Greg McKeown is an author, a public speaker and a leadership and business consultant. Greg earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business after studying communications and journalism at Brigham Young University. Greg McKeown is the founder and CEO of THIS, Inc., a leadership and strategy design agency based in Silicon Valley. In 2012, The World Economic Forum inducted Greg McKeown into the Forum of Young Global Leaders. Greg is perhaps best known for his most recent book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, a business and self-help book that discusses how to lead a more meaningful and successful life. As a public speaker, Greg McKeown speaks on how to live and lead as an Essentialist; and has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows including NPR’s All Things Considered. I’m a fan of Greg’s work, so it was a real privilege to be able to talk books with him. Please enjoy my interview with Greg McKeown…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I teach and write. I could imagine a variety of platforms for doing that but underneath them, it will always come back to this essential core.
The last thing I read (to my children) was the essay How much land does a man need? by Leo Tolstoy. I am thoroughly enjoyed The Spirit of America by David McCullough and am reading John Adams by the same author. I deliberately gave up reading so much of the repetitive news of the day in favour of these kinds of books and I feel nothing short of a personal renaissance as I have been inspired by what the Founding Fathers read. Adams read books endlessly in their original Latin and Greek.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
My mother read Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach to me many times. It’s the simplest of stories but the power of someone standing against the crowd to pursue his unique mission touched me.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A jeweller when I was five. A zoologist, a mathematician, a vet, a lawyer. Finally, but still while I was quite young, a teacher.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
He would be surprised by so many things. But mostly that things worked out as well as they have. That I am so happily married, that I teach and write for a living: that these things and so many others have happened. I dreamed of these things but that is different to really believe them.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
It’s a trick question because I have realized recently how I have not and now, especially, intend to never leave education. I recently celebrated my 40th birthday and I have felt an awakening to read more books, more classics than I did in the first 40 years. This is not an idle intent. Reading of the classics especially, learning for its own sake, is healing and inspiring to me. Still, to answer your question perhaps I would leave myself The Wright Brothers by David McCullough because it is a pure testimony to the power of life-long learning.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
The most routinized reading in our home is every night to our children. In fact, I have to confess that as I am writing this, my wife, Anna is reading to the children. She has read almost every night for five years or more. She has read whole volumes to them now and it brings a feeling that is unlike any other.
The Stephen Covey library and the books about Steve Jobs, especially Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender has influenced my thinking in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. In some ways, the book is Stephen Covey meets Steve Jobs. In both cases, I felt inspired not by what they said or wrote though so much as what they read themselves and what they intended to do in the world. As authors, teachers, influences and leaders it is who we are that has the most lasting impact.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh is a book I associate with my amazing wife Anna. It’s a beautiful book which captures the real wrestle she engages in to find the wise path forward in life.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I am less of a book-pusher than I used to be. But several years ago I felt impacted by Bonds that Make Us Free by C. Terry Warner and thought everyone should read it.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Ten years ago I would have said almost exclusively non-fiction. But now I would say fiction.
Do you think reading is important?
I am startled by the question in a sense. Reading is one of the few truly essential acts of life. Reading out of the best books can take us anywhere and help us to become something more than we are. It’s a most powerful way in changing the way we think, feel and act. I, personally, read to become different.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
I have been working through the classics I have always wanted to get to. One example is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I feel some shame in admitting that I had never read that book but there it is. And what genius is in that book.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Real books every time. But audio books allow reading while doing other things so I love that as well.
Name a book that you feel every human should have to read by law.
This is a bit of a cheat, but I think we should have to keep a journal and then be made to read it periodically. I haven’t missed a day in the last six years and not many days in the last decade. To read your own thoughts in written form is powerful and important.
Outside of scripture, I would say Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. But in a sense, I can as well answer how many meals I have eaten as saying which book has impacted me most.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. It already made my reading list last year and it was well worth the read. In the future, I want to go back and read the great Roman and Greek philosophers. Surely, to me at least, this is a better use of my time than reading yet another article about the latest intrigue in the White House or in the gossip column. The first have lasted thousands of years; the latter won’t last more than the day.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. But the list is longer than just that.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Rough Stone Rolling. But that has already been taken.