When to Obsessively Focus and When to Court Serendipity

Cal Newport writes a lot about the importance of hard focus to produce meaningful accomplishments. I write a lot about randomness and serendipity. A reader of both of ours, Nitin, wrote to Cal to ask whether our emphases are in conflict. Their email exchange follows:

Cal: I tend to our two different foci as complementary. I tend to write about the core underlying philosophy of remarkability: mastering valuable things. Ben’s book does a good job of capturing all the tactics and strategies that orbit such a quest.

Nitin: I agree that your and Ben’s views can be complementary. But I also think there are time tradeoffs. When I think of people who are focused on creating phenomenal products (or when I read about Steve Jobs), it seems that those people single-mindedly and obsessively focus on shipping product. I cannot imagine them e-mailing strangers or seeking randomness. Those people want to ship their product and a minute focused on anything else is a minute not focused on shipping.

Cal: The counterpoint is that serendipitous networking is pretty common among super high achievers (think Einsteins frequent meetings with mathematicians). I think the occasional conversation with other experts in related fields is not the thing keeping people back from focusing on shipping. It’s more things like working on multiple projects, or spending too much time on distraction, etc…Sort of thinking out loud here.

Nitin: Yes…now that I think more about the people I know. They are strict about no distractions, but also frequently collaborate with very smart colleagues within their trusted network. (I am thinking about developers frequently asking questions on forums and making contributions to open source projects and reading academic papers in related fields to learn about the best ideas.) I think they can be complementary. 🙂

Spending time on hard focus and spending time on serendipity are both important things to do, but perhaps not with equal emphasis at the same time. I believe different stages of your career call for different tempos in this regard. For the past couple years, for example, I’ve been more in “focus” mode than “serendipity” mode, going deeper on fewer things and feeling less interested in meeting new people and exposing myself to randomness. That’s because the projects on my plate right now are so compelling (to me). The balance will surely shift back when I’m at a natural transition point. To be sure, I never dial down the serendipity to zero — when I’m in “focus” or “maker” mode the proactively serendipity seeking probably consumes 10-20% of energy cycles, and when I’m in explorer mode it’s more like 40-50% of cycles.

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