The focus trap
Thoughts on the two kinds of focus, and why one prevents the other
I’ve been wanting to experiment with much shorter posts, for the simple reasons that I enjoy reading short posts and it would help me write more frequently, which is the best way I know to organize my thoughts. I’d love to hear if you find this valuable.
As entrepreneurs, we are conditioned to pray at the altar of focus. We feel guilty in moments when it doesn’t come naturally, and often ascribe our failings to a lack of it. And indeed, focus is important, but perhaps not the kind we think we need.
In science it’s fairly well known that great leaps forward almost always happen by remixing things from distant areas. Often it happens when a technique or insight from one field gets applied to another, or when a new technique is discovered and applied to old problems. See “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” or “How Innovation Works.” Innovation is wandering, exploring, and trying to see the intersection of seemingly disparate ideas.
Similarly, when I think of the most productive phases in my career, “focus” as in “stay focused,” “don’t blink,” or “keep your eye on the ball” is not how I would describe it. It’s more like “focus” as in “bring things into focus” — adjusting the lens back and forth until a jumble of things suddenly stands out in sharp contrast. Or just opening your eyes in fresh light and waiting patiently as they find focus.
It is obvious when you need more focus. I need it right now, as we try and make progress towards this grand ambition we have for what Backdrop can become. But I’ve recently caught myself trying to get focus by staring harder at the telescope, trying to focus on it rather than with it. Sometimes the best thing to do when the lens is fuzzy is to look up, look around, try and get your bearings on the bigger picture and where you’re aiming. Too much of one kind of focusing prevents the other.
If I look back at the last year of building Backdrop, the mistake I’ve made more often is to squint harder at the same fuzzy image, rather than staying curious and fiddling with ideas and interests as ways to adjust the lens.
So the next time someone tells you to focus, or you tell yourself you need more of it, perhaps it’s worth asking what kind of focus you need.