The Pitfall of Focus

Take a look at nearly every great achievement, and you'll find at least one common denominator; focus. This principle is so ingrained in pop wisdom that it would be a daunting challenge to find even 1 in 1,000 self-help books that didn't mention focus in one form or another.

Academics concur with the utility of focus - and psychological studies have shown that people are more efficient with decisions when they have less choices.

There's also a ton of anecdotal evidence supporting focus throughout a plethora of fields; from sports (i.e. Jerry Rice's legendary practice regimens) to business (i.e. Steve Jobs' mountain of unethical decisions to advance Apple).

So, we know that focus is critical, but...

There's also an inherent risk that comes with intense focus - and the potential impacts can be lifelong; both for ourselves and those around us. So to keep us from committing acts of self-imposed blindsiding; we must be acutely cognizant of the risk that:

Focus yields unintended consequences

A popular (but dangerous) concept today is that obsession is essential to success.

Proponents of this perspective (including many celebrities both from the arts and business world) claim that it's necessary to transform your goal into an obsession to ensure success.

Sounds feasible, right? Focus! Focus! Focus!

But let's take a step back from this for a second and rethink success; because this is generally used as the finish line for the obsession perspective.

In your opinion, who is more successful of the two people below?

Abandoned their children. Betrayed their partners. Neglected their health. Lied to customers and employees. Used people. Made Billions.

Raised their children. Honored their partners. Maintained their health. Told the truth. Helped people. Made Millions.

Now maybe you are thinking this example is absurd - and if you are; that would be sad. Why? Because even though I didn't mention names, those examples are real. In fact, you can find many examples that fit both of those archetypes on your own.

So what's the point?

The point is, our focused pursuit of goals yields consequences - and even though some of those might be tolerable; some are often devastating.

Usually, it's not that we maliciously focused on our objective to intentionally create negative consequences; it's actually quite the contrary. Often times, our motives are actually noble; such as providing for our families, etc.

This lines up to some degree with the old expression, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Wrecklessness and execution are finitely separated

There's a life philosophy emerging today called WIT (Whatever it takes). It seems to be steadily growing and inspiring more people each year. The purpose of this philosophy is to encourage people to pursue their dreams with tenacity and to execute; including in the face of challenges. It's easy to see how this can be helpful.

However, there are caveats to this modus operandi as well.

If you extrapolate the implications of this philosophy; you quickly see examples of people who have committed atrocities to accomplish their goals. Joseph Stalin is an example of someone who was willing to do WIT to "succeed". As a result, he is responsible for the deaths of millions of people. The tragedy of this can never be over-emphasized - and it's a shining of example of what can happen when a concept that has some utility is mis-applied.

By now we should be running into some cognitive dissonance. Focus is a critical element to success, but it's also potentially dangerous to both the individual and the world.

So what's our next move?

A little rumination goes a long way for success

The key opportunity to mitigate the dangers of focus is at the onset of the planning stage of any new initiative; both in one's personal life and in a business context.

Most of us generally start new initiatives with a question such as:

"How am I going to reach this goal?"

But keeping in mind everything we've just covered, it would be wise for us to first steal a page out of Risk Management 101's playbook and start with:

"How will this pursuit affect other important areas of my life/business - and to what degree of compromise is acceptable in those other areas?"

Preventing problems is generally less costly than correcting them. Following the above approach will help us establish guard rails for our pursuit; thus mitigating unintended consequences for ourselves and others completely; or reducing them to acceptable levels.

Another benefit of this approach is that we're taking into account other people - and this is smart because the last 75 years of research has found that the key to happiness is not bricks of cash; but healthy relationships.

So this leads us to the rub:

"The problem with focus is focus itself."

But focus is too important to throw out and it's also too dangerous to employ obsessively or wrecklessly. Conclusively, the solution to this problem is simple.

Alll we need to do at the onset of any new initiative is to simply identify and ruminate over the potential consequences ahead of time. By being cognizant of the risks of being overly-focused; we can tailor our plans to ensure that we don't lose what we'll regret losing by trying to accomplish our goals in a way that isn't fully necessary. In other words, we are establishing a healthier balance between accomplishment and consequence.

It is totally possible to great in many areas of life instead of just one. All we need to do is apply our focus in an optimized manner.

Welcome to Focus 2.0 ; )


J. Patrick Nichols

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