The Clarity Paradox

Have you ever felt overwhelmed with just too many tasks and obligations on your plate?

Hello! It’s 2020. I feel like that every day.

Good point.

Then you’ve probably realized that it’s almost impossible to focus and be productive in your job, with your kids, in your side projects, or with your money when you’re in this chaotic mental state.

When we are overwhelmed and being pulled in many different directions, it’s hard to truly make progress in any one of those directions.

And this leads us to today’s topic – the clarity paradox.

Forest in focus through eye glasses representing the clarity paradox.
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

The Clarity Paradox

Back in 2012, Greg McKeown, writing for the Harvard Business Review, tackled the topic of the clarity paradox.

If you’re not familiar with it, the clarity paradox goes like this:

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.

This is typically used within a business context to understand how once successful teams, departments, or even entire companies end up crumbling under their own weight.

Jim Collins, author of the prolific business bible Good to Great further explores this phenomenon in his book How the Mighty Fall.

In that book, Collins discovers that one of the key reasons one time Wall Street darlings eventually collapse isn’t external forces but what he calls the undisciplined pursuit of more.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

The Undisciplined Pursuit of More

It’s not a stretch to take this construct and use it as the lens to view our financial lives as well.

When we’re young and single, we have a more focused approach to our spending and money management, if for no other reason than we have less money to spend and fewer obligations to spend it on.

Then maybe we get a promotion. Maybe we move to a new city or state. Greater opportunity, and more complexity, enter our lives.

Maybe we get married and now we’re juggling two careers, and the financial needs and wants of two people that may not always line up.

Opportunity and complexity.

Kids. Daycare. School.

Blessings and obligations.

Another promotion. More money. More responsibility. More complexity.

A new truck. A new boat. A bigger house.

More fun. More responsibilities.

Looking back, our financial world has gradually become increasingly complex, diffusing our efforts to make positive financial progress in areas like saving and retirement.

We thought our life was a struggle in our early 20’s, but now in our 40’s we find ourselves trying to juggle such expenses as:

  • car payments
  • a mortgage
  • utility bills
  • vehicle maintenance
  • HOA fees
  • credit card bills
  • insurance costs
  • subscription services
  • boat maintenance
  • student loans
  • recreation costs
  • traveling
  • taxes
  • school expenses
  • saving money
  • investing
  • plus many more!

Our ability to focus and streamline our finances when we were young has led to an abundance of opportunities, but taking advantage of those opportunities has led to an unbalanced life, stifling the clarity that led to our success in the first place.

The clarity paradox.

Now – even brushing aside the scourge that is 2020 that has descended upon us all – it’s not unlikely that our lives were already feeling overwhelmed and out of control.

Is it possible to get back the clarity we once had?

The Clarity Paradox – Solved

If the underlying cause of our financial struggle has been years of allowing the undisciplined pursuit of more, then the solution is likely staring us right in the face.

Greg McKeown again:

If success is a catalyst for failure because it leads to the undisciplined pursuit of more, then one simple antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less. Not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials.

Think about that.

The disciplined pursuit of less.

Purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials.

But what would that look like?

The Disciplined Pursuit of Less in Action

Many people know the company Apple as the $1-trillion-dollar company behind the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and more.

But not everyone remembers how different Apple’s fortunes were in the mid 1990’s.

Leander Kahney, writing in his 2008 Apple biopic Inside Steve’s Brain, recounts an interesting anecdote regarding Steve Jobs’s return to the company in 1997.

At the time, it was discovered that Apple was within just 90 days of bankruptcy.

In a critical early meeting, the current leaders of Apple embarked on a lengthy discussion of Apple’s many products and business lines including dozens of computer models, printers, cameras, adapter cables, and all the software for each.

At the end of the presentation, Jobs got up and walked over to a whiteboard and drew two intersecting perpendicular lines.

Across the top, he wrote Laptop and Desktop.

On the side, he wrote Consumer and Professional.

With the stroke of a pen, he reduced Apple’s entire product line to just 4 products.

With well-documented derision and gnashing of teeth, all other products currently in production (even popular ones like the Newton PDA) were mothballed.

The disciplined pursuit of less in action.

(I think that worked out well for them. 😜)

Step 1: Recognize What is Nonessential

The first step to embracing the disciplined pursuit of less is recognizing what is nonessential.

This step, though not always pleasant, is actually quite easy.

Most things we spend money on are nonessential.

It’s likely easier to document the essential elements.

Housing, food, clothes, electricity, internet.

That about sums it up.

Everything else is nonessential.

Now that doesn’t mean that everything else has to be eliminated, it just means our purposeful, deliberate, and strategic elimination process has to start with a fundamental understanding that all these other things are nonessential.

It doesn’t mean not important.

It doesn’t mean not wanted.

It doesn’t mean not mentally or emotionally beneficial.

Each nonessential item has to be weighed based on these other characteristics, but unless catching fish is your primary means to feed your family, the boat falls squarely in the nonessential category.

Step 2: Ruthlessly and Strategically Eliminate

The elimination process is brutal.

It’s going to hurt.

Know that.

But the freedom from responsibilities, even responsibilities we value or love, is still freedom we may need to build a solid foundation.

So think about what you value in life. What is truly important?

If you lost everything, which things would you be most devastated by?

You may be surprised that material things don’t rank very high on the list.

Maybe you need a car, but you don’t need that car.

You need a house, but maybe you don’t need this house.

Maybe the boat finds a new home with someone pursuing the undisciplined pursuit of more.

Maybe private school becomes public school for a year or two.

All these decisions will be difficult and heartbreaking, but building a life you love and a financial foundation to support you long into the future is worth the pain.

By understanding the clarity paradox, we can rebuild our lives in a way that helps us retain more clarity around our purpose, our passions, and what we truly value.

Step 3: Embrace the Season

One thing to keep in mind during this process is that you likely won’t be saying good-bye to these things forever, but just for a season.

The struggle and the burden we feel in life is partly because we don’t have the appropriate foundation to carry the weight of all the opportunities we’ve taken on.

It’s hard to juggle so many things when we’re trudging through quicksand.

But putting almost everything aside so we can breathe, deconstruct our financial home, and spend a season laying down a solid foundation of concrete will make all the difference when we start building our house back up.

Having a solid financial foundation makes everything easier and more stable.

The stress and the chaos once associated with all those obligations and responsibilities is greatly reduced if not completely eliminated.

But we have to embrace this season of change.

This season of pain.

This season of building a new foundation.

This season of regaining clarity and the disciplined pursuit of less.


Today, Apple is…well, about a trillion times larger than it was back in 1997.

As they worked hard to put a solid foundation beneath them, they have been able to branch out beyond just those 4 product lines again, and likely have more product offerings today than they did two decades ago.

But it was the company’s willingness to ruthlessly cut the nonessentials and focus entirely on just those 4 initial product lines that allowed it to build the foundation that would eventually allow it to soar.

So decide what you need to relentlessly focus on to build your financial foundation?

Do you need to destroy your debt?

Maybe your student loans are keeping you stuck.

Maybe you’ve had one too many emergencies and your savings account is depleted again.

Is learning to invest money for the future your next step?

Don’t try to tackle everything.

Cut the nonessentials out of your life and focus on one single effort.

Be intentional about what you are going to do, and intentional about what you aren’t going to do.

It’s the season for gaining clarity and embracing the disciplined pursuit of less.

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