To Be Focused or Not in Your Career

I used to think being unfocused in my career was bad. But I was wrong. 

Let me tell you about what I learned. 

Years ago, I heard a story about when Bill Gates and Warren Buffett first met. They were asked, “What do you think made you successful?” And they simultaneously answered, “focus.” 

I wanted to be successful. And so I thought, “How can I argue with them?” And I tried to be like them—focused. 

But I kept failing at it, yet I succeeded in everything I was doing. 

Early in my career, I started a web development company while also doing a real estate development project on the side. Then, when both were pretty stable, I started a video production company creating online videos. And they were all somehow working and growing.

But—I was far from focused. It almost seemed like I was anti-focused. And I felt bad about it like I was doing something wrong.

And as I reflected on that, I realized my childhood was the same. I was in choir and musicals while also being on the high school football team and working on a small landscaping business with some friends. 

I’m unfocused. Always have been. But, yesterday, I stopped feeling bad about it. 

Jason Portnoy, an early employee of PayPal, described on a podcast how Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Reid Hoffman always seemed to work on multiple projects even when they were at PayPal. 

For example, before starting PayPal, Thiel worked at his hedge fund. But after he invested in PayPal and started running it, he kept the fund as a side project. 

And look at Elon now. Whatever you may think about him, he is one of the greatest entrepreneurs ever, growing and running multiple world-changing companies simultaneously.

Portnoy also said that Thiel and Musk found that there was a symbiosis when they worked like that. When they learned something from one project they would take that lesson and apply it to the other project(s).

Hearing that was an epiphany for me. 

The unfocus I have, which once felt like a hindrance and weakness, now feels like a superpower. I don’t know where this will lead, but I feel free to do what I was always meant to do, which isn’t one thing but—multiple.

Maybe you are like me. You’re a generalist. You’re curious. You’ve always dabbled in many things and found yourself pretty good at them. You’ve heard that focusing is the way to succeed, but you just couldn’t do it.

If that’s you, I hope reading this unshackles and unleashes you to do what you’re supposed to do in all its multiplicity.

The fact is, we’re all made differently. What made Buffett successful wasn’t for Thiel. And that’s OK. It’s good. 

The question isn’t who is wrong or right. No.

It’s this: Who are you?

And knowing that will make all the difference.

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  1. mdulick says:

    This is a comment on the “Focus” post! I guess I am pretty focused on being unfocused, often going in a dozen directions at once, wherever “the cry of the poor” takes me! But just imagine what I could do with some of that Musk money! Right now, I’ve got $50, period. But God is even more unfocused and will make a general sweep, looking for a tender heart to touch. Love, Miguel


    1. John Pa says:

      You have a big and generous heart. Lots of love, john


  2. mdulick says:

    OMG! John, I spent a half hour circling around every corner just to get into this account; I already left a comment; you are worth it, to me, always, but it does sort of contradict the slogan, “let’s improve together” when it’s so hard to…focus!


    1. John Pa says:

      Nice to hear from you, Miguel. Yes, getting logged in can def be a pain. Thanks for commenting.


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