Why Buffett & Gates Are Successful

When Warren Buffett and Bill Gates first met, their dinner host, Gates’ mother, asked all seated at the table to identify what they felt was the single biggest factor in their success in life. Buffett and Gates gave the same one-word answer. Focus. (See more in The Snowball by Alice Schroeder.)

The clarity of their answer is excellent, but it is concerning as to how this can be, to quote Rudyard Kipling, “twisted by natives to make a trap for fools.” It’s certainly wonderful to have focus in leadership, work and life. But the subject has a depth and nuance that people often miss. For starters, most people believe that there is only one kind of focus.

Focus: A Noun

When people talk about focus they are often talking about working on a single goal. It is a thing you have. It is a static thing. This particular type of focus conjures up images of Roger Bannister relentlessly chasing after his goal of breaking the four-minute mile. It also conjures up images of Pres. John F. Kennedy challenging NASA to put on a man on the moon within 10 years. Bringing it back to Bill Gates, he had a vision of putting a personal computer on each and every person’s desk. The upside to having this kind of focus is compelling and clear: you go after a single objective without being distracted along the way. You build serious momentum as a number of different people align behind achieving this singular goal.

But there is a darker side to thinking about focus as a noun. Some people might call this the Kodak Problem. Kodak had a single objective that they relentlessly focused on, and it almost killed their company. They were caught off guard by the innovation of digital cameras. Kodak had their focus so much on traditional film capture and processing and optimizing that that they did not notice or accept that transformation was taking place within the industry. This is where another type of focus comes into the picture.

Focus: A Verb

Focus is more than something that you have; it is something that you have to do. This particular type of focus is not static. It is dynamic, ongoing, interactive, and an intense process. This specific type of focus reminds us of images of Steve Jobs telling Jony Ive each day, “this might be crazy, but what if we…” Until every once in a while an idea sucked the air from the room. It’s the continuous exploration necessary to see precisely what is going on and what the “noun focus” should be.

Imagine waking up one morning and your eyes focused one way and were to never adjusted again. You would spend the entire day out of focus. Our eyes produce their clarity through a continuous adjustment process. Quite similarly, on our teams and in our lives, it’s just not enough to say, “We have our focus!” Instead, adapt the Dwight D. Eisenhower statement, “Focus is nothing, focusing is everything.” This could take the point too far, but it also brings home the point that having focus just isn’t sufficient.

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