On July 29, 2020, like most technophiles with a day job, I put my work computer on split-screen to watch the U.S. senate absolutely roast Silicon Valley’s most elite: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai.
Prior to that day, I held a naïve (and, honestly, arrogant) belief about myself – that the only thing holding me back from entrepreneurial success was my “unique” dilemma of being interested in too many things.
The memoirs I’d read and motivational videos I’d watched since my high school days did a fantastic job of driving home the lesson that we –humans – can do anything we want…but we can’t do everything we want.
And so, over years and years, I allowed my internal monologue to cry out in self-pity, “Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg were so lucky! They knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives from a young age and didn’t have any other ideas or interests competing for their attention. Poor me, with all my fascinations!”
If you rolled your eyes, I don’t blame you. I’m rolling my eyes too.
Somehow it took the first few minutes of that senate hearing, listening to the most well-known faces in tech deliver their opening testimonies, for me to rid myself of that self-indulgent mindset.
I realized that they were all once young and ambitious, just like me; excited about the infinite number of opportunities available to them, just like me.
The most humbling: I realized they were all once willing to risk it all, slap on a pair of horse blinders and sprint towards a singular goal to the exclusion of all others…Not like me. Not yet anyways.
That realization was both eye-opening and down-right embarrassing.
You see, I’ve spent years studying this game. I’ve read countless biographies of entrepreneurial successes, I’ve mentored dozens of startups as the Director of my university’s incubator, and I’ve even attempted a couple of startups of my own. And it took Money-Bags-Bezos defending himself over Microsoft Teams on a Wednesday for me to finally learn the difference between blockbuster entrepreneurs and us mere mortals: not some God-given genius, but a complete willingness to sacrifice all other passions in order to give everything to the pursuit of one.
With that epiphany in my rear-view mirror, I’ve since spent 48 days mulling over its implications and reading a couple of books that expand on the topic of ‘Career Focus’ (namely So Good They Can’t Ignore You and The Dip).
“Get obsessed!” and “Don’t quit!” are easy words to read, but difficult ones to truly understand.
We readily accept and spread the message that entrepreneurs should be manically dedicated to their businesses, but rarely meditate on the implicit ‘yin’ to that ‘yang’: in order to give everything to our mission, everything else has to give (credit me if you quote that, please and thank you).
That’s why I believe it’s absolutely crucial that business builders take inventory of how they’re spending their time, attention and passion, and reallocate those finite resources to the small set of interests and passions that really matter to them.
In an attempt to make that message equally as profound for you as it has been for me, below are three reasons why you must sacrifice in order to succeed.
1) The math checks out
Let’s start with a chart:
You like that chart? I like that chart.
On the left, we have someone who has learned a little about a lot. In choosing to explore various interests and career paths, they have dug a hole an inch deep and a mile wide – you might call them a ‘well-rounded individual’.
In the ideation phase, there is something to be said about being a Lateral Thinker – someone able to creatively cross-pollinate knowledge from various domains. This is where a ‘Jack of All Trades’ may fare quite well.
On the right, we have someone who has learned as much as there is to know about one or two fields. In choosing to stick to their guns and spend years feeding their narrow set of obsessions, they have dug a hole an inch wide and a mile deep.
They have clawed their way to the frontier of human knowledge – a place where they can now drive innovation and expand the radius of the circle for everyone.
The mind-boggling part? Both of these imaginary individuals have likely expended a similar amount of time and effort and are working with the same 24-hour days as the rest of us.
It’s worth mentioning, before we move on, that while I do believe that the path of focus and obsession is more conducive to entrepreneurial success, I am making no judgement on which is a better way to live your life. Put another way, there is a reason why the archetype of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur is a pasty twenty-something who wears the same hoodie every day and doesn’t make eye contact…
2) You get a greater return on your investment
I remember reading Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, ‘Outliers’, and feeling empowered by the ‘10,000-hour rule’: the theory that mastery of a given skill or subject is independent of IQ and other genetic gifts. Rather, it’s a product of time invested in learning and practice—10,000 hours to be precise.
Despite that heuristic being the equivalent of almost 5 years worth of 40-hour work weeks (ouch), I was heartened to discover that it was at least possible to learn, master, and eventually, innovate in any field I wanted to. All that’s required is an extraordinary investment of time.
Earlier this year, however, I read ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’, where I first learned about the somewhat contradictory concept of ‘Deliberate Practice’: the theory that when you practice a skill purposefully (repeatedly identifying weak parts of your game, practicing with focus, and seeking immediate feedback) you get a greater return on the time you invest.
Imagine two kids on the basketball court: one is on autopilot, listening to a podcast and comfortably dribbling the ball around, while the other is recording herself putting up shots with her weaker hand and playing back the film afterward, looking for places where she can improve….Who’s getting more out of their hour of practice?
When we allow ourselves to focus on too many things at once – taking on side-projects outside of work, and then side-projects on the side of our side-projects – we disallow ourselves from deliberately putting effort into any one of them.
When switching between multiple unrelated projects throughout a day or a week, we need time to reorient ourselves to new tasks before being able to make meaningful progress. And while we’re working on one thing, we’re thinking about another. It’s inefficient.
Consider instead the alternative. Have you ever had a monstrous 40-page paper to complete for a class? Or a nutty project at work with overly ambitious deliverables? As you approached the deadline, your nonessential activities were thrown to the wayside (likely along with some of your essential activities like going to the gym, sleeping 8 hours a night, and showering).
But somehow, during those times of extreme focus on a singular goal, you turned superhuman. You weren’t tired; you weren’t hungry; the answers flowed out of you and onto your laptop screen almost out of thin air. And by the end, you delivered something you previously thought was impossible and were left feeling as proud of yourself as you’d ever been.
All it took was some sacrifice.
3) Success begets more success
The idea of stating a life’s goal and chasing after it to the exclusion of everything else on your bucket list…well, it’s frightening to say the least.
However, if you succeed in bringing your wild entrepreneurial vision to fruition, you build influence and affluence – the perfect ingredients for success in your other goals.
Using his riches from Amazon, Jeff Bezos was able to bring to life a childhood dream: his private space company, Blue Origin. Given his tech billionaire pedigree, he has also been able to attract top talent to the company, turning it into one of the rare successes in the commercial space industry.
Leveraging her incredible reputation as a popstar, Lady Gaga has been able to launch a youth empowerment foundation, use her voice to advocate for LGBTQ rights, and even star in a blockbuster film that earned her an Oscar.
Success begets more success.
As abundant as the media coverage for unicorn startups has become, it’s worth reminding ourselves that entrepreneurial successes are still few and far between – few Hobbits opt to venture outside of the Shire and still fewer make it back alive (I must admit, however, that the current literature on Hobbit adventures does not back up this claim).
My point is this: even if you do end up dedicating yourself wholeheartedly to your entrepreneurial endeavours, there is no guarantee that your efforts will yield the results you desire.
Is it worth the risk? That is, of course, a very personal question – one that I have yet to answer for myself. But if I’m never willing to place a bet, did I ever deserve a seat at the poker table?