Sunday, August 2, 2015

Success: A Matter of Focus

If I was asked to pick one photography tip that meant more to me than any other, it would be this: Pick one subject. I don’t even remember the first time I heard it, but when it clicked—when I stopped trying to cram too much in a frame and instead find the best way to portray a single person or thing—suddenly all my photos were keepers.

The same advice affected the way I started writing my best pieces. For years in school I knew I was the most proficient writer in all my classes technically, but for all that technical understanding, in the classes with teachers and professors I respected most I still tended to get B’s on my papers because my thesis or topic wasn’t clear.

“Clever observation,” I’d see written in the margin; “Love this!” I’d read next to brackets specifying a quippy paragraph. And then at the end I would get this: 

“Thesis statement?? Conclusion? This would have made for two excellent, separate papers…”

When I had a professor who found a way to make me understand the whole “kill your darlings” phenomenon—the true need to cut out all the gunk that clogged the flow of things—I started winning at writing competitions and actually getting published. All along I’d needed to pick one subject, and stick to it. I’d needed to narrow my focus.

Right now I am reading Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill.* The book’s claim is that over 500 successful people in the time of one Andrew Carnegie and then Napoleon Hill demonstrated application of the same 13 principles to obtain wealth. An interesting observation Hill makes is this one:

“Henry Ford is a success because he understands and applies the principles of success. One of these is desire: knowing what one wants.”

He later writes it this way:

“Every person who wins in any undertaking must be willing to burn his ships and cut all sources of retreat. Only by so doing can one be sure of maintaining that state of mind known as a burning desire to win, essential to success.”

Basically, Hill says that people who succeed fix their eyes on the prize, and then go after it with singular vision—with focus

When I look at the (financially) successful people of my generation, I see evidence for this theory. My friend Alex Vandermark, owner of Maine Squeeze and its sister chain, the Juicery, moved home to New England from college in Florida and was pained that there weren’t juice bars on every corner like there were in Florida beach towns. There was one—in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—but it was run down, in the red, and for sale. 

Alex looked at the place and thought, “I could make this place profitable.” His father was uneasy about the idea and warned him against taking out a personal loan to obtain it, but Alex could not be swayed. With a degree in marketing under his belt, he saw half a dozen ways just looking at the building from the outside to make the outfit more accessible to the people of Portsmouth—and that’s just what he did. Now he owns juice bars in multiple states, as well as a restaurant specializing in super-healthy soups.

Another example: Gus & Ruby Letterpress. A decade ago, when letterpress shops weren’t yet all the rage, the ladies who own this fine establishment likely heard from more than one friend the skepticism that wedding invitations made on a century-old letterpress would be profitable. Yet five years after renting a space on the single most tourist-traveled stretch of their historical city (not a cheap undertaking, especially for a risky start-up), the partners at the letterpress shop continue to thrive and grow and get extraordinary press. The women knew what they wanted, and they found a way to make it happen.

Sap House Meadery is another instance. First Scout Productions. TOMS shoes. For all the examples before me, I did not for a long time realize the positive power of focus. Actually, I did, but I saw it from a warped angle: I thought, How nice it must be to be [insert successful person’s name here]. He/she knew exactly what he/she wanted from the beginning. It’s got to be much easier to succeed when you only want one thing. I didn’t actually know if there was validation for my assumptions of singular desire and ease. I was basing my attribution on the limited knowledge I had of the people and their operations, and the fact that I wanted to do about one million different things.

Now having read Blake Mycoskie’s book, Start Something that Matters, I know that TOMS was founded only after Mycoskie started four other businesses of varying success. He’d actually been offered a profitable job at a company he respected when he became consumed with the idea for TOMS and went after it with singular focus, turning down the job offer and thus burning his ships. It couldn’t have been easy, turning down a job with a dependable paycheck after not succeeding long-term with four other startups. 

The girls at A Beautiful Mess have a similar story. The sisters tried and failed at creating clothing lines, acting, running a vintage-shop-slash-bakery, and several other careers before becoming multi-million dollar bloggers, of all things. This didn’t happen overnight; it happened after sister Elsie became diligent with her editorial schedule and showed up day after day for years to write and photograph lifestyle ideas. It happened after she found a way to focus.

A few years ago I started keeping my New Year’s resolutions, believing that by attempting the same thing every day over a long period of time I would yield positive results. This was true; I developed several skills and healthy habits this way. But at some point, I started taking on too much. I lost my focus. I ceased making one or two resolutions, and began making five or six. It became difficult to maintain a consistent schedule in which I followed all my routines. None of my resolutions were fruitful because I could not dedicate enough time to any single one of them; if I worked on one, I felt guilty or pressured over the others I was leaving behind. My anxiety went up as my productivity went down. And I began to feel like a failure.

I still feel like a failure over those resolutions. I will think to myself, I’m not fluent in Italian because I stopped showing up every day at my computer to learn. Or, I can’t run three miles because I gave up when I let myself get too run down at work. But I wasn’t just run down from work; I was run down from trying to do too many things.

When I look at the achievements I’ve had in my life—ones I’m truly proud of—I see an opposite theme behind the scenes. In elementary school, I ran a fundraiser to help a family whose tragic story was on the cover of every local paper. I was consumed with the project; I thought about it my every waking hour. I rehearsed speeches to recite in the morning announcements over the school’s PA; I wrote notices to go home in students’ empty lunch boxes for their parents to find; I had brainstorming sessions with my classmates for added avenues to raise money. On the eve of the bake-slash-craft-slash-rummage sale, I was so nervous that no one would turn out or that no one would bring donations or baked goods that my mother baked five different kinds of desserts to ease my mind. I needn’t have worried—all the hard work and focus paid off, with parents and students crowding the school gym for hours the next day, until every last item we had to sell was gone. 

A couple years ago, I went on a mini music tour with one of my friends. It was a tumultuous trip—I learned a lot about myself and stretching my comfort zone and dealing with people of very different backgrounds and world views from mine. When I came home, I had this intense urge to write a screenplay about the experience. I could not be convinced that writing my own E! True Hollywood Story was a bad idea, likely to land my script in the slush pile of some agent whose time would not be wasted on trivial personal epiphanies, as most based-on-real-experience movie scripts do. I simply had to write it down. It helped that I had a deadline; three months after the tour concluded, an international screenwriting competition would be accepting its last submissions. I wrote and re-wrote, cut scenes and pasted them back in, finishing the script only just in the nick of time. I actually had to overnight it from Maine to the west coast for close to $50 in order to get it in on time. In the coming months I forgot about it… until I received a call one day, congratulating me for my place among eight international finalists, winners to be announced at a conference later that month. I didn’t win first place, but for a first draft, “finalist” was pretty good!

In both these examples, I had a clear goal. In the first case, I wanted to help a specific family in need by raising money. I couldn’t do much on my own, so I did everything in my power to rally everyone in my network (which, when I was ten, was anyone I went to school with). With a clear objective in sight, it became easy to cut the best path to success. So it was with my screenplay; I wanted to tell the story of all I had learned on a trip that had brought about a change in me. The best medium for the story, I thought, was a film script. Much of the trip had been spent listening to music, either in the car or at my friend’s performances each night; also, the journey had taken place in the fall, when leaves were changing and tumbling down, and festivals were going on and pumpkins were on every stoop. There was so much to hear and see and smell and taste and touch on the trip—to have confined those experiences to a novel would not have done them justice. I wanted others to see for themselves. So the story became a screenplay.

“Focus” means two things. I’m realizing this more and more from my own life story and the evidence I’ve collected. Its first definition is a noun: a goal. For it to succeed, it must be a clear one. The second definition is a verb—to be determined, to have one’s eyes set on, to be driven toward. Both of these definitions are integral to success. One might have both of them and not succeed, or take a long, long time to succeed, but without them, one is unlikely ever to succeed.

I have a lot left to learn in this area. I know I’m not the only one; we as a culture would not celebrate success if it were ordinary. I would like to see my name among the names of those who succeeded at their dreams and life goals, so I am attempting to put these theories into practice. I invite others to join with me. If you have a goal, what can you do to obtain it? Are you doing everything you can right now? If not, do you expect to succeed? Food for thought.

The definitions of success may vary, but whatever its definition, it requires focus.



* If I’d known a bit more about Think and Grow Rich, I might not have selected it. While it claims to purport the same strategy to wealth as used by Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, and hundreds more, the book is fruitier than Froot Loops. Hill’s advice starts with telling the reader to envision being rich, and then become so obsessed with the idea that failure ceases to be an option. He recommends sitting in a quiet room at the beginning and end of each day, picturing riches. It’s quite scary.

1 comment :

  1. Very wise words.

    Your thoughts on Think and Grow Rich are interesting. I've never read it but I've read a lot of success stories where the person says the book played a role in their success. Many people, screenwriters and athletes alike, also mention that repeated visualization of their success, prior to their success, was a very important part of reaching their goal. Of course, they were envisioning long lines at the ticket counter for a movie based on their screen play or winning the gold medal at the Olympics not "riches". The visualization of success probably helped them retain their focus.