, the police have closed the… No traffic, closed the highways, there’s flooding everywhere. There’s flooding in the airport. I mean, literally, there’s a modern looking part of the airport that just floods coming through the ceiling. I mean, there were times it was plenty manic. And not with any particularly crazy aspiration, I thought, well, maybe I can just get about right here, have a good night sleep, and we’ll deal with all this later once the storm has passed.

And you can see the hotels are very visibly enticing because it’s just like right there. And try and take the AirTran and every station they’re like, “No, you can’t come up here because it’s flooding down here, it’s all being closed.” And I go to the end of the line and there I’m talking to somebody there, the rental cars and they can’t rent a car, of course, in the storm. And he said, well, if you want to, you could walk there. I mean, it’s a 10-minute walk. It’s one road and it’s right here. And look outside it’s raining, of course. But other than that, it doesn’t look crazy.

The weather doesn’t look wild. And so it’s logically like, well, 10 minutes, get a little wet and then you’re going to be fine and you can be safe and good there. I take about 10 steps towards the road and I hear very clearly, “Do not do this.” And I walked another three or four steps. I’m like, well, I mean, it’s just 10 minutes. And I feel it again but even clearer like, “Do not do this.” And so I didn’t. So I don’t know what would happen if I did it, I can’t give you that side of the story. I just went all the way back, back to the terminal, waited out several hours and then eventually the storm had passed and made it to a hotel, no problem.

In that little story, there’s a lot in that idea. And let me just build on it for just a moment, if you don’t mind. Socrates who was known for a long time as like wisest man in the world and he said, well, I don’t know if I am, but if I am, it’s because I’ve been listening all my life to a daemon, a daemon is how we would say it now. And that daemon that’s with me all the time never tells me what to do but always tells me what not to do. And that’s very profound to me that we’re supposed to proceed in life, of course we’re guided to know what to do as well.

But there are particular times when like a lot of time maybe it doesn’t matter, just proceed, it’s okay but when we hear do not do this, do not do this. And it’s building on it one more level, same principle, there’s a story that I didn’t write in Effortless but I wish I had now was a story that come across a woman who was with her dying son at the end of his life. And she knew that it was that place, the in-between, let’s say, where somebody is not fully here anymore but they’re not fully there yet. So the in-between and she gets up in his bed to be next to him at the end.

And right at the end, he opens his eyes and he says, it’s all so simple moments, all so simple. As his last words, you guys, and she’s left with that mantra, that thing. So, throwing a thread between those three examples, back to your question, I think what to do is to look at how am I making this more complicated than it has to be? How am I making this harder than it needs to be? And then when we have an answer to that, we absolutely very profound we know what to remove, we know literally how to take something out that’s getting in the way of being able to actually make progress.

The task in life may be hard enough but I think it’s all the stuff around the task that makes it so much harder. Once you get to the task and you start doing the work with the Lord’s help, you’re like, okay, just move it small and simple, move forward, move forward, and he’s in charge of the rest of it. When we get overcomplicated, we don’t even get to the task, we overwhelm ourselves before we’ve even begun it so we procrastinate it endlessly, we feel like it must be hard because how else can we justify never getting to it. Think about it with family history or with missionary work or with raising a family or getting to the temple, any of these things, it’s just we add so much stuff before we ever get to it and we’re overwhelmed before we even begun. So I think that’s the answer to a single question, how am I making this harder than it needs to be? Let’s stop doing that. Let’s not do that.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. Wow. Thank you so much. It really is like everything is so motivating. It’s the kind of book I want to put down and go clean something, like organize my closet. It’s so exciting to just be able to focus on what you care about because that gives you so much energy. And so you feel like you want to do more. So thank you so much. These really were both like actually life changing books for us both. So we really appreciate all of your work.

Tim Chaves: Yeah. Thank you so much, Greg. We really appreciate it. And thank you for spending this time with us.

Greg McKeown: Aubrey and Tim, thank you so much for having me.

Tim Chaves: All right. We’ll see you, Greg. Thanks.

Aubrey Chaves: All right. Thanks so much for listening. We really hope that you enjoyed this conversation with Greg McKeown. And as always, if Faith Matters content is resonating with you and you get the chance, we would love for you to leave us a review on Apple podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We read every review and it really helps us to get the word out about Faith Matters. We really appreciate the support. Thanks again for listening. And as always, you can check out more at faithmatters.org.

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