California-based Leeds father's 'positive approach' to daughter's illness leads to book Effortless

When Greg McKeown’s daughter suffered a mysterious illness the way they handled it, he believes, saved her life and is the basis of his new book. Catherine Scott reports.

Greg McKeown, who grew up in Leeds and now lives in California, with his daughter Eve.
Greg McKeown, who grew up in Leeds and now lives in California, with his daughter Eve.

When Greg McKeown’s daughter Eve fell seriously ill he and his wife decided to take a different approach to dealing with her illness.

“We had a choice - either run ourselves ragged, paralysed by fear of what might happen to her or take a difficult, lighter, more positive path. We chose the latter.” McKeown has just written a book about this decision and how, he believes, it saved Eve’s life and changed theirs.

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McKeown, now 43, grew up in Leeds and attended the city’s university studying Law. But after a year studying to become a barrister a trip to America to visit friends changed his life.

“A friend asked me what I wanted to be doing in ten years time - a barrister never came into my mind. I wanted to write and to teach and so I decided to move to America.”

That was 20 years ago and since then he has forged a career as a successful thinker on business; his previous book Essentialism has sold over a million copies worldwide.

Three years ago, he and his wife Anna and their four children moved to a new home in California. It seems the perfect place to bring up a family.

As we speak via Zoom the beautiful location forms an idyllic backdrop with swimming pool, landscaped gardens and the family dog sniffing around. Days are spent horse riding and playing tennis. But when his effervescent daughter Eve turned 14 she started to talk less.

She seemed to be tired more and took longer to do her share of the family chores. McKeown and his wife put it down to Eve’s age.

Then on a routine visit to a physical therapist, Eve failed a reflex test.

“It isn’t something you would normally fail,” says McKeown. “It was a red flag that something really wasn’t right with Eve.” After that her symptoms worsened.

“It took her forever to write her name and hours to eat a meal. The light in her just went out,” he recalls. Then she had a seizure and ended up in hospital.

But still the experts couldn’t fathom what was wrong with the teenager, with all test results coming back within normal limits.

“We were getting so much conflicting advice from people it was hard to get a clear picture, or to keep a clear head about what path we should be taking,” says McKeown. “We knew what mattered was getting her well again, but how do you go about it?” They realised there were two paths. One, the more instinctive option, where they would pursue every avenue for a cure.

And the other, a more counter-intuitive approach, where they tried to remain positive and live life as normally as possible.

They chose the second, ‘lighter’ path.

“As parents our instinct was reach out to every neurologist in the country and pull all-nighters in a bid to find out what was wrong with our child. But that leads to burn out and is unsustainable. In the end everyone suffers, most of all Eve. And that was the problem, it seemed that unless they got a diagnosis they couldn’t or wouldn’t treat her. We could spend our days chasing a diagnosis but in the meantime she could die.

“We knew we needed to stop all the noise and concentrate on our daughter and our family but in a positive way.”

So they concentrated on keeping their family happy and strong, and Eve supported and comfortable at home. They found ways to make every day a little easier. They chose not to worry themselves sick by imagining all the worst-case scenarios. Instead, the family read books together, played games and had family meals.

“We just lightened everything,” says McKeown. “It doesn’t change immediately this excruciating problem. The problem is what it is. Life is hard and we as humans tend to make it even harder. I wanted to know what would happen if we just didn’t try quite so hard. What would the outcome be?”

Taking the approach he did while Eve was ill he believes meant he and Anna were better able to make decisions clearly, without the fog of fear and desperation.

It also meant that when they came across an neurologist who just felt right they could pursue it. In the end that man treated Eve for encephalitis - an inflammation of the brain tissue most commonly caused by a viral infection. It was an intensive treatment and although there have been set backs Eve is now 17, has graduated from high school a year early, and is considering becoming a vet - she is James Herriot mad - or a writer.

“Eve was on the way to falling into a coma and dying. That’s what could have happened. And there’s still no guarantee that she won’t get sick again,” says McKeown who has written a book inspired by his experience, aptly named Effortless, which he believes can be applied to everything in life, not just a major crisis

“We seem to think the harder we work and the more we do the better the outcome - I just don’t believe that is the case. That if we want to over achieve, we have to overexert, over think, and overdo,” he explains.

“That if we aren’t perpetually exhausted, we’re not doing enough. This has had a huge impact on mental and physical health. And it doesn’t improve productivity. We feel by saying something is easy, it isn’t as worthwhile. That we all need to strive for perfection.

“I didn’t write this book because life is easy, I wrote it because life is so hard. But not everything has to be so hard all the time.”

Effortless: Make it Easier to Do What Matters Most by Greg McKeown is published by Ebury, £14.99