Watch, listen and read the full transcript of success analyst Richard St. John’s presentation: The Importance of Focus at TED conference.
Right click to download the MP3 audio:
Richard St. John – Success analyst
8 to be great! The eight traits successful people have in common. Number three: Focus.
When asked James Cameron how he managed to produce the two highest grossing films of all time, Titanic and Avatar, he said focus had a lot to do with it. He said, ‘You’ve got to be super focused like a laser to get anything worthwhile done.’ He said, ‘When I did Avatar, I was focused for four years.’
Now I’m not saying you never think wide at the beginning of anything, whether it’s your career or a problem you’re trying to solve, you’ve got to think wide, you’ve got to take lots of stuff in. And I say when you’re young don’t focus too soon. Just know in the back of your mind that success requires a single-minded focus.
As Larry Page, co-founder of Google said to me, ‘You should focus on one important goal and you need to be pretty single-minded about it’. It was the single-minded focus that enabled astrophysicists to build a space telescope the size of a suitcase that only cost 10 million bucks compared to the 2 billion that cost to build the Hubble. And when I asked mission scientists Jaymie Matthews about it he said, ‘Focus is the keyword for our success. We pulled this off on a tight budget and short timeline because we just did one thing exceptionally well. We didn’t try and make the Swiss Army knife of telescopes that did a lot of things.’
Successful companies focus. When Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza was asked the secret of his success, he said ‘a fanatical focus on doing one thing well’. Bill Gates would agree. He says, ‘If you want to be a great software company you have to be only a software company. You can’t dabble in other things’. But many companies and people do dabble and I was one of them. After 10 years in the workforce I was dabbling in many different areas and on the personal front I was all over the map. So I was OK at lot of things but I wasn’t great at any one thing.
And when I looked at successful people it was just the opposite. They’re not great at everything, they’re only great at one thing.
Quincy Jones told me he can’t even drive a car because he’s focused his whole life on making great music and that’s what made him great. So I figured I had to focus and become an expert at something. So I cut out all the dabbling and focused only on photography. I became a successful advertising photographer and I even won top awards in both photography and video. So I discovered focus really does pay off.
In addition to long-term focus, there’s also short term concentration. Just being able to put our heads down and get something done right now. Jennifer Mather, a famous animal behaviorist says, ‘I have a ferocious ability to concentrate. I can say I’m going to do this and close the rest of the world off.’
Concentration helped Jeong Kim succeed. He was working at minimum wage in a 7-Eleven store, then he developed Yurie Systems, sold it to Lucent, personally made 500 million cash and became President of Lucent Technologies and he said concentration had a lot to do with it. He said, ‘I can work day and night and maintain the concentration without getting burned out.’
So concentration is a valuable skill to develop and it’s not easy to develop and there’s so many distractions out there .And scientists are developing new ones all the time, although it’s not easy because they keep getting distracted. Now with emails, mobile phones and all the stuff on the web it’s a wonder we can concentrate for five seconds before something Horrible’s beats vibrators play somebody’s favorite tunes.
But the trick is to eliminate the distractions when we need to concentrate. Bestselling author Stephen King says, ‘If you want to be a writer, there should be no phone in your writing room, no TV, no video games, draw the curtains, eliminate every possible distraction.’ And by doing that he became one of the world’s most popular writers.
And remember Warren Buffett became one of the world’s richest men by living in a constant state of no distractions. It’s called Nebraska, he says, ‘When I worked back in New York, there were more stimuli hearing me all the time. It’s much easier to think here.’ And I wonder if that isn’t one of the big reasons why so many successful people I interview actually grew up in small towns, not big cities. Fewer distractions, more ability to focus and concentrate.
But now that all that’s going to change because with the internet we can be in the middle of nowhere and still be distracted. And concentration doesn’t always mean being in a quiet room or alone. Many people actually use noise to eliminate distractions. Stephen King does. Remember he’s the guy who said eliminate every possible distraction but he also says, ‘I work to loud music. For me the music is just another way of shutting the door.’
John Seely Brown also uses noise to eliminate distractions. He’s chief scientist at Xerox and he said to me, ‘I did my doctoral thesis in a bar because I loved the noise, I could concentrate even with the noise all around me. Jeez, I thought all those people in bars were partying. Now it turns out they could be PhDs.
And learning how to concentrate is all about practice, practice, practice. Lindsay Sharp heads up four museums in London and he said to me, ‘It’s very hard to concentrate so you have to practice a lot.’ He said ‘I learned how to study in the middle of an airport. So now if I’m concentrating and there’s a siren outside, I don’t even hear it.’
The bottom line: focus helps us succeed whether it’s long-term focus or short-term concentration.