The Power of Focus

People I look up to have a common characteristic: focus.

They have an incredible ability to pick something to move forward, dedicate incredible energy, to it, and drive it to completion.

They create.

And they finish. They ship their creations.

When it comes to focus, my hero is Steve Jobs. Around the time he died, I had a weird obsession with figuring out how he created so much. I watched over 40 hours of him speaking in both rehearsed and unrehearsed moments. I read his Isaacson biography twice, taking notes along the way, then reading and rereading my notes, trying to figure out how he thought, how he approached problems.

What struck me the most? He chose to focus on very few things. I’m convinced that’s one secret to his success.

In his later years at Apple, he would take his “Top 100” people on an annual retreat. They’d brainstorm hundreds of potential ideas to start on a large whiteboard. Then, leading the group, Isaacson said Jobs would ask:

“What are the ten things we should be doing next?” After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of ten. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, “We can only do three.”

Apple was a very large organization. Yet, here Jobs was, dictating that they could focus on only three things across thousands of employees. Hundreds of good ideas, dozens of great ones, and ten fantastic, but only three worthy of their focus. Only three worthy of digging into every detail, worthy of deeply caring about, worthy of pushing forward every single day, until they were good enough to ship.

Reading this inspired me.

I always think of far more ideas than I can finish. It’s a curse of sorts because I feel stress when I can’t get them all done. The mistake isn’t that the ideas aren’t good ones, nearly all of them are good. The mistake is not thinking through how much mental energy I have, how much focus I have to push them through to completion, to get them good enough to ship.

As I look back, distinguishing between my successes and failures is really simple: nearly all of my successes in life have been when I’ve focused on very few things, obsessed over them, and pushed them until they are ready to ship, good enough for my standards. Nearly all of my failures? Starting too many things, saying Yes to too much, or beginning more things than I can finish to my standards. Trying to do too much leads to fragmentation, dysfunction. And despite what you read, there’s no fun in dysfunction.

More and more, my success seems correlated to what I say Yes to and what I say No to.

There’s power in focus.

Our Best Work

I got an interesting call from our oldest daughter Gabby last night. Gabby is about five weeks into her Freshman year of college and she was struggling with studying. She said that she kept telling herself she’d start in 30 minutes, but after doing that several times, over 4 hours had gone by. I could relate. I have this struggle often — getting started is hard.

This prompted a great conversation. In high school, Gabby knew grades mattered to be accepted into an excellent college. But, now, she asked, “Why do college grades matter?”

(Frankly, I think she’s still burnt out from dozens of all-nighters in high school and wasn’t excited about digging into multivariate calculus. Who can blame her? But, we went on.)

I’d told her that grades matter to get her first job. Sure, that’s true, but it’s the wrong answer.

What matters the most? Doing work that we can be proud of. Trying our hardest. That’s what matters. Gabby needs to study to do her absolute best. All of us do. And, doing our best work is one of the hardest things to do.

It’s a constant struggle to do our best work. Life has a way of pulling us from it.

Once I was about to make a bad move on one of the most important projects of my life. As our team was starting work on our book proposal, we got connected to Amy Hiett, the COO of a company called The Table Group. If you haven’t heard of them, they’re the consulting and training arm of best-selling author Patrick Lencioni and his organizational health concepts. They do exceptional work.

We felt fortunate that Amy would take our call. My colleague Darla and I prepared as you’d expect, using our GrowBIG® Dynamic Meeting Prep process. Darla and I were ready, called in early, and were excited to learn from Amy when she popped on the bridge line, right on time.

We started with some pleasantries and got to business. “We want to write a best-selling book,” we told her. “And since you’ve done that multiple times with Pat, we want to pick your brain on how you did it.”

Instead of giving us the checklist we hoped for, or the secrets to success when writing a New York Times best-seller, Amy threw us for a loop. She asked, “Why do you want to write a best- selling book?”

I initially thought that was obvious, but after 15 minutes of back and forth, Amy enlightened us. She taught us that trying to write a best-selling book would push us to write a bad book, one that wouldn’t be authentic. Instead, she gave us very strong advice I’ll never forget: Write a book you can be proud of.

Before the call with Amy, we were aiming to please people who pick the best-selling lists: people we don’t know using a process few understand. We were more worried about selling and marketing than creating a great product that could enrich lives. Amy’s advice was to write an insightful book based on our unique ideas, our processes, showcasing our clients’ amazing success.

Creating something we could be proud of pulled the control back to us. It took away the worry. Oddly, it made the project easier to figure out, and more fun to create. We just had to please ourselves.

After we finished the call with Amy, Darla and I called each other to debrief. Wow! That was a trip to the mountain top. That was wisdom. In thirty minutes, Amy changed our entire direction, our entire approach, our entire attitude about writing a book.

I now try to consistently apply the lesson we learned from Amy to the rest of my life. I think of three questions:

  • Did I choose to do the most important thing, instead of letting the less important thing choose me?
  • For that task, was I fully present, giving my all into making the product, the interaction, or the experience truly exceptional?
  • Did I do this until the task was completed, ignoring the many distractions of today’s world?

We have opportunities to impact people every day. We’re designers of experiences all day long: a client interaction, a hard workout, an end of day review with my wife before dinner. They are worth our attention, focus, and best effort.

Doing our best work is difficult. The world pulls us to the less important. It tries to distract us. And, when it’s over, the world responds with its grade, including many things outside of our control.

What was the grade? What did the client think? How many likes did we get?

But only one grade matters.

Did I do something I can be proud of?

Excellence is Boring

Recently I had lunch with a client. She made a small comment that hit me big, like a right hook to my mind.

She said, “Excellence is boring.”

She went on: “I just read an article that said people who do great things keep a singular focus. They stick with one idea, building a deep expertise. They get up every day, always searching for a small advancement, an incremental improvement. In that way, excellence is boring.”

This stuck with me. It’s a powerful way to look at excellence. While I had never thought of excellence as being boring, I had noticed I admired people for focusing on one thing, once they found their one thing.

I thought of Stan Musial, playing every year for the St. Louis Cardinals, and being named to a record twenty-four All-Star games. Same team, same approach. Excellence is boring. 

Then I thought of Amy Eubanks, my daughter’s high school cross country coach. In twenty-six years of coaching, she’s won the state championship twenty-one times. She uses the same workouts on the same days, every single year. She has a system. Excellence is boring.

Then I thought of my Grandfather, Ralph Goodrich, a long-time staple of Stuben County, Indiana. He graduated high school with no assets to speak of, worked hard as a laborer to save money, and bought a farm with my Grandmother in 1943. Only five years later they were showcased as one of the most efficient farms in Indiana. Excellence is boring.

Ralph raised the same trustworthy crops on his 140 acres every season, always learning, always looking to tweak his mix. He created sophisticated models of prices and yield, and kept records of every crop. He analyzed them annually, always looking to improve.  Excellence is boring.

Ralph invested in the best breeds, paying more in the beginning, but getting a better return in the end. Buying Guernsey cows, White Rock chickens and Chester White pigs was expensive but wise. His farm produced far more than his peers. Excellence is boring.

Ralph invested in machines, which blows me away. Unheard of at the time, he used more than twelve electrical motors to automate his work. His milk cooler, cream separator, and welder were among the first in the county. He was always looking for efficiencies and included the value of his own time in his calculations. Excellence is boring.

Their results were exceptional. Ralph and Lois bought the farm with their own savings, barely enough to make the deal work, and they paid off the debt in less than five years. Ralph continued to buy land until he died, ever expanding the operation, ever increasing his efficiency. He was always changing, always improving. Excellence is boring.

Maybe showing up every day, working on the same things is boring. Maybe excellence is boring.

Maybe.

Or maybe it just appears boring from the outside. From the inside, constantly improving a singular focus makes the smallest things important, even exciting. Every improvement, worth celebration. Every advancement, worth reflection. Every tweak, worth monitoring. Every day is a chance to improve.

From the outside, watching people pursue excellence might appear boring. But from the inside, it’s different. Excellence is thrilling.

85,519 Reasons To Start

Eighteen years. That’s how long I’ve flirted with the idea of writing a book. I dabbled a little, publishing a few humor articles and co-writing some magazine publications, but did little else. I told myself I didn’t have time to write a book.

Five years. That’s how long I spent seriously talking about it. I brought it up often. Monthly, weekly, daily sometimes. I told myself I didn’t have the time.

Then I had a turning point. I took The Focus Course by Shawn Blanc. I got excited! The course made me realize that I could make the time to write a book. What was I waiting on? I made a plan, focused on executing it, and started writing. Starting was hard. I had to say no to a lot of other things in order to make the time, but I did it.

Seven months. That’s how long I spent writing the initial book proposal. I read a book that a friend recommended to me that explained the process of writing a top-notch book proposal. Then I got to work. When the book proposal was finished, I sent it to an A+ literary agent for her review.

She passed on the project! This is the woman I wanted to represent us. I was very disappointed, as you can likely imagine. Seven months wasted. Time and effort that had gone up in smoke. I reached out to her to get feedback and to find out how the proposal could be improved.

“It’s time for you to write a book,” she said, “but this proposal won’t get you a great publisher.” She suggested I work with an expert to help write a better book proposal, and I agreed. She helped me find a great one. All the great feedback and help they provided gave me hope that I would reach my end goal.

Nine months. That’s how long I worked with my new expert to write a great book proposal. This time, it was shorter and tighter. He’s an excellent writer, editor, and collaborator. He’s been in the publishing business for a long time, so he knew exactly what would appeal to top agents and publishers. I learned so much during this process.

One month. That’s how long it took to nail down our agreement with that same A+ literary agent. She was excited this time. She’s really good. I’m so happy she is representing us!

Three months. That’s how long it took our agent to generate interest from several top publishers. We chose Hachette. We fell in love with our editor, her passion for the project, and how Hachette can market our book to the world.

Seven months. That’s how long it took to write the initial manuscript. I’m told it usually takes twelve months to write a 60,000 word book. We wrote 85,519 words in seven months. It was hard, but it was always fun. I fell in love with writing.

We sent the initial manuscript to the editor at Hachette this week. Going from nothing to 85,519 words was monumental. Driving to publication date will be magical. We still have much work to do over the next few months, but this is the easier part, the exciting part. We did it!

I learned something along this journey. There is time. There’s always a way to focus on what we really want to do, to leave a legacy, to do our life’s work. I’ve always regretted not starting sooner. But on the day that I sent the manuscript in, I had a different feeling.I’m glad we started when we did.

Once, when I was feeling regret about something else long ago, my friend David Lindsey shared a Chinese Proverb with me: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

Worrying Less

I was on the terminal train at the Atlanta airport, heading out on a day trip to lead an important client session. I was excited about doing a speech for this client and was thinking about it while riding on the train. I was not really paying attention to anything around me. I was just waiting for the train doors to open at Terminal C.

The guy next to me asked, “Hey, does this train go to terminal F?”

Sure does.” I told him. I went on to explain how the system worked at the Atlanta airport, and, ever curious, asked him: “What brought you to Atlanta?”

“Well……” He paused and looked down before continuing. “I have cancer. I came to Atlanta to see a specialist.” 

Wow.

Pause.

“I have 6 months to live. Maybe 6 months, if I’m lucky. “

Longer pause.

I wasn’t sure what to say, and without thinking, I asked if he had any advice for me. He did. He said most people in his shoes say “Make every day count.” He definitely agreed with that, but he also had more advice for me. He said, “Worry less.”

He wished he hadn’t worried as much during his lifetime. We talked a bit more about not wasting time with worries, but only for a moment longer, because Terminal C popped up too soon. On my way out, we took the time to introduce ourselves. His name is Greg and he has two daughters, just like me. I left Greg on that train as he headed for terminal F to fly to Philly. I took the escalators up to terminal C, headed to Chicago.

I had a quick lunch at the airport, mostly staring out the window, thinking about Greg. He made a great point about how much time is wasted worrying. When I’m with our family, I sometimes worry about work. When I’m at work, I sometimes worry that I’m not spending enough time with my family. When I’m working on the weekends writing my book, trying to meet the publisher’s manuscript deadlines, I worry that I’m not working out as much as I should.

It seems that when I’m making progress on one thing, I worry about my life’s counterbalance on the other side.  A certain amount of worry is helpful. It keeps us on our game. Too much worry is destructive, sapping our energy. After meeting Greg, I’ll be reminding myself of this often: I’m going to quit worrying about what I’m not doing, so I can focus on what I am doing.

Starting With The Hard Thing

Here’s something I deliberately try to do every day. Start with the hard thing.

What do you do when you start work each day? Do you start with the hard thing? The call you are worried about? The task you don’t know out how to start? The tough feedback you need to give?

Or, do you start with an easy to do? Do you begin checking email, looking at your team’s score on social media, or seeing who liked your latest post on Facebook?

In his book, The Power of HabitCharles Duhigg talks about how early progress in a day correlates to success. Even something small, such as making your bed, can lead to much larger changes, building a keystone habit that helps other habits to take root.

Socio-economist Randall Bell, Ph.D., has been studying success for 25 years, analyzing the core characteristics that all great achievers have in common. It turns out that what you do every day matters. The most successful people follow specific daily rituals and routines, or what he calls “rich habits.”

These “rich habits” actually correlate to being a millionaire. “Those who do their chores and keep their living space tidier tend to make more money,” writes Bell in his new book Me We Do Be. Bell notes that, “For example, those who make their bed in the morning are up to 206.8 percent more likely to be millionaires.” It puts your mind into a productive mindset, he explains.

At the start of your day, the easy thing’s call is a siren’s call. It lures you with the promise of five minutes, of the next like, of the quick check. But the rocks it lures you into wreck your day. The five minute promise turns into more and more distractions. More lost time. Your real progress is put off. What really matters gets postponed.

At work, early progress on the deep work, the work that really matters, sets the tone for the rest of your day. When we start strong, we finish strong.

But the siren will call us again tomorrow. The question is, will we listen?

Follow your bliss and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

To me, Joseph Campbell is a sage. Two of my favorite quotes are:

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

– Joseph Campbell

I bet I’ve read these quotes over 100 times. The first reminds me that sometimes we are clinging tenaciously to old paths, and by doing so, we miss new opportunities. The second reminds me to follow my bliss no matter what. If you follow your passion, doors will open that you never expected.

I read these quotes over and over. Every time, I get new meaning from them. Today’s meaning for me is simply to start down the path. You have to take the first step.

There’s something new we all need to do today to follow our bliss. Maybe it’s a small thing, maybe it’s big thing. Either way, there’s someone we can tell. Someone we can confide in. Someone that can help us.

What one thing can you do today to start down the path?

Goals Made Simple

I love goals. I always have.

I remember setting cross country mileage goals the summer after 8th grade, when I was just an 85-pound skinny kid. Honestly, I was scared of not succeeding on the freshman cross country team in high school. So I set varying daily goals that rolled up to my overall summer goal of running 500 miles.

Every day I advanced towards my goal of 500 miles by tackling the simpler goal of running x miles each day. It worked! Simple steps, daily achievement, and… success! I met my overall goal of succeeding on the high school cross country team. In fact, I ran for the Varsity team in my freshman year!

What started that summer continued the rest of my life. I absolutely love goals.

I’ve found there are two facets to effective goals.

Edwin Locke is possibly the most cited researcher in psychology. His landmark meta-analysis of 110 goal-oriented studies found one thing: Goals Matter. Simply writing down goals correlates to high performance. I can’t think of a better use of a post-it note.

Teresa Amabile is a cutting-edge researcher at Harvard, and her insights have changed my own behavior. Her studies have found that the most successful people, and the happiest, celebrate small, incremental successes. It’s important to celebrate the little wins every day.

Maybe it’s the recovering actuary in me, but I think Locke + Amabile = Magic.

Locke = figuring out what to focus on and setting a measurable target.

Amabile = breaking down that target into small, incremental pieces, focusing on tackling those pieces day by day, and taking a moment to celebrate what you’ve accomplished each day. Worry about the piece you need to do today, not the end goal.

That last piece is meaningful. It’s easy to fret over what is left to do! It’s easy to forget to celebrate what we accomplished today. I like to remind myself that completing one step to a larger goal is a reason to do a happy dance.

This pairing of Locke and Amabile research has changed everything for me.

Set the overarching goal. Celebrate the incremental daily progress.

Magic.

Relationships Matter

We hear this all the time, but it’s in the critical moments when relationships roar. In business, it’s the reference or the referral. Even getting a shot in the first place. Many times, winning and losing comes down to the relationship.

I’ve been thinking about relationships a lot lately, especially at home. I’m about to lose my older daughter to college. Gabby is headed to Duke in a few weeks to begin her freshman year. I’m torn between excitement for her and an empty seat at the dinner table for me.

Thank goodness I built the relationship.

My family has had relationship rituals in place ever since Gabby was born.

Every year, I hunker down and make a movie of the family’s exploits of that year, debuting it on New Years Day. We’ve got them back to 2002 and watch them often. Every year, we go on a Daddy Robot Day, where each daughter gets to do whatever they want. I’m their Daddy Robot. Just me and her. When she was younger, Gabby and I spent an entire day at Chuck E. Cheese. And, when she grew older, we spent a weekend in the San Juan Islands chasing killer whales. It was her choice, her day.

Add our other relationship rituals like our annual family camping trips where we’ve been trapped by bears, riding horses at the HF Bar dude ranch, and playing countless board games during down time. Everyday dinner with my family is my favorite, even though it’s sometimes tacos in ten minutes.

This has me looking forward, for those I care about, both personally and in business: What should I do next to build the relationship?

And, it has me looking back. Thank goodness I built the relationship. She’s almost gone.