From Inside Delta Force:
Eric Haney was a special ops warrior boarding an extraction plane. Once boarded, he had no action to take – so he was trained to sleep. The plane was shot and he awoke amidst a burst of flames with no parachute. He had to make a quick decision – so he lept out of the plane, went into a full skydiving arch, and quickly hit the runway below. The plane had never taken off. Later on his friend joked with him – “If you were at 30K feet with no parachute what the hell were you going to do?” Eric replied briefly: “One problem at a time Sergeant.”
His ability to act decisively saved his life. Eric was demonstrating his command of the most undervalued skill in business – focus. There was a problem that needed to be solved immediately and everything else could wait. This happens to be a cornerstone of special ops training, but it applies to personal and business contexts as well. Below are 4 specific ways that learning to focus will greatly improve your career.
Boost your charisma
Improving your focus directly increases your level of charisma. Think about a strong, charismatic leader you know. Did she check her phone during conversations? Did she write emails while pretending to listen, or nod and say “mm hmm” while her eyes drifted elsewhere? Or was she dialed-in and focused 100% on the conversation? The people who can do the latter exude a much stronger sense of charisma and become more effective leaders.
Solve the most important problems
You have 100 things you could spend your time doing today. Focus enables you to keep your eye on the 3 that will have the biggest impact on your goals – everything else is a distraction. Truly focusing your energy makes the difference between participating and dominating. Before his keynotes, Steve Jobs was famous for spending entire days rehearsing. He was ridiculously busy and had thousands of emails waiting for him. Yet he turned it all off and focused on the single most important thing in front of him…and he delivered.
Conquer the details
Conquering the details is what made the difference between Friendster and Facebook. Anybody can get the idea right, but a maniacal attention to detail paves the way to greatness. You cannot conquer the details unless you minimize distractions as much as humanly possible. First filter out the noise. Then focus on what’s important.
Close things out
Neuroscientists have proven that the human brain is incapable of multi-tasking. Your mind simply performs task-switching. Switching back and forth between tasks is akin to an athlete training without nutrition – lots of input, crappy output. Too many people live their lives like this. Tackling one problem at a time lets you close things out instead of piling them up in your head. It not only generates better outcomes, it lets you enjoy your life more.
My advice is simple: “One problem at a time Sergeant.”
In The 4 Disciplines of Execution, the authors discuss watching kids play basketball in a park. You can immediately tell when they start keeping score. They run faster, double the intensity, and start playing defense. Everybody knows that you play harder when you’re keeping score. There is an old management axiom that you get what you measure. I deeply believe this and I think it applies not only to companies but to your personal career as well. By finding the key drivers in your career, measuring them, and putting them on a simple scoreboard – you will play harder and reach a higher level of success.
The 4 Disciplines of Execution (yes, I think this book is worth reading) also describes a manufacturing company where a facility in Canada was seriously underperforming. The proposed solution was to erect a scoreboard for everybody to see, showing each team’s key metrics and clearly identifying the lowest and highest performers (all with a playful hockey theme). The facility VERY QUICKLY went from being a laggard to being one of the top performers in the whole company.
It’s simple to say that you get what you measure and it’s simple to say that you should apply this to your career. What’s difficult is finding the right things to measure and finding a sustainable set of habits to actually measure them. So here are three keys to consider.
1. Differentiate results from inputs
It is important to measure the results of an initiative. If you’re exercising you want to track fat loss or muscle gain. If you’re looking for a job you want to track how many interviews you get at your target companies, etc. But there is a lot of luck, timing, and external factors that affect those results as well. So your day-to-day scoreboard should focus on inputs, which are things you control. For example, inputs for your fitness regime might be the number of times you go to the gym or make a healthy dinner each week. For a job search, you might track the number of hiring managers you reach out to or the hours you put into an impressive side project.
2. Choose inputs that are highly correlated with the end results
You want to choose inputs that are heavy factors in determining the end results. Measuring the times you hit the gym per week is highly correlated with your fitness results. Measuring the number of hiring managers you reach out to is highly correlated with the number of interviews you get. Those are good inputs to measure.
3. Identify metrics that are easy to quantify
The only way this will be effective is if your inputs are easy to quantify and measure. Otherwise the habit of measuring them every week is simply not sustainable. When I was making a change in my career I decided that writing a blog would be a key way to differentiate myself and spark interesting conversations (that turned out to be extremely true). So I measured the number of posts I wrote per month. It was a metric that was under my control, it was a key driver of the results I wanted, and it was easy to measure. I set up a report once and it emailed me each week to show me how I was doing. Simplicity rules here.
I highly encourage anyone looking to make a change in their career to think deeply about the key drivers that will result in success and find a way to measure them. If you keep score, you will be more focused and play harder, and I guarantee you will see better results.
The ability to take calculated risks is one of the most critical skills required to build a highly successful career. However, there is a common misconception that holds people back. It’s easy to think that risk-taking is the key part of the equation (the ability to jump off a cliff and not look back). While some people do take extraordinary risks, leverage their lives, and “put it all on black” hoping to win, the people who are consistently successful over time have a completely different approach.
There are three consistent behaviors that extremely successful people exhibit. First, they work hard to generate a solid base case. This means that no matter what, the “failure scenario” is acceptable (and probably better than average). It may not be the desired outcome, but it’s not disastrous personally or professionally. Second, they work their tails off to generate opportunities that have increasingly large upsides, while maintaining the acceptable fallback scenario. Third, they take lots of micro risks over time. None of these mini decisions are high risk nor extraordinarily difficult, but they add up to put these people in a totally different league from those around them.
Let’s look at an example. Mark Zuckerberg (temporarily putting aside complaints about his style, Facebook’s latest stock price, etc.) is one of the most successful technologists and business people of the last 10 years. In order to achieve that success he had to take a wild risk – dropping out of school to start Facebook. Damn good thing it worked or he would have been screwed, right? Well, let’s take a look at that. Mark never actually took a giant risk. First he decided to build a website in his spare time (no risk, maybe he gave up a couple beers and half a letter grade in one of his classes). Then he incrementally went deeper, devoting more time to his project, getting others involved, pulling together scrappy funding to pay for servers, etc. Each step was a micro risk with a perfectly acceptable fallback. Then he moved to Silicon Valley for the summer. He didn’t drop out of school. He didn’t dive into some unknown project. He took something that was already working and devoted a summer to scaling it. At the end of the summer he had great traction, a clear view of the opportunity in front of him, an experienced partner (Sean Parker), and a chance to raise $500K from Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman. He then made a very calculated decision to take a leave of absence and continue working on Facebook.
He worked his tail off generating an upside opportunity that drastically outweighed the downside. The worst case was a delay in graduating from Harvard (he could always go back) with experience under his belt that would make him more employable than any of his classmates (even if Facebook failed). He could make a salary from the initial funding, save on tuition, and chase the phenomenal upside that was right in front of him, all while preserving his ability to get a job (the point of going to Harvard in the first place). The decision to take that “risk” was actually a no brainer. Working his butt off to create the opportunity – that’s what separates the doers from the dreamers.
Mark is clearly an outlier, in terms of natural talent, dedicated execution, and luck. Luck plays a major role in the magnitude of the outcome. However, people who are wildly successful put themselves in situations where they are going to succeed no matter what. The only question is when and how big. They do this by taking constant micro risks and working diligently to create opportunities that other people don’t have. Anybody can bet on black and get lucky. But consistent success comes from stacking the deck so that no matter what you’re guaranteed to move forward and succeed. From the outside, it looks like luck and risk-taking. But behind the scenes there are rarely overnight successes. It’s not risk-taking that’s important. It’s the mindset to put yourself in a situation where the “risks” are actually not very risky – but the upside is phenomenal.
If you want to make a change in your career, take a micro risk today. Devote 20 minutes and a little bit of planning to whatever it is you want to pursue. Do that for 3 weeks straight and you’ll be amazed how far you can get, without risking anything. So many people point to the “high risks” associated with ventures, changes in your career, etc., as an excuse to not make progress. Get rid of that excuse, take tiny steps and tiny risks, and over time create opportunities for yourself where you can chase upside without jumping off a cliff.
If you think your situation is different and you can’t make incremental progress towards your dream without jumping off a cliff, I challenge you to email me with a description and I bet I can find a lightweight, low risk way for you to start moving in the right direction.
Further reading: The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman.