Book Review: The ONE Thing

OneThing3dLeftI read a lot. Part of it is what I do for a living, which includes things like reading stuff written in legalese (aka, crime against English language), but a part of it is because I like to read. For the most part, it’s fiction — especially works of high fantasy like A Song of Ice and Fire (that would be Game of Thrones for you non-geeks). But from time to time, I review ‘business’ books. Especially when the publisher sends me a free copy.

I do love free books. 🙂

To be honest, most of the time, I find such “business” books to be dreadful. They make the same impact as a stone skipping over a calm pond: momentary, quickly fading, and never touching any deeper depths. Well, I’m happy to report that the new book, The One Thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan of Keller Williams fame is not one of those books.

In fact, I would classify this book as far more of a personal help book than a business book, although I’m sure that tens of thousands of real estate people will use it for both.

Normally, a Notorious review consists of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, just because I really like Clint Eastwood. But in this case, I think we should go with the Good, the Hmmm…, and the Could Do Without.

The Good

Let’s start with what I liked about the book.

It’s a very easy read. The best concepts and ideas in the world don’t mean much if people have no idea what you’re actually saying. Yes, I know, since I write this blog. Believe me, I know. The One Thing isn’t a business book you need a notebook and a couple of sharpened pencils to read and understand. The message is clear, well-supported, and well-written. The narrative flows. Gary and Jay are engaging writers, using plenty of examples, plenty of anecdotes, and plenty of repetition to drive the points home.

As to those points, well, there are quite a few and if I recounted them all, you’d have no reason to read the damn book. But the main one is what the promotional website tells you:

What is the ONE THING I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

The sarcastic amongst us — not that I’m one myself, mind you — might respond, “Drink the cyanide.” Well, I don’t know about easier, but unnecessary… probably.

But seriously, this is a great question. It is what Gary calls the Focusing Question, and it is at the heart of the entire book. Everything else in the book — whether the debunking of various myths and lies we tell ourselves or the power of habits or the goal-setting schema or time-blocking lessons straight from KW masterminds — all flow from this one question.

After you’ve struggled with this central set of chapters and concepts, the rest of the book provides you with plenty of ways to actually put them into action. Whether you are able to do so or not is up to you, I suppose, but Gary and Jay lay out a pretty clear roadmap to doing it. Can’t blame them for not being thorough.

So that’s the central good. I suspect that quite a few people would get enormous value out of things like the chapter on living with a purpose, the chapter on goal-setting, the chapter on time blocking, and the constant rah-rah encouragement throughout the book.

The Hmmm….

What left me with a major “hmm…” was that because Gary and Jay are both relentlessly positive (apparently because they’ve found the great answers to the Focusing Question), I don’t think they’ve spent enough time on the flipside of the Focusing Question.

That is to say, that in deconstructing the Focusing Question, they focus entirely on “can do”:

The last phrase, “can do,” is an embedded command directing you to take action that is possible. People often want to change this to “should do,” “could do,” or “would do,” but those choices all miss the point. There are many things we should, could, and would do but never do. Action you “can do” beats intention every time.

I get the thrust of the point here, and the embedded command. I do. But speaking only for myself, I found myself silently adding the phrase “better than most” to the end of “can do”.

And that does go into the realm of “should do”.

There are things that one can do that would make everything else easier or unnecessary. For most of us, there are actually dozens if not more of such “can do” things. But I do feel that to really make an impact, a spirit-level impact as this book wants to do, one has to add that qualifier.

Because too many of us actually do that one thing they “can do” to make everything else easier or unnecessary… but they do it badly, or at best achieve mediocrity.

They do address this issue very obliquely (at best) discussing the concepts of doable, stretch, and possibility… but fail to address the possibility that one might be trying to do that which goes beyond one’s talents.

There is a point at which asking the Focusing Question has to lead to self-examination: say I can do this ONE THING. Well, just how good at that ONE THING am I?

Real estate actually provides a good example. The ONE THING that someone can do to make everything else easier might be “lead generation”. But some people just plain old suck at it. The obvious answer, then, is that while that might be the ONE THING someone “can do”, it sure isn’t what that person “should do”. Not because shoulda-woulda-coulda factor, but because in this case, it might be better for that person to find something else to become the ONE THING they “can do”.

Now, I don’t think that Gary and Jay would disagree with this. I don’t think they would tell someone to keep doing the one thing they “can do” if they suck at it. The logic would likely come from the fact that keeping on keeping on with the “can do” thing ain’t bringing enormous success, like the book promises. But it’s not spelled out with total clarity. “Easier” isn’t “easy” after all.

There are other nits I could pick, but why bother? The book is solid overall, and did make an impact on me. I found myself asking the Focusing Question since reading it. But this lack of clarity on the “can do” vs. actual talent is probably something that needs more consideration at the individual level.

Could Live Without

There really wasn’t much that I found objectionable in the book. It was a pleasure to read and a challenge to think about. I suppose the only stuff I could have lived without — simply because my personality and self-help books don’t mesh well — are the chapters that I see as being more inspirational than anything else.

Talking about the Three Commitments or the Four Thieves is fun, and I’m sure others would get a whole lot out of it, but me? Well, I could have lived without it. Some of the earlier chapters on things like the Disciplined Life and such were fun to read, but I could live without those.

But as I say, those things are personal. I’m sure others would find them awesome wrapped in bacon.


You’ll probably enjoy it, and get something out of it.

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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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