Ruthless focus

TL;DR: It’s a competitive world out there. If you want to do something great, it’s not enough to be smart. You need to work ridiculously hard, and be ruthlessly focused. Sometimes this focus will come at the expense of other things in life – only you can decide if it’s the right tradeoff for you, but make no mistake tradeoffs will need to be made. There are only so many hours in a day, and while you’re sleeping, there’s someone out there hustling to get one more step ahead.

The world is yours when you are up before the enemy.

– Jocko Willink

In my discussions on how to build wealth, I talk about a few paths in life that offer a great chance at building tremendous wealth. Those paths also demand tremendous effort. Nothing comes easy in life. You’ll be competing with the best. It’s not enough to be smart, you also need to work harder than anyone else in the game. You’ll need to work harder than you thought you were capable of.

It is pure arrogance to believe you can outsmart other talented people.

— Keith Rabois (@rabois) May 29, 2017

Some people who have already ‘made it’ will suggest that hard work is overrated, and that where you focus your energy is more important. In a purely theoretical sense, they’re right. But in a practical sense they’re wrong. Yes, where you focus your energy is important, but once you figure that out, you’ll need to put every ounce of energy you have behind it if you want a chance of dragging yourself out of the relatively useless state you find yourself in high school, or an early stage of your career.

To do this properly will require complete and total focus. Ruthless focus. There are only 24 hours a day, assume 8 of them are for sleeping. That leaves all life’s priorities competing for the remaining 16 hours. Assume another 2 hours are needed for things like eating, and cleaning yourself, and you’re really left with 14 hours, only a handful of which you’ll likely be at peak mental capacity.

14 hours a day to do it all.

This is where focus comes in. Without ruthless focus, life will get in the way. All your grand ambitions will peter out one tweet, one chat, one email at a time. Grand aspirations fall by the wayside one seemingly small distraction at a time. As recounted in a story from Warren Buffett’s biography, Snowball, referring to him and Bill Gates:

“Then at dinner, Bill Gates Sr. posed the question to the table: What factor did people feel was the most important in getting to where they’d gotten in life? And I said, ‘Focus.’ And Bill said the same thing.

To combat the endless array of distractions, you’ll need ruthless, bordering on negligent, focus. From my experience this will feel like you disappear at times. You might put your head down and forget to call friends. Forget to reply to emails. Forget that important birthday. Buffett certainly fit this description:

His children now ranged from five to ten years old, and one friend described Susie as “sort of a single mother.” Warren would show up at school events or toss around a football if asked, but he never initiated a game. He seemed too preoccupied to notice his children’s longing for attention.

But in truth, it’s not so much that you forget… it’s that you consciously choose to ignore. You might feel bad about this. You might wish you were a better friend or lover. But let me suggest there’s no point in agonizing of what you think you ought to be. Be who you are, and own it. If you really want the things you’ve prioritized in your life, then you have to pay the price. I think the sooner you get over that guilt, the better for everyone involved. The best way to handle this is simply to manage expectations well.

I wish there were an easier way, but for me this is the only thing that works. If I don’t make something my #1 priority and consistently act on that priority, then my grand aspirations whittle away. The years slip through your fingers like water cupped in your hands. Even when I make something my #1 priority, there’s no guarantee it will succeed. It’s so difficult to do even the simplest things in this world, that to stand out, it requires genius or hustle. In my experience probably both.


But the other thing I’ve noticed over the years is that what looks like genius is often more a result of hustle. People putting in countless hours that nobody else sees. All we see is the output, and none of the input. None of the late nights and early mornings. Skills and abilities compound over time, and those little differences in the short term add up to insurmountable differences over time. So large that they start to look like magic. Like genius. So maybe, genius is really hustle compounded over time…?

I don’t know. All I know, is that for me, ruthless focus is the only thing that works. Conditions will never be perfect. There will never be the right time for anything. The right conditions are where you are this moment. The right time is now. Life doesn’t make time for the things that matter. You need to make time for them. If you don’t hold off the wave of urgent but unimportant distractions, they’ll wash over you and you’ll drown. You’ll wake up 40 years later and wonder what happened to the time.

Find your focus. Be ruthless.

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