Focus to Win

6 mins read

Anyone can say no to bad ideas, but only a focused person can say no to good ideas. Focus is about saying no.

When talking about one of the biggest lessons he learned from Steve Jobs, Jonny Ive said it was focus.

This sounds really simplistic, but it still shocks me how few people actually practice this, and it’s a struggle to practice, but is this issue of focus.

Jobs was the most focused person in the world.

Focus isn’t a light switch you can turn on and off whenever you want to. It’s something you have to practice every day.

Focus is not the sort of thing you aspire to … or you decide on Monday. It’s something you do every minute.

Jobs would often test people, asking them, “how many things have you said no to?” Ive was up to the task of answering, only he didn’t mean it, and Jobs read right through him.

I would have these sacrificial things, because I wanted to be very honest about it. And so I’d say, “Well, I said no to this and no to that.” But he knew that I wasn’t vaguely interested in doing those things anyway, so there was no real sacrifice.

What focus means is saying no to something that you, with every bone in your body, you think is a phenomenal idea and you wake up thinking about it, but you say no to it because you’re focusing on something else.

A world with abundant opportunities encourages poverty of commitment. And without commitment, you can’t have focus.

Filtering with Focus

The tendency of people and organizations is to lose focus. So one way to identify outstanding people is by their ability to commit and focus on something for a long period of time.

The only people you should hire are focused ones. The only competitors you should worry about are the focused ones.

People naturally lose focus when they forget that focus means saying no to good opportunities and good people. Average ideas are everywhere, and they try to pull you in. The more successful you are, the more people will want to work with you. If you start saying yes to average ideas, you quickly lose the space and time you need to execute on great ones.

Organizations lose focus in many ways, but the one that causes the most damage is bureaucracy. An organization where committees make decisions will always end up losing focus. When an organization loses focus, it opens the door to competitors who can focus.

Focus is hard, and because it’s hard, it also creates a hidden place to find opportunities.

Finding Ideas

Since focus requires saying no, it also means that really smart people and strong competitors are saying no to really good ideas.

If you’re a person trying to find your way in an organization, it’s worth thinking about the most focused people around you and the best idea they’re not working on. While they might not say it directly, they’ll leave clues.

If you’re a company, it’s worth thinking about what your strongest competition is not doing. You can often figure this out by interviewing smart focused people from another company.

Energy into Results

If you look around, you’ll notice the people and organizations moving the fastest are the focused ones. Not only do they focus on a few ideas, but within the scope of those ideas, they are able to focus on the key variables.

Identifying the variables that matter comes with focus. When you commit to living in a problem, you understand things about it that the tourist cannot.

Focus turns energy into results. Why would you spend any time on your 5th most important idea? All of the energy that goes toward anything that is not the most important thing comes at the expense of the most important thing.

Narrow the focus. Raise the standard. And set yourself apart.

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Jonny Ive interview ( with Michael Lombardi – on how the New England Patriots only focused on 8 teams because the culture and focus on the other teams just wasn’t there. Then when searching for more on this I found some of Paul Graham’s thoughts, specifically this one ( Naval also said something similar (

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