The power of focus

When you fully and completely focus on what’s in front of you, great things happen.

The work you do without distractions rather than in a fragmented, piecemeal fashion isn’t just a slightly better — it’s usually orders of magnitude better.

The conversation you have without ever looking at your phone isn’t just slightly better — it’s often 5-10x better.

The experience you have when you fully immerse yourself in it, and forget everything else around you isn’t just slightly better — it can be incredible, unbelievable, and sometimes life-changing.

The funny thing is, there are two different ways to achieve this.

The first is to be engaged in something so enthralling — a personal passion project, an incredible first date, a once-in-a-lifetime trip — that you forget about things like Twitter and Facebook updates, and get lost in what you’re doing.

The second is to deliberately, consciously say no to distractions. To choose to immerse yourself in what you’re doing. To truly focus.

Once you realise that you can do that, it’s like a superpower. It’s just a choice you have to make.

This equation could make you a star

Tim Ferriss and Cal Newport should have babies.

If you’re reading this, it means you have an internet connection, which means you already know who Tim Ferriss is. The author of the best-seller The Four Hour Work Week, he’s famously keen on productivity, eliminating useless activities, and generally accomplishing more while doing less.

Cal Newport is a Georgetown Computer Science professor and the author of several books, including one of my favourites, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and his latest book Deep Work.

It’s in Deep Work that Cal reveals his formula for success — and it’s the same formula that Tim Ferriss arrived at, independently:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Let that sink in for a moment.

Even if you don’t have a maths background, you’ll probably notice that the right-hand side of this equation has two variables: (Time Spent) and (Intensity of Focus).

Producing high-quality work will bring you professional success — whether that means more sales, a promotion, winning awards. So by altering either the amount of time you spend or your intensity of focus, you can alter the amount of high-quality work you produce.

With me so far? Good.

In Deep Work, Newport argues that you should aim to eliminate distractions and therefore increase your intensity of focus, meaning that with the same amount of time, you can produce a higher level of output.

In The Four Hour Work Week, Ferriss argues that you should aim to eliminate distractions and therefore increase the intensity of your focus, meaning that in less time, you can still produce the same level of output.

Those are two different goals. Newport is concerned with achieving great career success. Ferriss is concerned (at least in The Four Hour Work Week) with maintaining your lifestyle but creating more free time.

But they’ve both hit upon the same formula, and realised that the key lies in increasing the intensity of focus.

Let’s admit it — it’s easy, even satisfying, to work long hours at a low level of intensity. You never quite challenge yourself, but you can still tell yourself the story that you’re “working so hard at the moment”, even if that means slowly reading and answering emails for 12 hours a day.

Working at peak intensity: that’s hard. It requires focus. Planning. Turning off your phone and locking yourself in a quiet room. And it’s tiring. Which is 95% of people don’t do it. Which is why there are such outsized rewards to be had if you can be in the 5% that do.

So now that you have this mental model to refer to, you can start to ask the right questions, and think about exactly what you should be doing.

  • What is my end goal?
  • What is the activity that will most effectively lead to this goal?
  • How much time do I want to dedicate to this activity?
  • What does high-intensity performance look like in this activity?
  • What do I need to do beforehand to make sure I can perform at that intensity, and how do I recover afterwards?
  • Is that level of intensity, for that amount of time, sustainable in the long-run?

Once you start to answer all of those questions, you start to see how exactly you should be spending your time in order to have the greatest impact.

How to land a job you love

Most people are delusional about their own abilities.

If you apply for a job you really want, and on your covering letter you say anything along the lines of “I don’t have any experience in this field, but this looks like a great opportunity because it’s exactly what I want to do”, then you are a moron. You’re all me, me, me, and not thinking about what you can actually offer.

Why would that person hire you over someone who instead says “You want someone to do X, Y and Z. I have done X, Y and Z in the past in these other places, and here are the results I delivered. I can do the same for you.” That guy is offering something valuable.

Do you know how you get a job in a field you’re interested in? It’s really simple.

– Do shit related to that field. Do it well and keep getting better. Do it for free.
– Document everything.
– Build up a track record of delivering results and improving abilities.
– Start charging money for what you do.

That is all. It’s really fucking simple. Not easy, but simple.

Read Recession Proof Graduate or watch Charlie’s speech here if you need more information. Also, check out Cal Newport’s great book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, which will absolve you of the notion that good jobs are handed out to people with nothing to offer in return.

I’m glad I worked terrible jobs

Working in a meaningless corporate cubicle job for 3 years was the best experience of my life.

It seems to be in vogue today to argue that rather than working for a big company straight out of college, smart, ambitious graduates (or dropouts) are better off striking out on their own and starting their own company.

They may or may not be right — I’ve never started a company so I don’t have the authority to talk about that. What I will say is that I followed a traditional path out of university and went to work in a classic, corporate job (insurance company with 4000 employees and >£1bn revenue). I did it for a few years, learned some skills, and then made the jump to becoming employee #1 at a startup. And I wouldn’t have been able to do it, nor would I be nearly as valuable to my new company, if I hadn’t spent all that time working in a corporate job. Here’s what I learned:

A) Repeatable processes are what count. You might have a great value proposition that and a great marketing plan that means customers are beating your door down. That’s great. Now you need to scale it up. And that means building a clear, repeatable process with checklists and clear action items, so it’s clear who needs to do what and when. And you need to write all that down and properly codify it, otherwise you’ll spend your whole life so busy training new hires that you won’t be able to run the company. Or worse, you’ll be so busy DOING the process that you won’t have time to codify it and teach it to new people – so you will never scale. You need to be working on the business, not in the business.

B) Not everyone thinks like you. Don’t assume that everyone reads Tim Ferriss’s blog, knows what “lean startup methodology” means and is ultimately aiming to found a company, scale it, sell out and become an angel investor. You need to know how to deal with people that aren’t like you. I’ve worked with senior managers who have been doing their job longer than I’ve been alive, young people who just aren’t that bright or ambitious, middle-aged women who are already working towards retirement, and everything in between. To get shit done, you need to know how to work with all of these — because if you scale, at some point you’ll either hire them or sell something to them. Learning how to connect with people is one of the most valuable skills you can have.

C) Stuff gets done when it’s clear who has to do it and by when. Yes, meetings are usually a waste of time — but the good ones have a clear agenda, a lead, and when the meeting ends, there is a clear list of action items with owners and deadlines. I remember the first time I heard someone say in a meeting “let’s assign that action to Jamie, with a deadline of two weeks from now.” I thought, “Huh, that’s smart. I never would have thought of that.” Admittedly, I’m pretty slow.

D) Accounting. My company had a generous training budget. So they paid over £15k for me to learn accounting, which I never would have had the time or discipline to sit down and learn on my own. Turns out, having a great understanding of things like cash flow, margins, forecasting, income statements and balance sheets is useful in any company.

E) Continuous improvement and lean methodologies. We had a whole department, led by an expert who used to work at McKinsey, dedicated to rolling out continuous improvement across the company. The guy was a genius, and was happy to talk to a young buck like me about it all the time, lend me books, and all that. Then Eric Ries took lean methodology and applied it to startups. Instantly I have a great background in that, and I know how to build great processes from the ground up.

F) Public speaking. Like I said, we had a generous training budget, so my company paid £1k for me to have a day’s training from a professional actor and speaking trainer (he had trained multiple politicians and a Prime Minister). It was fantastic. Now I love speaking in public.

And finally, I learned:

G) You should leave and start your own thing. The highest paid people in our company were all guys who had learned what they needed to know in a corporate role and then struck out and become one-man band freelancers, or started their own companies. I saw guys doing exactly what I was doing and earning twice the money. They had more autonomy, more freedom, more money and enjoyed their work more.

So I left. I took all the skills and experience I’d gained at a shitty job, and found one that was much more exciting and fulfilling where I can actually have an impact on real projects. But I never could have done so if I hadn’t worked a shitty job first.

How to work for yourself (even if you’re employed by someone else)

Charlie Munger, billionaire and long-time partner of Warren Buffett, had a revelation when he was starting out in his career. Buffett describes this in The Snowball:

Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people too, and sell yourself an hour a day.”

Munger was still working as a lawyer, but began to take ownership over part of his day and work for himself during this time. And it eventually turned him into a billionaire and one of the most respected businessmen of the past 100 years.

Anyone can do this – carve out certain times, projects, or niches for themselves. James Altucher argues that choosing yourself isn’t just preferable – it’s critical and necessary due to changing technology and ways of working. And he’s not the only smart guy to make the argument that you need to move towards working for yourself. In fact, it’s exactly what Robert Greene recommends in the The 50th Law:

If we succumb to the illusion and comfort of a paycheck, we then neglect to build up self-reliant skills and merely postpone the day of reckoning when we are forced to fend for ourselves. Your life must be a progression towards ownership – first mentally of your independence, and then physically of your work, owning what you produce.

Greene offers four steps to achieving this:

1. Reclaim dead time.

Almost all of us must begin our careers working for others, but it is always within our power to transform this time from something dead to something alive. If we make the determination to be an owner and not a minion, then that time is used to learn as much as we can about what is going on around us – the political games, the nuts and bolts of this particular venture, the larger game going on in the business world, how we could do things better. We have to pay attention and absorb as much information as possible. This helps us endure work that does not seem so rewarding. In this way, we own our time and our ideas before owning a business.

2. Create little empires.

While still working for others, your goal at some point must be to carve out little areas that you can operate on your own, cultivating entrepreneurial skills…What you are doing is cultivating a taste for doing things yourself – making your own decisions, learning from your own mistakes…What you really value in life is ownership, not money. If ever there is a choice – more money or more responsibility – you must always opt for the latter.

3. Move higher up the food chain.

People are political creatures, continually scheming to secure their own interests. If you form partnerships with them or depend upon them for your advancement and protection, you are asking for trouble…Your goal in life must be to always move higher and higher up the food chain, where you alone control the direction of your enterprise and depend on no one. Since this goal is a future ideal, in the present you must strive to keep yourself free of unnecessary entanglements and alliances. And if you cannot avoid having partners, make sure that you are clear as to what function they serve for you and how you will free yourself of them at the right moment.

4. Make your enterprise a reflection of your individuality.

Your whole life has been an education in developing the skills and self-reliance necessary for creating your own venture, being your own boss. But there is one last impediment to making this work. Your tendency will be to look at what other people have done in your field, how you could possibly repeat or emulate their success. You can gain some power with such a strategy, but it won’t go far and it won’t last…There are ideas unique to you, a specific rhythm and perspective that are your strengths, not your weaknesses. You must not be afraid of your uniqueness and you must care less and less what people think of you…The world cannnt help but respond to such authenticity.

I’m still a long way off this yet – I’m trying to do step 1 and 2, but I’m a way off step 3 yet, and I’m still not sure I fully understand step 4, but I guess I will when I’m at that level. Anyway, when three smart guys all tell you something is a good idea, I’m going to listen to them.

Some things are difficult, even if you’re smart

It’s been about 6 months or so since I’ve last posted on here, but I want to get back into it, so here we go.

I read a really interesting thread on Reddit today about people who are considered very smart and yet don’t seem to accomplish much. It was intriguing, not least because I found myself agreeing so much with several posters. I cruised through my GCSEs and A-levels, getting top marks and being adored by teachers. I say this not to brag, but because it’s the truth. But when I came to university (originally to study law) I found it very difficult. I shrugged it off and said that the course was dull, which is true to some extent. But when I talked about it with my personal tutor and told him I wanted to drop law, he mentioned that maybe I was just struggling with the fact that university was that much harder than sixth form, which is true, to some extent.

I dropped law regardless, and switched to economics, because I thought I was good at it. And, for the first year of the course, I was, as it covered much of the same ground that I had covered at A-levels. But this year, since september, the course has been very difficult for me. I did a statistics module last semester and it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever tried to learn.

So I stopped going. Didn’t bother with lectures, didn’t do the problem sets or the reading, barely revised for the final exam. I scraped a pass in the end, but I know that had I put a lot of effort in I might have done OK. I probably wouldn’t have aced it, but I’d have done OK.

The problem is that I’m so used to getting everything very quickly, instantly understanding the concepts and breezing through the work. I literally don’t know how to learn something the hard way. The fear of failure is crippling to me, and the idea of working so hard to earn an average grade doesn’t match my self-image of being a really smart guy, so I just ignored the subject completely.

I need to stop being such a prima donna and start working hard. Nothing comes for free, even if you’re as smart as me.

A way to show employers what you can do before you get the job

The Freakonomics blog has this good post:

Todd’s idea:

The site would function as a recruiting network, giving students and corporations an entirely new dimension of access to one another. Corporations would post tasks, real or simulated, for students to work on. These tasks would be organized by subject area or industry, such as computer science, mechanical engineering, journalism, marketing, web design, etc.

Students would create individual or team profiles and work on selected tasks, submitting their completed work in the form of text, images, videos, power point, audio, or any other format that can be uploaded. Companies will have the ability to rate submitted work, allowing students to accumulate a “work score.”

The benefit for the corporation would be their new outlet to recruit students who have a proven ability to excel at the type of assignment they will be faced with on the job.

They will also find that they have a large audience of well-educated students who are quite motivated to impress them with their submissions.

The funny thing is, you can do this already, and without the competiton from having all the other students know about it. Find someone you really admire or respect. Email them. Describe your skills, how you can help them, what you have to offer. Link them to your blog full of quality posts. Then offer to work for them for free. If they accept, take whatever task they give you and knock it out of the park. Go the extra mile. Make it your most important task for the day, or week, or month. Do the work quickly and efficiently. Then, when you’re done, email the person and say that it was a pleasure working for them, and you’d love to help them out in the future if they have any other cool projects lined up.

Now, do this once a month for three years while you’re at university, then see how many job offers you get when you graduate. Such is the power of the internet.

The value of work

One of the things that everyone has been talking about recently is Gladwell’s newest book, Outliers. Fair enough, I’ve read it, and so has everyone else. But the thing most people seem to remember from the book is the 10,000 hour rule: that to be truly brilliant at anything you need to put in around 10,000 hours (which works out at approximately 3 hours a day for 10 years). I’m not going to comment on whether this is true or false, because probably the only things I’ve done in my life for 10,000 hours is sleep and waste time on the internet, both of which I consider myself world-class at.

A lot of Outliers focuses on the other factors that influence success – birth dates, cultural heritages, that sort of thing. But are any of them as important as working your fucking ass off?

Jerry Seinfeld is one of the best comedians in the world. He had one of the most popular shows of all time, and he has legions of fans. In the film Comedian (which I watched on Charlie Hoehn‘s recommendation – it’s a great film for anyone interested in stand-up comedy) the camera follows Jerry around the country watching him develop new standup material. He works, and works, and works his ass off. He hits numerous comedy clubs on the same night, for months on end, trying out new material, tightening it, refining it and making it great. He puts in hours and hours of work.

And he’s been doing it for years. That’s why he’s the best. He’s not the best because he was born in 1954, or because his parents were Jewish. It’s because he writes jokes every single day, does multiple sets night after night for months on end and spends hours every day obsessing over every single thing he does on stage to make sure he has the best possible act he can have.

He’s the best because he works harder than everyone else around him. There’s nothing stopping any one of us from being the best at whatever it is we want to do. You just have to work hard enough for it. You have to work, and work, and work. And then work some more.

Now I just have to find something worth working for.

Addendum: I’m probably still a bit too young, naive and inexperienced to totally get what he’s saying, but Tucker Max (yes, I’m talking about him again) did a fantastic speech at UCLA the other day about following your dreams, which you can watch here. I know it sounds cheesy, but trust me, it’s not.

A self-evaluation

I’ve been struggling with this blog recently, wondering what to write about and why I’m bothering with it in the first place. I asked someone for some advice, and for some feedback on what I’d already written. His answer:

You’re writing about stuff that 1) You have no actual experience in 2) Is mostly just a regurgitation of other people who do what they’re talking about’s work.

That’s a recipe for a blog that no one is going to read and will never challenge you. So first, you should understand that the only thing you’re allowed to speak authoritatively about is your personal journey and life.

The reason you’re having trouble is because you’re forcing it. It’s never going to happen – or if it does, it will have nothing to do with you and completely to do with luck. It’s sort of like you’re driving around until someone gives you directions when the smart move would be to hang at your house and not leave until you get them. At least then you could be productive while you wait.

He’s completely right. Why am I writing about marketing? I’ve never been a marketer, I’ve never even had a proper job. Half of my blog posts consist of block quotes from other people and short comments from me. Why would anyone bother to read my blog if I’m just reposting what I’ve seen or read elsewhere? My tag cloud to the right has a lot of different tags. Why are two of the biggest tags two other people? Why am I writing about them so much? There should only be two tags at the moment: “life” and “my”.

I’ve been writing about what I thought I should be writing about, and copying what I’ve seen others do, thinking that by copying their actions, I can copy their success. Of course it’s not that’s easy.

I touched upon this issue briefly when I wrote about reading The Game again. The reason I got involved in the Community in the first place was that I was looking for answers: external answers to a problem that was all internal. At the time I naively believed that if I was successful with women, I would be a happy person and have a happy life. I kept reading more and more things. I thought that if I just read the “right” ebook or watched the “right” video or whatever, then everything would fall into place.

Thinking about it, I’ve been doing exactly the same over the past year or so, just in a different context. I’ve become obsessed with reading blogs and books. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but the problem is that I’m doing exactly what I did when I was 17, except instead of being about women, it’s about careers, life and success. I keep looking for that one blog post or inspirational book that really speaks to me and catapults me to success.

But it doesn’t work like that. Ironically, this quote from The Game sums it up quite well:

In life, people tend to wait for good things to come to them. And by waiting, they miss out. Usually, what you wish for doesn’t fall in your lap; it falls somewhere nearby, and you have to recognize it, stand up, and put in the time and work it takes to get it.

I’ve been waiting. When I wrote about the drive to do something, I was sitting in my room, bored, waiting for something to happen. If I really had the drive to do something, I would have got up off my ass and fucking do something. But I didn’t.

I need to stand up and put the time and the work in. No more cruising along and thinking that I’m doing things that will make myself successful. That’s just masturbation. No more of that. I need to stop these self-delusional thoughts and start working.