The Importance of Singular, Relentless Focus

There are limits to how much we can or even should try to learn from superstar athletes. One likely I don’t recommend looking to Tom Brady for political advice, for example. As I watched the Superbowl a couple of weeks ago, however, I was thinking about one element of Tom Brady’s career that I do want to emulate. It’s something he has in common with fellow GOATs in their sports—from Tiger, to Serena, to Michael Jordan before them. It’s hardly a secret, either, or something that the rest of us for some reason cannot do. 

They all pursue the perfection of their craft with singular, relentless focus. 

Everything they do—from the specifics of how they practice to what opportunities they say “No” to—operates in service of that one mission. They identify a strategic, precise plan for accomplishing that goal, and they don’t deviate from it. 

This is a trait that iconic social entrepreneurs share, too. Scott Harrison of Charity Water; Wendy Kopp of Teach For America and Teach For All—they’re myopically, persistently concerned with just one thing, and that’s delivering on the promises of the organizations they started. (Wendy works to deliver greater educational equity; Scott, to increase access to clean water.)

Among the rest of us, such focus is far less common. Most of us are easily distracted, be it by other goals we dream up; paid opportunities we say “yes” to; or more frivolous, shiny pursuits, such as chasing fame and influence. I cringe when I see a promising social entrepreneur promote their personal brand over the interests of their chosen cause. We all can’t create online courses, nor should we aspire to. 

This is something I struggle with, at least. Glancing at the next week’s schedule near the end of the Superbowl, my heart sunk. Not only was it packed—I’d obviously lost control of it. I surrendered my focus to engagements, meetings, and tasks that, though they may have seemed interesting and even important when I scheduled them, were ultimately not related to the goals I care most about chasing. 

This is more damaging than we think. Our time and focus are the most valuable resources we have. To squander or dilute them is to compromise our potential. 

As I grow in my career, and study more carefully those who do great things—both in my sphere and outside of it—I realize that there’s simply no other way to create lasting, meaningful impact without relentless, singular, unbreakable focus. That means not only working your ass off, but saying “no” to things that don’t serve to further your progress in pursuit of your goals.

Here’s how Kobe Bryant put it in the documentary Kobe Bryant’s Muse:

“If you want to be great at something there's a choice you have to make. We all can be masters at our craft. But you have to make a choice. And there are inherent sacrifices that come along with that.”

Proceeding into 2021, I’m committing to saying “no” to anything that pulls me away from the work that energizes me and that I most care about—to making sacrifices necessary to do everything I want to do. I’m taking Derek Sivers poignant advice in Anything You Want, “If you’re not saying ‘HELL YEAH!’ about something, say ‘no’. And I’m making myself a promise, I’ll reserve my Hell Yeah energy for opportunities that further my craft and big-time goals. 

Granted, it’s easier to focus your efforts when you’re getting paid millions of dollars to do it. It’s harder when committing to such focus means, as it does for most of us, giving up money or fame. But it’s essential. More than skill—more even than passion or persistence—real influence comes from focus.