OC Emberton

If you want to follow your dreams, you have to say no to all the alternatives


Our brains behave like a beachball filled with bees. Hundreds of conflicting impulses, pushing us in different directions.

The origin of the human brain
People never want to do one thing. We want to do all the things. We simultaneously want to exercise and to learn Spanish and to go out for pizza. Our desires are countless, independent agents, working to nudge our beachball in their own selfish direction.

And so usually, that ball is going nowhere. It’s controlled more by the terrain than by the will of what’s inside it.

Our brain, or a swarm of bees in a beachball

This is how most people live their lives. We feel endlessly conflicted. We never have enough time. And what happens to us is stronger than our ability to combat it.

Let’s fix that.

The curse of the ‘great idea’

Imagine if 20 years ago you were a genius who had the idea of starting up Google, and Amazon, and Facebook. You just invented three of the best business ideas of the last century, and if you had started any one of them you could now be worth billions. But if you were determined to do all three simultaneously you’d be absolutely nowhere.

It’s not enough to have great ideas. Lots of people have great ideas. The problem is that too many great ideas cancel each other out.

Three great ideas make a failure

This is why a committee of smart people is called an “idiot”. Leadership doesn’t work in volume. The more directions you’re being pulled in, the less distance you’ll travel.

How people achieve the impossible

Imagine an insanely ambitious goal for yourself. Say you want to write a book, or land on Mars.

If you absolutely had to do that – if your life and the lives of everybody you cared about depended upon it – how would you? How could you?

You’d simply drop everything else. You’d become one giant bumblebee, pushing in one direction, and you’d move very, very quickly:

A giant bumblebee in a beachball

Monomaniacal focus on a single goal is perhaps the ultimate success stratagem. It’s a pattern found in everyone from Edison to Einstein. When you’re able to focus on a single goal, constantly, your achievements reach their theoretical limit:

Achievement = Potential / Directions squared

Most people aren’t failing because of their potential. They’re failing because their potential is spread in too many directions.

How to tame the swarm

You will always want to attempt more than you can achieve.

Unfortunately pulling yourself in too many directions is the single quickest way to ensure failure. And putting your all into a single direction is the quickest way to ensure success.

So try this:

  1. Aim higher. If your ambitions are small, they’re easily overpowered. Big goals are paradoxically more likely to stick because they’re worth ignoring smaller goals for.
  2. Limit to three. Keep up to three lists for different parts of your life – say ‘work’, ‘home’ and ‘weekend’. Each list only gets one objective. If you absolutely must have more, just know that each addition quarters the odds of that area succeeding.
  3. Put it off. Anything which isn’t top priority now can be done optimally later. Mark Zuckerberg was smart to start Facebook first and then learn Chinese. Your goals are the same, you’re just usually too attached to them in the moment to notice.
  4. Beware your idle wants. Watch out for ‘other things that you also want’. They will feel comforting, harmless, and automatic. They are deadly. One new direction will quarter what you can accomplish.
  5. Line up your bumblebees. You may not be able to create the next Google, cure cancer and land on Mars at the same time. But you might be able to simultaneously become, say, a successful and athletic CEO. Success and fitness can be complementary goals: a healthier person can be a better leader. They’re like two bumblebees, pushing in the same direction, and stronger for it.

Beachball 4

The few people who have achieved the most staggering, world changing things with their lives didn’t do so by dividing their intentions. They aimed high, got their bumblebees in line, and said no to all the other opportunities that life presented them.

If you want the power to follow your dreams, you have to say no to all the alternatives. It’s not easy, but if that’s for you, at least you know the price.

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