When the Blinders Come Off…

I could not respect how he functioned so completely immersed in the structures of his professional micro-universe. Yes, I too had previously derived comfort from my firm's exhortations to focus intensely on work, but now I saw in this constant striving to realize a financial future, no thought was given to the critical personal and political issues that affect one's emotional present. In other words, my blinders were coming off, and I was dazzled and rendered immobile by the sudden broadening of my arc of vision.

– Mohsin Hamid in his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, page 145, my review here

I read that paragraph slowly. It happens at a point in the novel where the main character is distracted at work by a brewing Pakistan-India war, and he notices his colleagues' total apathy to anything other than the company task immediately in front of them.

Most ambitious companies — certainly start-ups — require of their employees single-mindedness. They demand all-consuming focus, and to "give thought to the critical personal and political issues that affect one's emotional present" is seen a distraction. Some of the successful business executives I've met are absolutely immersed in their professional micro-universe. The politics of the world, their personal relationships, their personal philosophies: who cares? Whether they realize they're wearing blinders, I don't know. Whether blinders are necessary to achieve massive professional success, I also don't know.

I do know that most of the start-up folks I meet have a fairly narrow arc of vision (this is an observation not a criticism) and many cite this hyper-focus as key to their success. To me, if the narrow focus Hamid describes is necessary for professional success, and if such focus is especially necessary to start a start-up, and if you are a curious person, and if said focus requirement impinges on the flourishing of said curiosity, this represents one of the main downsides of the start-up entrepreneurship lifestyle.

9 comments on “When the Blinders Come Off…
  • I’ve noticed this in myself. An unfortunate reality, since I’ve also been very interested in important issues and “big questions”. I’ve definitely had to cut down the time and attention I can pay to those things.

  • I’m often surprised by how limited that universe can be – many times, it’s contained within the walls of their own company.

    This is why I loved the Techdirt Greenhouse events back in 2005/2006. (I talk about them so much that Mike Masnick can never hold another one; it would be a bigger letdown than Woodstock 2 for everyone but me.) That was the first time it struck me how revealing it can be to ask entrepreneurs about other companies’ challenges and goals. Sometimes, the only business they’ve really scrutinized or thought much about is their own, which can easily fool someone into thinking they’re much more clever or analytical than they are. (Or it least it can if you’re me.)

  • Ben:

    In the Indian tome, Mahabharat, there is a story about the ueber archer Arjun. His brothers and he were all learning archery. They were set a task to aim at the eye of a bird sitting in a tree. All others, when asked what they say, responded variously saying they saw the bird’s feathers, the leaves, the tree, the woods, the blue sky but Arjun only saw the eye of the bird which was his target. His mastery of archery is a major theme in the story and recurs repeatedly in his life. Both as a curse and as a boon. Your post reminded me of the story.

    Focus is both a boon and a curse, usually determined by the context.

  • Never blame the narrow arc if the macro universe is loaded with things beyond one’s control. By widening that zoom, if it will only add to the frustration it’s better to settle with what’s on viewfinder. The setting matters a lot here.

    When you live in a country that has a neighbor like Pakistan, you’ll get used to skipping the front page in your daily. It’s always about a build up across the border, some Al-this or Al-that blowing up a mosque with 500 people in or a suicide bomber blowing up in the middle of a busy market place with illustrative pictures of blood and gore. Developing that brand of insensitivity is not to be seen as apathy, it’s the only way to carry on with enterprise because peace loving people will still have to exist.

  • I don’t know…I think that curiosity would be a virtue at a startup, no? Maybe there’s no time for exploration or creativity, but if you’re buried neck deep in it how are you going to find new, innovative ways of doing things?

    As the movie Pi taught us in the story of Archimedes, “Take a bath, Max!”

  • The art lies in being able to switch between laser focus and big picture. Innovation tends to come from connections and intersections, not tunnel vision.

  • Quite a few years ago, faculty at Columbia Business School studied the moral development of CEOs using the six stage model of Kohlberg. They found that successful execs top out at stage five: social contract.

    Their conclusion was that stage six, universal ethical principles, prohibited successful execs from the usual business interactions. If you think “Ghandi” for stage six, you see the problem execs would get into.

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