How Steve Jobs Used Focus As a Skill. (And How You Can Too…)

Pick out the things that are important and do them right…by Ben Heiber
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If you think about it, no one ever teaches you how to focus. When I was just a cute kid in grade school, my teachers would heckle me. They would tell me over and over again to pay attention. Instead, my mind would wander out the window or to the rocket ship I was holding (my pencil) or to the rumbling in my stomach, hoping that lunch was just a few minutes away. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what they were asking me to do; I didn’t know how I was supposed to do it. And it’s taken me a better part of 20 plus years to learn. Paying attention – I found out – is a skill that can be practiced and perfected; a skill that the late Steve Jobs ingrained into his personality and one of the secrets behind his extraordinary success.

Recently I finished reading the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson who points out – rather eloquently – that, “there are parts of his life and personality that are extremely messy, and that’s the truth.” Although Jobs may have been an asshole, the guy was a visionary genius who led multi-industry-wide revolutions and blockbuster successes at the helm of Apple and Pixar, undoubtedly leaving behind ripples that have permeated throughout the world (While I was in Nepal this past year where most of the population in the rural areas can’t afford an ipod shuffle, they sell fake iphone collared shirts in the markets where people buy them up as if they were the hottest new Apple product – talk about brand value).

Steve Jobs’ fantastic successes in business, technology and design are observed by Isaacson to be a product of his often unyielding ability to focus. Indeed, after the book was published, Isaacson wrote an article in April of 2012 for the Harvard Business Review titled – The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs in which he reiterates that focus is what he considers to be one of Jobs’ keys to success. A powerful example is outlined in a short story told by Isaacson in both the HBR article and the book:

After he righted [Apple], Jobs began taking his “top 100” people on a retreat each year. On the last day, he would stand in front of a whiteboard (he loved whiteboards, because they gave him complete control of a situation and they engendered focus) and ask, “What are the 10 things we should be doing next?” People would fight to get their suggestions on the list. Jobs would write them down—and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of 10. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, “We can only do three.”

This lesson for all of us is invaluable. Pick out the things that are important and do them right. It’s straight from the Zen philosophy that Steve practiced for much of his life; a practice that trained his mind and perfected his ability to hone in on things with laser-like precision, helping him lead the production of some of the most successful products ever made, and a practice that I myself have adopted that has finally taught me how to pay attention (though I still pretend pencils are rocket ships).

There are various kinds of meditation and virtually anything you do can be made into a practice. By bringing all of your attention to one breath, one step or even one sit-up, you are practicing your focus and making your mind stronger. All your senses can be used as a tool, so you can choose an activity or a technique that you feel comfortable with whether it be Yoga, driving or even ironing your shirts like TANR writer Ryan Ulbrich. There are some great books out there that explain different techniques much better than I ever could. My favorites include the Peace in Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living, but that’s just me and you may find other books to be more helpful. Regardless of what your preference is, you have to practice. It takes hours and hours of practice, but the results are worth it. With the power of focus, Steve Jobs changed the world and built the most valuable publicly traded company in the world. What will you do?

Like this? Then read: Can We Manufacture Our Own Happiness? This Book Says Yes.

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