Choose what you’re going to focus on, and then have the conviction to say “no” to everything else.
Have you ever bought clothes while traveling, and been unable to fit everything in your suitcase when it was time to go home? That suitcase is what my days are like now.
— Jeffrey Zeldman
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.
We want to have our cake, get lots of likes on the photo of our cake, eat it all, and then still have visible ribs afterwards.
It’s just not possible. We all have constraints we have to live within - time, money, space or opportunity. We must choose.
Some loosely related examples…
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 brought to 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 that as a group 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 existing commitments we have and hard to focus on the things we know are important. And yet, most of us constantly soak, and often drown, in distraction.
Stories like this make me wonder: what other things did The Beatles not do during that time in order to focus on the things we all remember?
It’s very difficult to assess opportunity cost.
I’ve had the privilege to invest in and work alongside the founders of several early-stage technology companies. I’m increasingly proud of the contribution I’ve made, both in terms of capital but also support and advice.
I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to focus on these specific ventures. So, I rarely, if ever, take much time to think about the other opportunities that I’ve missed or passed on by deciding to do that.
Just like capital, both time and energy are precious and rare commodities. Spread too thinly across multiple things they barely make a dent.
When working on early-stage ventures there is a long long list of possible external distractions: networking events, panel discussions, meetups, pitch fests, fail cons, dragons' dens, mentoring events, demo days, and coffee meetings. While all of these potentially open interesting doors, they always involve a trade-off in terms of time that would otherwise be spent on the business.
Perhaps even more important are the internal distractions. As soon as we have customers we have customer feedback, which inevitably tries to drag us in a number of often contradictory directions. As soon as we have a market, an adjacent market will reveal itself, if only we make one small change to the product (all product changes are small, right? just a SQL query!) or go-to-market strategy.
But, it’s really valuable to realise that we don’t have to design a product for everybody, as long as there is a big enough group of anybodies who will find it compelling, and we have a good way to reach those people and make them aware that we’ve solved a specific problem that they 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 we are “beating ourselve up for being unable to count to infinity”. 1
I was once asked to talk about my failures. I gave an unprepared answer at the time about the long list of things that I’ve done that were not successful and the various ways that I’ve fallen short of what I wanted to achieve. It would have been much more useful to try and make the distinction between the failures which have left me with valuable lessons to apply in the future vs the failures which just hurt. In either case, it’s a good question and the answers are more interesting than being entertained by stories of unrepeatable successes.
Warren Buffett, possibly the most successful investor of all time, when asked a similar question interestingly said his biggest mistakes are mistakes of omission. In other words, his bigger regret is not the things he did that turned out badly, but the things he didn’t do that could have been amazing. At the 2017 Shareholder Meeting, he used the Google IPO in 2004 as a specific example: he was smart enough and had enough information to understand the potential, he said, but was focussed elsewhere, so missed out. His retrospective in the 2014 letter to shareholders gives several other billion dollar examples of companies he chose not to invest in because his focus was elsewhere. It’s easy to give him credit for those choices with the benefit of hindsight (he’s done okay despite all of those “failures”), but maybe there is still an important lesson in the conscious decisions he made at the time.
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 own priorities:
The top five are priorities to focus on. But the other twenty are much more important to think about and difficult to manage:
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.
In other words, this is our do not do list!
This is all about how we might choose to spend our time, if that is our constraint, but the same approach can be used in situations where we are restricted by cash, or energy or opportunities.
What are our five? What are our twenty?
It’s wonderful to believe that we can do anything. Please don’t ever let anybody tell us otherwise.
But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that we can do everything. At least not if we aspire to do anything well.
We have to choose what we’re going to focus on, and then have the conviction to say no to other lower priority things. And every time we do that there is an opportunity cost.
So best make them conscious choices.