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BOOK REVIEW: The surprisingly simple secret to exceptional success

Jun 08 2017 05:00
Ian Mann

The One Thing: The surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan


THIS book by Gary Keller was a number 1, Wall Street Journal bestseller. The author’s credibility derives from his being the founder of Keller Williams Realty International, which is the largest real estate company in the world by agent count.

The book opens with a dialogue between Curly and Mitch from the comedy/drama City Slickers.

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

Mitch: No. What?

Curly: This. [He holds up one finger.]

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean sh*t.

Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the “one thing”?

Curly: That’s what you’ve got to figure out.

The route to extraordinary success, according to Keller, is the discovery of what your ‘One Thing’ is.

As children, we were required to do things when the time came: breakfast time, time to go to school, time to do homework, bath time, and bedtime. As we got older, we were given the discretion to choose when to do things, but not whether – homework before bed.

But as adults, everything becomes a choice, and it is these choices that define our lives. This book addresses the question of how to make good choices.

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Without a clear formula for making decisions, everything feels urgent and important. The ‘One Thing’ is such a formula.

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Keller describes the search for the ‘One Thing’ tightly: “What’s the One Thing you can do this week (day/month or year) such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?” He reports that where he has had huge success, it was always a function of narrowing his concentration down to one thing - and the converse was true too.

Your to-do list probably contains many entries and possibly a few rated ‘A’. What this indicates is that you could be focusing attention on all your As today, as opposed to the ‘One Thing’ that will help you achieve your major ‘One Thing’ in your business or private life.

To-do lists commonly lack the focus on the ‘One Thing’ - success. “In fact,” notes Keller, “most to-do lists are actually just survival lists.” Survival lists are long, success lists are short.

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Keller uses this principle to explain why some people seem to get ahead where others don’t. Why, with the same number of hours available, do some succeed and others don’t? The successful identified the ‘One Thing’ that they really wanted to achieve, and applied the ‘One Thing’ principle to it, daily.

This is not limited to work, but to one’s health (what is the one thing I should do to increase my fitness?), marriage, income, and so on.


This is the realisation that not everything matters equally, and that focusing on many things precludes giving your ‘One Thing’ the time and effort it deserves.

To grasp the full intent of the criteria for a true ‘One Thing’, focus needs to be on the second half of the formula: “What’s the ONE Thing you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?

The domino effect

To illustrate the power of this insight, Keller cites the ‘domino effect’. This effect is the repercussions of an act on every associated entity, like a row of standing dominoes that falls when just the first one is pushed over. In an article in the prestigious American Journal of Physics in 1983, Lorne Whitehead described how a single domino can bring down another domino that is actually 50% larger.

Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life through the ‘One Thing’ principle.

The ‘One Thing’ bears a striking resemblance to the over-used Pareto Principle, or the ‘80-20’ rule, and differs only in that Kelly takes it to the extreme. His call is to take the 20% of your activities which will give you 80% of your benefit, and identify the ‘One Thing’ from that - the vital few of the vital few, until you get to the essential One Thing. All efforts are not equal, and some will produce significantly more.


To be able to say “yes” to the ‘One Thing’ requires saying no to all else. “Whether you say ‘later’ or ‘never’, the point is to say, ‘not now’ to anything else you could do until your most important work is done,” Keller advises.

The suggestion that human beings can multitask is nonsense. Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University, conducted enough experiments to conclude that “multitaskers were just lousy at everything”. The term was developed to describe computers, not people, and the computers only processed only one piece of code at a time, just fast enough to appear as multitasking.

Once the ‘One Thing’ of your work or current concern is identified, you won’t have to become an extremely disciplined human being to achieve. We already, naturally, have more discipline than we need: we simply need to direct and manage it a little better.

"When you see people who look like disciplined people, what you’re really seeing is people who’ve trained a handful of habits into their lives,” Keller observes.


Success is about doing the right thing, not about doing everything right. Top of Form

Before retiring, Michael Phelps had won 22 medals, making him the most-decorated Olympian in any sport. His coach since age 11, Bob Bowman, talked of his ability to focus as his greatest attribute, despite the fact that others said he would “never be able to focus on anything”.

It would be fair to say that Phelps channelled all of his energy into one discipline, the One Thing, that developed into one habit - swimming daily.

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The results from developing the right habit are inevitable: they produce the success you are searching for which greatly simplifies your life.

“It’s not that we have too little time to do all the things we need to do,” Keller notes, “it’s that we feel the need to do too many things in the time we have.”

The ‘One Thing’ is hardly a new notion; anyone who ever attended a 30-minute motivational speech at the company conference has heard it. But hearing the message is quite different from internalising it.

Reading this very accessible book will ensure the message is internalised.

And you will be very pleased you did.

Readability:     Light -+--- Serious
Insights:          High -+--- Low
Practical:          High ---+- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

ian mann  |  opinion  |  book reviews


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