Focus

The Big Picture: Big changes need big focus.

Let’s talk about focus today because the ability to focus is a superpower. We used to call it sticktoitiveness.

I’m going to talk in pretty general terms today. But this applies to software engineering and leadership.

So let me tell you some stories.

Finance in College

When I was in college, I was somehow struck by an all-consuming passion about the stock market. I loved it. I loved everything about it. It was an “eat, sleep, and breathe” kind of thing. I would read all the time. I would read 6, 7, or 8 hours a day. I would check out dozens of books at a time from the library. I read academic articles, I read textbooks, I read popular nonfiction books.

I was totally consumed. I was able to turn that focus into something amazing – ten years of self-employment. That was such an incredible experience.

Speaking for myself and the typical student – you can get away with a lot of irresponsibility in college. I was able to ignore distractions and focus. Finance took over 80% to 90% of my time.

Distractions

Fast forward a few years, and I am ready to move on to something else. When I was wrapping up my career in finance, I was scattered and not sure what to do. And I still needed to spend time on finance. So I studied different things in my free time. Here a little, there a little.

This went on for months. And nothing came of it. I didn’t get really good at anything.

Software Engineering Apprenticeship

One day I wised up. Tired and frustrated, I realized that I needed to get good at something. I needed to focus.

Software Engineering looked good. A friend in Florida offered to teach me. Within a couple of weeks, I accepted. I packed up my apartment in Los Angeles, I shipped my car, and I bought a one way ticket to Florida. I was going to be Software Engineer apprentice with one of my good buddies.

I was one block away from Beverley Hills, surrounded by beautiful cafes and bakeries. I moved to the marshy swampland just south of Orlando. Imagine that. It was a huge change. From French cafes to a dirty Wal-Mart. From Teslas and Maseratis to rusted out pickup trucks.

I only knew one person and I wasn’t making any money. It was an unpaid apprenticeship. But it was such a fun experience. And I was able to put 80-90% of my time an focus and attention towards learning Software Engineering. It’s hard to focus in Los Angeles. There was always a new restaurant to try, a new place to go, a new thing to see.

Anyway, I put 90% of my time into software engineering. And I got really good, really fast. (If I do say so myself) I was building side projects on my own within a couple months. I went from zero to side project in 2-3 months. I got a full-time paid position within a few months.

I have had a great career so far. And I attribute most of it to my focus in the early days. Since that first job, I have been a Team Lead, I specialized in DevOps, and I built many side projects. And I’m just getting started.

It is so much easier to get good at something when you can focus on it. 5% here, 5% there, is a sure way to make yourself frustrated. You won’t see any real progress.

So for those who don’t have much going on, that is a good situation to be in if you want to make a change. It is hard to make changes. It takes a lot of activation energy to build something new or start something new.

If you have 5% here, 5% there, it might not even be worth it to try. It might be more profitable say no to 5% things until you have enough time to focus.

Let’s end with a Warren Buffett quote.

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that the really successful people say no to almost everything.”

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