The Art of Doing One Thing (Really, Really Well)

My reply to Tim Denning’s The Power of Doing Only One Thing

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any of our life’s problems are mediocrity across different domains. Love. Relationships. Business. Startups. Sports. Work. Play. Social. Marketing. Writing.

In my case, dating. Shit balls, I just realized I do shallow work in this realm.

Instead of being so good in one domain that no one can ignore you, you instead spread yourself thin, therefore maintaining what I call the mediocrity principle, meaning you constantly stay in a motion doing meaningless work (you know, answering calls, emails, and doing superficial shit), rather than deliberately focusing on growth, learning, and mastery in areas that truly move the needle.

In sports, this principle is obvious.

I can tell the kids and adults that practice the fixed mindset and just show up, go through the motions and think, “Coach is here, I’ll just show up and get better, or fitter, or become an all-star.”

As opposed to the kids or adults that demonstrate the growth mindset that I talk about in Traveling, Startups, and Life Lessons of Pro Sports. These humans just respond to learning and challenges and deliberately focus on the challenge I present them with another level of effort.

Effort looks bad though. People want to look cool.

It goes back to grade school.

It goes back to me dribbling a basketball around high school wearing Strength Shoes while every one else wore their cool clothes.

I just didn’t care about that shit.

I love this idea of effort, what MIT professor Cal Newport calls Deep Work, and pro sports teaches us these life lessons naturally:

Don’t get fucking distracted.

Stay zoned in.

Quiet your mind.

Do work, get out of your comfort zone, and then get to recovering, or focusing on the next thing.

I think startup life, and professional life can be approached the same way. If you want to deliberately get better at playing the cello, then really, really focus on your practice plan for that hour, or thirty minutes (or better, 15 minutes 2–4x a day). You speed up your brain’s ability to learn by how you focus in and get to intense work consistently by practicing the habit of mastering whatever it is you want to master.

If I want to learn about startups, I should be reading startup masters 2–4x a day for at around 30-60 minutes a day.

If I want to be a better athlete, I should be pushing myself 2–4x a day for around 30-60 minutes a day.

If I want to be a better writer, I should be focusing and reading other readers for 2–4x a day for 30–60 minutes a day.

You see what I’m saying. Small chunks of deliberate effort and focus repeated throughout the day are much better for learning, mastering, and growing.

If you have multiple lovers, you’ll have to focus on loving all of them more, which leaves less time for you.

If you have 100 things you are doing every day, that leaves less time for the 5 things that you really love and want to master.

If you constantly get sucked away from your zone by social media, or TV, or Trump News (or what I call fake news, eh hem), then you aren’t going to be so good at something you can’t be ignored.

Mastery lives in the growth mindset and the growth mindset takes on challenges each day as a chance to get better despite the thousands of miniature failures, distractions, and obstacles that each day holds.

You hold the key to focus.

No one else.

How do you know if you are doing this? How do you know if you are practicing good habits within the growth mindset?

I’ll tell you how I do it.

I keep a minimalist habit journal that shows me exactly what the hell I am messing up, practicing, trying accomplishing, learning, doing, or deliberately focusing on, etc. Every morning and night, I report (sometimes with drudgery) that I am, in fact, not doing shit but spinning my wheels looking at stranger’s Instagram posts all day long.

Aka. — Shallow Work.

Distractions are the killer of productivity, which Tim Denning speaks to in this piece about The Power of Doing Only One Thing.

There is much research out there argues back and forth about deliberately focusing on one thing and also learning as much as you can from different domains, and which is better for success.

The argument goes like this, if you learn how to master writing, but never learn how to market yourself, are you in fact going to ever sell a book to make money?

Will you ever be able to do what you love and get paid for it?

Probably not.

So the idea of generalist mastery makes sense to me. Get so good at many different things across different domains and use that knowledge to make synergies occur (I like the word synergize, is that a word, it should be) your passion into a chance to monetize.

I think the this idea of being an expert in one thing, versus spreading out learning and practicing multiple things is an interesting debate.

Which is better?

Which produces more results for you?

I think it really depends on what kind of work you do, and how you focus, rather than just focusing on one thing.

But I really think the Only Do One Thing argument comes down to a person’s ability to do Deep Work versus Shallow Work over and over and over for a consistent amount of time (let’s say 10,000 hours?):

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.” — Cal Newport, PhD MIT

For example, I really figured out in making the NBA, that it comes down to being so damn good in only one thing that you can’t be ignored — either as a shooter, a passer, a dribbler, a defender, an athlete, or a superstar. It would have made sense for me to become so good at passing for instance, that no other point guard in the country could beat me at it.

But if I had been the best passer in the world that couldn’t dribble up the court, or made an open shot, it probably wouldn’t have mattered.

Hence the fact, I trained to become proficient across multiple skill sets.

For me to do only one thing and be the best passer, I would have had to taken a slightly different approach to my practice sessions and individual training sessions. I would have to deliberately focus much more on passing every day in my workouts. Behind the back. Through the legs. Left hand. Right hand. Pocket passes. Combo passes. Overhead.

But I didn’t. I focused on general basketball skills because I didn’t know (at the time) that the NBA wanted specialists in my position.

In basketball, I was a generalist, meaning I deliberately focused on many of the skills needed to become a great player. This was great for my career in Europe, but not so great for me in making the NBA.

But alas, I still got paid to do something most people will never do.

The fact is, I would have never got to pro sports in a place of shallow work. I was never distracted. I was never going half-ass. I was never not competing against myself. All this helped me grow into a player that got paid to do something only 1% of the world’s population gets to do.

Success right?

Yeah, who cares. Basketball is over, I’m washed up and want to succeed at the next stage of life.

So what next? How do I transfer this deep work concept to my next stage of life?

This shit isnt’ easy people, let me tell you.

So let’s break that down outside of basketball. What does distraction free work look like to you? What do you do when you wake up? What are your blocks of time set up to do? Do you need creative time, managerial time, and then recovery time in between?

I think so.

If I approach my days like a pro athlete approaches their skill and body development training, I have more productive days.

“Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tends to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative — constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.”

Written by

“Do it or don’t do it.”

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