Focus is Your Superpower (Or Your Greatest Downfall)
I want to have it all.
I want to be a great student, an impactful entrepreneur, a high-value writer, and a brilliant computer scientist. I want all of this.
Think of who you want to be. Trust me, it will be worth it.
Ok, got it? We’ll revisit that at the end of this article, but I’ll give you a taste of what’s to come: if you want to be great at any of those things, you have to cut out most of them.
Great at Everything
For high-achievers, the message is simple: you have to be good at everything.
In high school, I was expected to have straight As, be the founder/president of multiple clubs, and be a great test-taker. It’s all necessary.
I followed that life script for my high school career. For some things, it was useful. I started two high-impact organizations before I was 18. I learned a lot. I became really good at pitching myself.
But here’s the upshot: an overemphasis on perfection in school made me feel like I had to be great at everything — there was no room for failure.
I worked incredibly hard. I put in the hours. And, on paper, I was great at everything.
But the truth in life: to truly be great at one thing, you have to be average at a lot of others.
Aiming for that B+
As a college student, I have to take several courses I don’t like. In fact, I think they’re pretty stupid.
I’m fairly averse to the argument that academic writing improves the way we think. I think it largely makes the way we write inaccessible and lengthy. I use short words here. I like short words.
And so, when I have to write an academic essay three times a quarter and go to a class to discuss how a philosopher makes an argument, I hate it.
Yet, I still fight for that A. For the first quarter of my college, I played by the rules. I did what was expected and I pulled out the A. But I felt empty.
I felt like I was doing things I don’t believe in. My discomfort for getting anything less than an A held me back from living my best life.
I want to break that script. That’s why it’s my goal to undershoot what I’m capable of. Because while I thought I was doing it all, I was quietly making trade-offs counter to my values.
Summer of 2019
This life script that to be successful, I have to have great grades began in the summer of 2019. I was taking my first psychology course. On my first test, I got a B. I was devastated, and I went into fix-it mode.
In the next month, I learned a lot about how to cram my head with information. I learned to study. I learned to read to remember. It was simultaneously incredibly impactful and ultimately unhelpful.
Impactful in the sense that the material I learned in that course and applied, I still remember. Unhelpful in the sense that all that material that I shoved into my brain was never used. It was useless, and so my brain discarded it.
Here’s an idea that may sound foreign to the modern student: if your brain is forgetting something, it’s because it’s not useful.
We remember what we use. It’s why basic arithmetic sticks with us and calculus is thrown out the window.
The value of knowledge is measured in its utility. In Sapiens, Yuval Harari argues that this idea dates back to the 17th century: “In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto titled The New Instrument. In it he argued that 'knowledge is power.' The real test of 'knowledge' is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us... truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility."
Useful knowledge is applied. Applied knowledge is remembered.
You can spend hours shoving banal information into your brain. But that means nothing. If it doesn’t serve you, you forget it and all that memorization is useless. This realization destroys a life script that I learned in that summer of 2019 and students and employees continue to learn — hard work is inherently meaningful.
Hard Work Means Nothing
It feels like I write about this every week. But that’s proof for how prevalent this myth is. The value placed on hard work is nothing short of idiotic.
Hard work is praised as the enabler of all great actions. It is. But it’s the enabler of all waste-of-time actions. Hard work is a multiplier. It’s leverage. It’s an incredibly useful skill to have.
But if the activity your acting on produces zero value. It doesn’t matter how hard you work on it. It’s still going to produce zero value.
Some of the tasks that I work on every week are maximally more important than others. And writing an essay for a humanities class? It may be important for some people and their career goals, but it largely means nothing for me.
“The art of moving forward lies in understanding what to leave behind.” - Seth Godin
I’m choosing to leave behind the life scripts that aren’t useful to the life I want to create. I’m choosing to focus on what matters.
I can’t do everything. And neither can you. Yet we try — oh, we certainly try.
For the last few years, I have rejected the idea that to succeed, you had to focus on one or a couple of things. David Epstein’s Range gave me the freedom to believe that all my distractions were “exploration.” Some of them were. But many were simply an inability to stick to something.
We don’t get distracted when something matches our skill level. We get distracted when we are in too deep. And instead of finding our way out and actually learning, we distract ourselves. Robert Wright discusses this idea in Why Buddhism is True. Here’s a paraphrased summary:
Modules, which create your thoughts, are always vying for your attention space. Some modules want you to do your work while other modules want you to scroll on TikTok. So, why don’t we just activate the modules to pay attention to your work? Firstly, you can’t (fully) choose to activate modules. Secondly, you can start your work when you are feeling motivated, but your modules are smart. As soon as you are uncomfortable with your work — maybe it is too hard — the module that wants to you to chill and look at TikTok takes over. It realizes that it has the best chance at winning, and sends the thought to your conscious mind.
The ability to focus is becoming less and less common. Distractions fill our day. Screen times have skyrocketed. Focus is the ultimate multiplier. But it’s harder to achieve then you think. Attentional residue follows you wherever you go. Cal Newport covers this in Deep Work:
The problem this research identifies with [multi-tasking] is that when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.
Without it, though, nothing gets done because while hard work is not valuable within itself, hard work on the right thing is infinitely valuable.
Attention is such a valuable resource, but we don’t treat it like it is. Last week, one of my close friends marveled at my productivity: “I don’t get it Ben,” he said. “You do so little yet get so much done.
This is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received. And I’m not even that good at deep work. I struggle through writing essays so much that I choose to split their writing period over almost 14 days. I often work in coffee shops next to my friends. Of course, I don’t get the bulk of my work done in these periods.
I get it done during those uninterrupted hours. The times when no one’s around and it’s just me and my work.
If I were to be honest with myself, the amount of work I slowly chip away at during the day could probably all be achieved within two hours of deep work. If I choose to focus, it gets done.
So, who do you want to be?
Let’s go back to that list you created earlier in this post. All those identities you wanted to cultivate. Depending on the number of identities on that list, it may or may not be possible.
While I claimed earlier you have to cut out most of those identities to achieve even one, I don’t totally believe that’s true. I think you can be them all. But that requires focusing on one at a time.
If I float from my schoolwork to my startup to writing to Leetcode, I’m not going to become great at any of those things. If I, instead, choose to do one at a time, I will make immense progress on all of them.
Focus doesn’t necessarily mean cutting the things you love out of your life. It simply means enjoying them one at a time. It means entering a state of flow. That’s where growth happens. So, I gotta ask: for all those identities you want to take on, when are you carving out a few hours in your work to truly focus on cultivating them?
If you can’t answer that, it’s time to figure it out. And soon enough, you’ll be on your way to living the life you want to live.