Relentless Focus vs. Collecting Lottery Tickets
Two approaches to the pursuit of success
One of the things I have struggled with is figuring out the right balance of narrow vs. broad focus in my work.
A lot of the various self-improvement literature, and much of the online “hustle” culture, seems to advocate relentless focus as the path to success.
One of the advocates for relentless focus is venture capitalist Keith Rabois, who was part of the Paypal mafia. He says - and this is in a business context - you should focus on the most important problems and ignore everything else. Here’s a short podcast excerpt from him on that.
The other approach is what Ada Yao said is to “collect as many lottery tickets as you can.”
She was inspired here by the work of Nassim Taleb and his ideas around randomness and black swans. The idea is to seek to expose oneself to opportunities with asymmetrically positive payoffs (“convex” in Taleb speak) where the potential downside is fixed and limited but the upside is potentially unlimited.
For Taleb, seeking these kinds of opportunities involves doing things like going to parties.
I am fond of the brand of the unexpected one finds at parties (going to parties has optionality, perhaps the best advice for someone who wants to benefit from uncertainty with low downside).
As he put it, “You make forays into the future by opportunism and optionality.”
These two approaches are not necessarily incompatible. We can pursue optionality, but at some point we need to pick one of the options and pursue it. But they do seem to be the result of differing philosophies of life.
I think each approach resonates better with certain kinds of people. I have always found focus difficult, in terms to sticking to one particular task, writing about just one subject, or targeting one niche audience. I have been trying to become more focused.
At the same time, almost every big, important, positive thing that’s happened to me in life has been because a lottery ticket paid off. It has not been because I buckled down and focused.
This is one I am personally torn about and don’t have a strong perspective as to which is superior.
But it’s worth thinking explicitly about how you want to structure your life in terms of relentless focus vs. collecting lottery tickets - or some position in the middle.
A lot of the gurus tout one of these bookend solutions. We should at least know that there are other partisans arguing for the opposite approach.
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Cover image credit: Zunter/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0