Going Deep

For the longest time, I wanted to do it all. I had more interests than I knew what to do with. I was interested in a variety of things, including personal effectiveness, the sartorial arts, organizational behavior, service design, management consulting, creative nonfiction writing, visual thinking…the list goes on. It was hard for me to commit to something back then.

Rather than picking something, I became a victim of paralysis analysis, looking for that perfect choice that gave the “most bang for the buck”—but there wasn’t one. Of course, I learned the hard way that I couldn’t do all of those things. I could either pick one thing and go all-in on it, OR I could try my hand at doing some of those things and not do justice to any one of them. While I could do some of those things on the side, I still needed to give my attention to one thing most of the time.

In the end, I picked up one thing and went all in on it, with a caveat: I found a way to incorporate the learning from many of those interests and consolidate them into this one thing, even as I had to let go of some of those things, which was fine.

The thing we often don’t realize is that there is only so much we can do. We only have so much capacity in our short time on Earth. Life is akin to a buffet where we can have many items in small quantities OR we can pick and choose what we want and truly enjoy them.

We can either do a few things well or many things averagely, and while the effort needed in both of those approaches is the same, it’s always our choice to begin with. We never seem to have enough time because we are trying to do many things, rather than committing to a few things and doing them well. Instead of making a mile of progress in one direction, we end up going an inch forward in multiple directions.

I’m reminded of what Thoreau once said:

One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something.

Another example: My nephew and niece like to read multiple books at the same time. I wonder how much are they actually learning this way, but I suspect they are mistaking “reading” for learning/retention. This extends to the other activities in their lives as well. They take up multiple extracurricular activities as if they are in some kind of a race. Speaking of which, it’s not unusual for parents to sign up their kids for multiple activities and drive them around. It’s as though they want their kids to “compete” with others, out of some fear that they’ll be “left behind” (whatever that means). They treat life as a race where there are winners and losers.

While I understand that exposure to many things is needed at the outset—how else are you going to figure out what you’re inclined towards?—we are vastly undermining oursleves by continuing to do that throughout life. At some point we need to pick something and let go of the rest. We need to go all-in on one thing, as opposed to throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Before we can go deep on something, we need to diverge on a wide range of things. Until that happens, we cannot converge on a specific thing and go all in on it. This is about exploring, evaluating, and executing. This harkens back to divergent and convergent thinking.

For instance, going wide works great at the start of a project, when you’re exploring things to define the work, but not so great towards the end of a project. The same applies to my writing. When we’re in the later editing stage of a draft I’m working on, the last thing I want is to diverge; the time to explore possibilities is at the outset.

Here are some ideas for doing a few things better:

Commit to a few things at any given point. One way of doing that is to have a “Now” page on your website or a list on your computer. The list shows maybe 3–5 things that you’ve actively decided to give your full attention to right now. For instance, some of the things in my Now list include…

We need to enable continuity and go for depth. Rather than doing many things an inch wide, we ought to do a few things a mile deep. We need to commit to a fewer things at any given time. It’s only when that happens, can we say no to other requests of our time.

It’s quite easy to start multiple habits simultaneously because you feel so inspired to be a better human. But as noble your intentions are, that is a sure recipe for failure.

As humans, we naturally resist change, and by committing to multiple things at once, we are not only spreading our efforts thin, we are also asking for burnout sooner or later. We risk paralyzing ourselves before we even get started with one of those things. We want everything to be perfect from day one, but we are only deluding ourselves.

There is nothing wrong with having an endless list of projects captured elsewhere as long as they aren’t actively being focused on.

Finish what you started. We keep acquiring books and leaving them unread on our shelf. The other thing about reading books is we set arbitrary goals like reading a book a week, so it becomes more about reaching a goal than for the love of reading. It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of starting new things and leaving them unfinished. We sign up for subscriptions of all kind but we hardly use them. We spend so much time on social media websites where cursory reading is encouraged, and we are left distracted with hurried thinking, which leaves our attention fragmented.

Another example. I have at least 30 unplayed games on my Nintendo. For me, there are two types of games: the ones where you finish and move on, and the others you keep on playing because they have tons of replay value. These are all games I bought within the last couple of years, but never got around to playing for whatever reason.

Rather than constantly acquiring new games (or consoles) because they are newly released or discounted, it would be better for me to play the games I have now (or only rent new ones online, at the very least). I can always add games I want to a wishlist without buying them all the time. This would ensure I can keep track of what I want to play in the future without feeling the need to get it right now.

Master an existing skill before learning new ones. Get reasonably proficient at it before moving onto others. Don’t just work on acquiring any random skills. Give it some thought before you commit to things.

For those starting a business, it could do them a world of good to focus their efforts on learning to be a marketer, which is about spreading ideas you care about and using them to change the world for the better. While keeping their big idea front and center, they should focus first on having a consistent inbound cash flow, and then on making it profitable before focusing on growth. This could mean improving existing products to make them work better rather than introducing new ones.

This is contrary to how most of the businesses run who typically aim for “growth” which is vague at best and ambiguous at worst. They think when they reach some arbitrary sales figure, their business will automatically become profitable, which is never the case.

Be mindful of acquiring new information unless you need it. It’s not uncommon to see many of us consume information mindlessly (myself included from time to time). This can get exhausting quickly.

When new things come into our lives all the time, while the old ones drift away, it comes at a cost. There is never a sense of completion or focus, nor there is “enough time”. That said, not everything warrants being finished. There’s no point in reading a book (let alone finishing it) if the first few pages don’t interest you, or finishing a video game if the first few levels are boring.

We need to find value in what we already have or what we have already started; to improve existing skills rather than learning new ones; to consume information mindfully when we need it; to learn about a few things and go deep at any given time; to commit fully to a few things rather than casually saying yes to anything and everything that comes our way.

It’s only when we know what we have said yes to that we can say no by default to most things.

We all have limited time and attention. We can either go deep on a few things, or go wide on many. While the work needed in both of those approaches is the same, it’s always our choice. We need to find value in what we already have and do those things well rather than constantly looking to add new things to our life. Besides, life is about subtraction.

The world makes it feel natural for us to acquire new things by default. Companies condition us by convincing us there is a void in our lives and that their widgets can help fill that gap for us (if only that were true). The last thing the organizations selling these things want is for us to be content with what we already have.

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