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.

8 comments on “When to Obsessively Focus and When to Court Serendipity
  • I think “no distractions” is the key here. All learning involves testing new ideas and thoughts – it could be said that mastery is the state of having considered and evaluated all (or most) available possibilities – so serendipity and “laser focus” are complementary like you both said.

    If there aren’t avoidance patterns or strong fears of failure, the brain is very good at choosing which activities to focus on. Cal’s focus on mastery is useful because it very clearly lays out a roadmap for excellence, so it eliminates a lot of the need for self-assessment and decision-making – just keep doing what you’re doing, consistently, and you’ll be fine. Your “serendipity” approach is good because openness to randomness is often a very quick way to identify high-yield activities.

    Avoidance and distractability are probably the two biggest impediments to meaningful accomplishments. Preventing those two things is probably more important than finding a perfect balance between serendipity and focus.

    A related note: being open to randomness means exposing yourself to promising opportunities. However, it’s hard to identify opportunities if you aren’t focusing on a problem that you’re trying to solve. The “focus” and “serendipity” modalities are highly complementary.

    • Good points, and I agree a “perfect balance” between the two is not a useful goal. Awareness of both dynamics is the key.

  • I agree on the complementary roles of Focus v. Serendipity. In fact, I go further to say that they need to co-exist. When Focus is in dominance, Serendipity could lurk in the background and not completely back out and vice-versa.

    When you are on a mundane task (peeling potatoes), years of practice could allow you to switch to auto-pilot, dilute focus and still finish the task early.

    But while on serious projects, Focus helps in creating conditions necessary for generating desired outcome even as it cannot guarantee it. There is always a significant role played by external factors in shaping outcomes and to that extent Serendipity is an unwitting interloper – often mistaken as luck or the lack of it.

    Think Crossword puzzles. You may be practicing it for months or years on end, still on days the simplest of words could elude you. Often, an amateurish onlooker or a fellow passenger would land the right word. Similar as in Chess, Fishing or serious professional realms like surgery, athletics or piloting airplanes. Hours of flying experience cannot guarantee safe landing even under conditions of “all systems go”. One single bird on a joy flight could do the damage.

  • It seems to me that Cal’s philosophy can be acutely utilized by people in their early twenties, while yours can by people who are likely more established in their career (post college).

    The relationship between focused, Deliberate Practice and Serendipity is an interesting one. The more skills and value you have, the more serendipity that is likely to come your way — People will want to talk to you at conferences, and even have you speak at them. But, in most cases, it takes DP to build those skills. So the more DP you do, the more serendipity you’ll have.

    Seems DP should be done early on, to build your value, and then court serendipity as value increases.

    That said, I agree with always maintaining a certain level of serendipity.

    Bottom line: The more value you build by practicing deliberately, the more valuable your time spent exploring, or courting serendipity, will be.

    • Good comment, Erik. Though the counterargument is that in youth you should spend more time exploring and experimenting, and later zone in in a focused way on one or more crafts.

  • “To be sure, I never dial down the serendipity to zero…”

    I would co-sign on the importance of avoiding an all or nothing approach (speaking from experience). It’s easy to get caught up in single-minded focus on a goal or pursuit to the point of diminishing returns and finding yourself in a place of frustration where you’re not as receptive to serendipity.

    It’s like digging the well before you’re thirsty — I’ve learned to plan to create opportunities for serendipity to happen.

  • Focus and serendipity are not incongruous when you follow a vision. In Apple’s case, shipping a product is short-term goal, but the long-term vision is to build something beautiful or to cause people to think different. When I focus on a vision, serendipity happens, as all the world starts teaching me new ways of thinking about achieving that vision.

    As an aside, this is why the serendipity apps on the market today are so wrong. (or one of the reasons at least). A short-term goal may be to meet as many great people as possible. But who has a long-term vision of excusing yourselves from conversations to meet someone more important who just arrived? People who have this as a life philosophy are called ********.

  • Hi Ben,

    I’m happy to say that I feel comfortable commenting on this post now that a) I’ve been subscribing and reading your blog for a while and b) I’ve finished reading both The Start Up of You and So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

    As a young twentysomething myself I’ve definitely experienced the dilemma between spending time on courting serendipity and spending time mastering. I also like the idea that different stages of life require different tempos between the two. But I also believe this tension is largely influenced by one’s living situation. Living with roommates = more serendipitous opportunities, but also more distractions. Living alone = more ability to focus on self-improvement.

    Financial factors aside (splitting utility bills, etc), how do you know when the time has come for one to brave the world alone in an undersized apartment?

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