The Focus Fallacy

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.   —Mark Twain

T his post is for all who find themselves called to chase shiny objects. For the people who feel that  there isn’t enough time in the day for them to pursue all of their interests. For the dreamers with boundless curiosity and priorities that don’t always line up with society’s definitions of success.

In a recent post on personal branding, a Harvard professor criticized those on LinkedIn watering-down their brand by using a multi-faceted description in their headline. Her suggestion? Look at successful, well-known players like Bill Gates, Guy Kawasaki, Mark Cuban, and others who have clear, concise headlines for their profiles. I laud the amazing success of these individuals but find the suggestion that their concise LinkedIn headline descriptions have anything to do with their personal brand awareness or success quite laughable. These individuals could put any string of words on their LinkedIn headlines and we’d still see them as wildly successful entrepreneurs, speakers, writers, capitalists, team owners, and philanthropists.

In the spirit of fair reporting, I will concede that she made some good points on personal branding by suggesting that people become confused when we try to associate ourselves with too many things and we water down the effectiveness of our message when we reach too far in our descriptions. Her point? Keep it simple. Keep it focused. Make it crystal clear to the world what you are all about. If your goal is to maximize yourself, your brand, your product, etc. in one particular direction, I believe she is right. But what do you do if that’s not your goal?

Today, most of us are not single-dimensional cogs in a massive industrial wheel. Whether you work in a large corporate environment or run your own business, you are multi-faceted. Your value is not a title, a job description, or a couple of concise functions – you are so much more and offer so much more. Your personal brand may be a particular message, but your person is broad, complex, and interested in many different things. You may be able to balance books in your accounting role but might find far more joy in advising others on how to manage money, playing your guitar, volunteering at the food bank, or sitting on the board of a not-for-profit. Sure, you get paid to do accounting but how will you ever know if someone wants to pay you for something else?

…most of us are not single-dimensional cogs in a massive industrial wheel.

The world has changed. We no longer live in a single channel society. We are all working across many, many channels. We have become facile with multiple mediums and are required to process information quickly and in great volume. In traditional, interruption-based approaches, we place our headlines and messages in places and ways that grab people’s attention.  Less is more. Simple is better. Anything to cut through the clutter. Makes sense, right? The problem is that the sheer volume of content makes grabbing anyone’s attention very, very difficult.  A major problem with comparing your efforts to the individuals mentioned earlier is that they come to LinkedIn, and every other medium, with a built-in audience. Their fame and well-known success supersede all else. In the case of a crisp, concise, LinkedIn headline, limiting yourself to a single message only makes it easier for others to screen you out.

More than a branding issue, the post by the Harvard professor reflects a greater problem in what we’re being told about success and priorities. I call this the “focus fallacy.” The message is: in order to be successful, to accomplish anything of value, you must have single-minded focus. Understand, success is generally equated to financial and material success. If you want to sell more, focus. If you want to build a bigger company, focus. If you want to create a strong personal LinkedIn brand in a singular direction, focus. The world keeps telling us to focus, to specialize. Think about why recruiters get such a bad rap from job candidates, it’s because they are looking for perfect matches for a set of check-boxes in a position description. That irritates people because we are not a set of check-boxes. Our position description doesn’t capture all that we are. Just because we haven’t done it yet, doesn’t mean we’re not capable, interested, or motivated.

Of course, there are places where specialization and focus are critical. If you’ve gone to school for umpteen years and done residencies and procedures for umpteen more, then perhaps you are ready to put Neurosurgeon on your headline. I’m not suggesting that focus isn’t necessary or that specialization does not have a valuable place in our world. Most of us are not Neurosurgeons and most of us don’t want to be pigeon-holed into one simple headline.

The reality is that we exist in periods of focus. We focus on school for a while. Then we focus on a certain job. Then another job.  Some of us have a chance to truly focus on our family. These windows open and close. Our periods of focus lead us to certain places, then we shift gears and head in new directions – often with a new set of skills and experiences behind us. The fallacy is that we need to be single dimensional in our focus all of the time. We know this intuitively. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Life offers so many interesting possibilities.

…we exist in periods of focus.

Back to the LinkedIn headline dilemma. It really comes down to your particular objective at any given point in time. If you are focused on building a particular company, product, or position, then by all means, give a simply concise headline: Executive VP of YouNameIt. If you are at a moment in time in which you are open to many possibilities, looking for new opportunities, or seeking to give a glimpse of some of your other facets, then give us a taste of those different dimensions in your headline. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only one element of your vast experience has value, is interesting, or is relevant. You are not a cog in the industrial wheel and the world will be happy to know about your hidden talents.



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