I was first exposed to Greg McKeown’s notion of “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” in reading his article for the Harvard Business Review a couple of years ago. McKeown argued that too much success can be a catalyst for failure. He outlined the clarity paradox in four phases:
Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.
Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.
It is an interesting observation that we need to continue to ask what is essential and to eliminate the rest. It is a principle, albeit often with limited success, that I have tried to apply to my professional life and to the work of our school district.
Over the holidays, I read McKeown’s expanded argument in his book Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The book resonated differently with me now than it did then, as I thought about his notion (borrowed from Dieter Rams) of “less but better” in the context of the curricular shifts currently being proposed in British Columbia.
The general discussion around the redesign in British Columbia’s K-12 education is that over time we have created curriculum that has become bloated with outcomes. References are often made to the dozens (in some cases more than 100) discrete outcomes students need to learn in a particular discipline, in a particular grade. The Draft Curriculum (currently posted for K-9) aligns with the notion of Essentialism that McKeown forwards in his book, “it is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy.” I hear the worry, if we reduce curricular outcomes for students, are we not asking less of them? Instead, as McKeown argues with Essentialism, it is about asking what is essential and allowing students to go deeper and flourish rather than simply cover topics.
I like the idea of reframing McKeown’s questions around schools and learning, looking at what is already covered in schools to ask tough questions about whether we should continue:
By applying tougher criteria we can tap into our brain’s sophisticated search engine. If we search for “a good opportunity,” then we will find scores of pages for us to think about and work through. Instead, we can conduct an advanced search and ask three questions: “What am I deeply passionate about?” and “What taps my talent?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” Naturally there won’t be as many pages to view, but that is the point of the exercise. We aren’t looking for a plethora of good things to do. We are looking for our absolute highest point of contribution.
In some ways, school systems and curriculum may be the victims of their own success — the kind of success that can lead to failure. Over the last several decades we have crammed more and more “stuff” into schools. As schools have become more successful with this, they have taken more on which has led to diffused efforts. Perhaps stepping back and looking at what is essential is a very good exercise.
Regardless of whether one finds McKeown’s thesis as one that links to schools and curriculum redesign, his article and book offer a good challenge for us as we look at how we live our lives as successful and/or very succesful people in our world.
Personally, I think our schools and our lives could often use a good dose of less but better.