-> Reviews -> Three books on focus

Posted 2019-11-11.

As a child, I had no difficulty choosing what to spend my time on. I was totally obsessed with computer programming and had no qualms about funneling all my energy into it. (OK, that, and video games, and Star Wars novels.)

As my list of interests has expanded, it’s been a struggle to balance them. Fear of missing out causes me to jump between trying to learn about too many different subjects, without focusing on them enough to develop a satisfying level of mastery. Lately I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about how to deal with this internal conflict.

The message of Greg McKeown’s Essentialism is encapsulated in one mantra: less, but better. If you spread your attention across too many projects - and McKeown would say that any number greater than one is “too many” - you won’t have the time, energy, and resources to do any of them very well. Or perhaps you’ll do a great job at the easy-but-unimportant ones, and flub the critical-but-difficult one.

So to truly excel at something, you must say no to many other things. Good ideas and worthwhile pursuits are everywhere. You’ll have to ignore a whole lot of them to really have capacity for any one of them. Rejecting good opportunities is a crucial skill for success.1

For me, internalizing this point is freeing, and makes it much easier to focus. Yes, devoting myself to X means I’ll be missing out on the very appealing Y and Z. But by trying to do all three, I’d be choosing a relatively less-rewarding surface-level experience of them all over a more-rewarding deep experience of one.

Still, the prospect of devoting my whole life to a single primary pursuit sounds unsatisfying. And it shouldn’t be necessary. As one of my favorite comics suggests, a typical lifespan seems long enough to master several vocations.

You just can’t work on them all at once. In The Renaissance Soul Margaret Lobenstine gives some advice on how to manage varied and shifting interests. She says most of the people she’s worked with are able to manage between 3 and 5 focuses at once. (This might be achieved by dividing your time amongst them during the week, or binging on each in a rotation, or finding activities that combine them.) Your focuses can change, but you should always know what they are.

I found the exercise of writing down an explicit list of focuses to be helpful. Once I know that the most important things to me right now are studying some topics in math and philosophy, planning a cross-country move, and piano, I have a rubric for evaluating anything new I’m tempted to spend time on. I shouldn’t read that interesting long history book or learn how to keep houseplants alive. Those can simply be written down on a list of possible future focuses, and forgotten about until I’m ready to let go of one my current ones.

So, in my own life I’ve watered down McKeown’s radical demand of eliminate everything except the single highest priority into the weaker but still very useful discipline of only have four priorities at a time. Will my rejection of monomaniacal devotion doom me to mediocrity? There’s a prominent strand of thinking in our culture which glorifies hyperspecialization. Examples like Tiger Woods, who has been honing his golf skills since he was two years old, can give the impression that the key to world-class success is early, intense, persistent pursuit of a single goal.

In Range, David Epstein argues that this is not the most common or necessarily best route to success. This book is full of references to fascinating social science studies, as well as inspiring anecdotes of people who started in their field late or followed zigzagging career paths.

Consider these findings regarding musical skills, for example:

When Sloboda and a colleague conducted a study with students at a British boarding school that recruited from around the country—admission rested entirely on an audition—they were surprised to find that the students classified as exceptional by the school came from less musically active families compared to less accomplished students, did not start playing at a younger age, were less likely to have had an instrument in the home at a very young age, had taken fewer lessons prior to entering the school, and had simply practiced less overall before arriving—a lot less.2

“However,” they added, “the distribution of effort across different instruments seems important. Those children identified as exceptional by [the school] turn out to be those children who distributed their effort more evenly across three instruments.” The less skilled students tended to spend their time on the first instrument they picked up, as if they could not give up a perceived head start.3

Or, regarding patents:

Ouderkirk and the other two researchers who set out to study inventors at 3M wanted to know what profile of inventor made the greatest contributions. They found very specialized inventors who focused on a single technology, and generalist inventors who were not leading experts in anything, but had worked across numerous domains.

They examined patents, and with Ouderkirk’s internal access to 3M, the actual commercial impact inventors made. The specialists and the generalists, they found, both made contributions. One was not uniformly superior to the other.4

Admittedly, this book plays to my biases.

  1. This is a crucial management skill too. It’s easy to generate a long list of important, valuable tasks that your team should be doing. The list will typically grow faster than the team can realistically expect to complete items on it. The difficult thing is being able to look at nearly every item on the list and say, “yes, that’s highly valuable, but we’re not going to do it” - and to choose the right few things to actually do.

    If you don’t make the choice intentionally, then it will be made haphazardly: when a team is in denial about how few tasks it really has capacity for, some tasks will be dropped, delayed, or completed with inadequate quality, possibly even the most important tasks.

  2. Range, p. 66
  3. Range, p. 67 (brackets are from the text)
  4. Range, p. 203