The Extraordinary Power of Focus


A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!”

So, what does this parable teach us? The tiger at the top represents the pain of the past, and the tiger at the bottom the worries of the future. The precarious vine symbolizes the stresses of the present, and the mice signify the passage of time. Death is inevitable, so while you are alive be present enough to focus on the strawberry and enjoy its sweetness.

Said in business terms, how you think is how you plan is how you act is the results you get. I see my primary role as a positive change catalyst as inviting people to think differently and change their focus so that they have more fun, make more money, and do more good.

Let’s take this lesson of how you think and how you focus a step further with a modern day business parable. Some years ago I was consulting at a steel plant in Pennsylvania. When I asked one of the leaders there how things were going, he smiled wryly and produced one of my favorite quotes of all time. He said, “We’re making glacial progress on a thousand different fronts.” The company was out of business a short time later.

Doesn’t that ring true for a lot of us high achievers? Why do we so often take on more than we can possibly do well? What if we just acknowledge that we think it would be cool to be superman or superwoman, and it’s just a hard fantasy to let go of? No matter how many times we try to fly and fall and hurt ourselves, we seem just to get up and try to fly again.

However, if one day we decide to enter super person rehabilitation and join the ranks of humankind, here are 5 facts that can be helpful:

  1. The human brain only can retain about 7 pieces of information at any one time.
  2. Your concerns (e.g, world peace) will always be bigger than what you actually can control (e.g., being neighborly).
  3. If you focus on 2-3 goals, you will achieve 2-3 goals. If you focus on 4-10 goals, you will achieve 1-2 goals. If you focus on 11-20 goals, you will achieve 0 goals.
  4. To achieve an effective focus in your business, you’ll need to say “no” to a lot of good ideas as well as the bad ones.
  5. To achieve an effective focus in your life, you’ll need to be really good at saying “no” in general.

The most common mistake in strategic planning is insufficient focus–the temptation to try to be “all things to all people” is incredibly seductive. As Bill Cosby famously said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” 

Many of the leadership teams I work with are drowning in knowledge but thirsty for wisdom about their businesses.

A prime example is the SPOTS Syndrome, “Strategic Plan On Top Shelf.” We’ve all seen this. We spend forever coming up with an extraordinarily complex and detailed strategic plan which is promptly put on a shelf in everyone’s office. It’s never opened again until the next yearly planning retreat because it’s too complicated to understand, much less execute. To avoid this syndrome in our planning efforts, we always adhere to the revised KISS Principle: “Keep IT Simple & Short.”

What are you focused on? Have you found your strawberry?

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