I’ve received some of the best advice from folks I’m trying to forget.
It’s usually past mediocre managers. Average folks doing the job, but in an uninspired fashion, in over their heads, or just coasting for reasons I never understood.
Every so often. They land an idea. Maybe I don’t hear it at the time because I’m actively trying not to interact with them, or perhaps I’m not ready to hear the advice because I foolishly believe that because they don’t inspire me, they can’t teach me.
Let’s call my manager, Zack. He’s been hands-off for my first six months on the gig. I think it’s because I am so obviously crushing it, but I quickly learn that Zack is hands-off on everything. No one is sure what Zack is doing. He’s in the office daily and attending exec meetings, but 1:1s are vapid “How are you doing?” affairs and project managers drive the products.
Zack has one move, which is when something goes exceptionally sideways. Zack has a nose for potentially publicly visible imminent disaster, so he schedules a meeting with me; we start by comparing notes, and then he says it. The line I can’t forget years and years later.
Zack says, “I’m going to give you the gift of focus.”
Happy New Year
After weeks and weeks of holiday, we’re tired of family, we’ve overeaten, and BAM, it’s a whole new year. Most of the resolutions are gone by late February. The complex machinations of humans doing things en masse pull us back to the familiar medians of getting stuff done. What a great time to reimagine your life, reevaluate your goals, and resolve to improve.
My experience is that a resolution you can use daily will stick with you. My experience is the smaller and simpler the resolution, the more likely I can transform a New Year’s aspiration into a lifelong habit. My experience is the more the resolution appeals to you, the more likely you will even consider it.
This year, I am going to give you the gift of focus. Too many words. How about just:
Focus. When Sarah walks into your office for the 1:1, you spin to face her and give her your full attention. Doesn’t matter what you were doing; what you are doing is giving this co-worker your full attention.
Focus. When Terrance walks through the presentation with a room full of people, you lean forward on the desk on your elbows and listen to every word he says. When you have a question, you write it down immediately. When it’s time to ask the question, you ask, but more importantly, you fully hear his answers.
Focus. Even when you don’t have to. Video conference call. 20 people. Ten who don’t need to be there. You aren’t a part of the conversation; you aren’t going to say a word, but your eyes are on the grid of faces, hearing and understanding every word.
The Entirety of Your Attention
This is the 500th word of this article. How many times have you been interrupted while reading this piece? How many times have you stopped… just because?
Our devices are full of needy applications and services. Our planet is full of media outlets desperate for our attention. Our politics are orchestrated as entertainment. Combine this with the fact that we’ve spent two years plus working in a distributed fashion where every needy application and delectable headline is sitting in a window directly next to your meeting.
Just a glimpse. Don’t worry. No one will know.
Maybe this is easy for you, but two years plus of video conferencing and my already focus-impaired brain needs a profound cleansing reminder. Focus is the entirety of my attention focused on one thing. This person, this meeting, this design.
But what about this other semi-related thing? Let’s wander in that mental direction for a bit…
No, all I am doing is this.
But you’re the people person. Read the room, Rands! What is the intriguing political dynamic of this particular group of humans? I wonder…
No, I am here to do one thing. The reason why I was invited was to participate.
But I’ve heard his story before, and he’s going to be talk talk talking for the next five minutes, so you know what I’m going to do? Just check Mastodon real quick. No one will know.
They won’t, but I will.
There is a time and place where your primary job as a leader is sustained acquisition, synthesis, and redistribution of information. This practice is likely the majority of your career as a leader. More confusing, it’s a learned skill diametrically opposed to the skills you were rewarded for as an individual contributor.
But here’s why we must thank the hapless Zack for our gift — this douche who was nesting and vesting rather than building a team.
Focus, the pure focus on the task in front of you, is when you do your best work. The important achievements of information management are essential but immeasurable. When you focus, intensely focus, you can see the one thing that must be said, to discover the critical assumption that transforms good design to great and to most efficiently transform your years of experience into small, understandable, and unintentional lessons for those sitting right there… focusing with you.