We’ve been brought up to believe we can do anything. It’s a powerful and important message. But, many of us have mistakenly interpreted that to mean we can do everything.
It’s just not possible. We must choose.
Four loosely related examples…
I Wanna Hold Your Other Hand
In 1964 The Beatles played a long series of concerts at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. Eighteen days straight. Two or sometimes even three shows per night.
At the same time they were preparing for the filming of their first movie and were under pressure from their record label to come up with a new single to follow “I Want to Hold Your Hand” which had just reached number one in the US.
John Lennon arranged for a piano to be placed in their hotel room, so they could use the small amount of free time they had to work on some new songs. Somehow amongst all of that Paul McCartney composed their next hit “Can’t Buy Me Love”.
It’s remarkable they were able to create something so iconic under that sort of pressure and with those sort of constraints.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the commitments you have and hard to focus on the things you know are important. And yet, most of us constantly soak, and often drown, in Twitter and Facebook. And blog posts about busyness. It’s useful to be reminded that it’s possible to do so much more.
Stories like this make me wonder: what other things did they not do in order to focus on the things we remember?
All The Things You Didn’t Do
It’s very difficult to assess opportunity cost.
For example, as Vend continues to grow I’m increasingly proud of the contribution I’ve made to the success so far. Of course, I rarely, if ever, take much time to think of the many opportunities that I’ve missed or passed on by deciding to focus on that.
Time and energy are precious things. Much more so than capital. Spread too thinly across multiple things they barely make a dent.
For those working on early-stage ventures there is a long long list of external distractions: networking events, panel discussions, meet-ups, pitch fests, fail cons, dragons’ dens, mentoring events, demo days, and coffee meetings. Endless opportunities for you to preach to others about the success you haven’t achieved yet or agree with each other about how hard it all is.
Perhaps even more important are the internal distractions. As soon as you have customers you have customer feedback which inevitably tries to drag you in a number of often contradictory directions. As soon as you have a market an adjacent market will reveal itself, if only you make one small change to the product (all product changes are small, right? just a SQL query!) or go-to-market.
But, you don’t have to design a product for everybody, as long as there is a big enough group of anybodies who will find it very appealing and you have a good way to reach those people and make them aware that you’ve solved a problem that they specifically have.
It takes conviction to have confidence about the bird already in the hand, or at least within sight. It’s hard to fight the fear of missing out. But it’s important. Otherwise you are “beating yourself up for being unable to count to infinity”.
This vs That
A friend once told me that it’s boring and selfish to be so focussed. She’s probably right.
It might seem boring to focus, when there are so many interesting things to be distracted by. Of all the people I know, it’s only the ones I most admire who think that focus is important. We are generally quick to forgive the selfishness of successful people, I’ve noticed.
I was recently asked to talk about my failures. It’s a good question and I gave an unprepared answer at the time about the long list of things that I’ve done which were not successful and the various ways that I’ve fallen short of what I wanted to achieve. Understanding these is probably more useful than listening to the stories about the unrepeatable successes.
Interestingly, Warren Buffett, possibly the most successful investor of all time, says his biggest mistakes are mistakes of omission – i.e. the bigger regret is not the things he did which turned out badly, but the things he didn’t do which could have been amazing. The retrospective in the 2014 letter to shareholders gives a few billion dollar examples.
This story re-told by Buffett’s personal pilot (!), which may or may not be true, provides a useful method for helping to determine your priorities:
1. List your top twenty-five priorities
2. Circle the top five – these are the priorities to focus on
(If you’d like to use this method for yourself, stop here and complete these first two steps before going onto the final step)
3. Highlight the other twenty – this is your do not do list
As James Clear says in the post I linked to above:
“Items 6 through 25 on your list are things you care about. They are important to you. It is very easy to justify spending your time on them. But when you compare them to your top 5 goals, these items are distractions. Spending time on secondary priorities is the reason you have 20 half-finished projects instead of 5 completed ones.”
What are your five? What are your twenty?
It was recently reported that only 19% of senior management roles in NZ are held by women. And 37% of businesses don’t have any women in these roles.
One of the common explanations for this is the fact that more women take time out from their careers to focus on family or community responsibilities.
Of course there is much, much more which must be done to make it easier for those people who do take time out for family or community to return to work and find this balance, and the full report details many of these.
But I think there is something even more fundamental that we’re missing.
The idea that anybody, man or woman, can take time out from their career, and then pick it up later as if they hadn’t is just wishful thinking. There is an opportunity cost. You have to choose.
You probably can’t do it all, have it all, be it all.
Lean in too far and you fall on your face.
As it says in the report:
“Many of the women we spoke to say they could not have reached the level they have without their partner making sacrifices.”
I expect that all of those people currently in senior positions have made some significant compromises in terms of their contribution to their family and their community. It would be remarkable if they hadn’t.
Perhaps part of the solution, if we want a better gender balance in this particular area, is to do more to acknowledge the value of those who choose to focus on the other areas, so they are not seen as less important or second class choices.
Eyes Wide Open
It’s wonderful to think that you can do anything. Please don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can do everything. At least not if you aspire to do anything well.
You have to choose what you’re going to focus on, and then have the conviction to say no to other lower priority things. And every time you do that there is an opportunity cost.
So best make them conscious choices.
Photo Credit: Beatles, Backstage Paris, 1965