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Guiding principle

In the last several months, I’ve had a significant number of conversations, inside and outside of Google, about career (and sometimes life) choices. People are either stuck and can’t progress anymore, try to do too much and don’t do anything at the end, or are simply overwhelmed by a plethora of options.

One of the leading causes of these symptoms is the lack of a guiding principle. Every time I ask the people who are struggling, “Why are you doing this? What do you want to achieve? What’s your motivation?” I almost always get a blank stare and silence. I acknowledge they are tough questions to answer.

It’s challenging to understand your motivation because you have to dig deep down and have an honest conversation with yourself (and it seems some people would rather experience electric shocks than be alone with their thoughts). Some of the answers are family, self-improvement, security, but they are also too often just socially acceptable facades, while the real answer often hides among power, status, money, or similar. Admitting this to yourself is tricky; sharing it with others is often unimaginable.

After the recent tragic accident that cost Kobe Bryant his life, bits of his work started to circulate the Internet. I encountered one quote from Kobe’s book The Mamba Mentality in a newsletter (emphasis mine).

If you really want to be great at something, you have to truly care about it. If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it. A lot of people say they want to be great, but they’re not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness. They have other concerns, whether important or not, and they spread themselves out. That’s totally fine. After all, greatness is not for everybody.

Kobe nails it (even if I don’t share his motivation). The first critical thing is knowing what and why you’re doing something, but the second, equally important, is not doing everything else. As Michael Porter, an academic and businessman, says:

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.

One author admitted that he spent as little time as socially acceptable to be with his family so he can focus on his work and career. I admire his honesty. He knew what he wanted and understood he’ll have to make sacrifices to become traditionally successful and famous. Similarly, people decide to leave or reduce work to focus on their families. The point isn’t what’s the right choice—there isn’t one. The point is that truly choosing one thing means avoiding almost everything else.

Keep an eye on a common bias—when observing others, we usually see what other people have chosen, but we don’t know what sacrifices they had to make. If you ever have a thought, “I want to be like that person,” ask yourself if you would be willing to take on both their successes and failures.

Having a guiding principle and intentionally constraining your options is liberating. As you’re thinking about your life and work, what is it that you care most about? And what are you doing day to day that is taking away from the thing you care about?

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