March 31, 2008

Focus On What You Need To Know

Seattle Metro

I lived in Seattle for a year before I went to my first professional sports game last summer. I’m not usually a big fan of watching sports, but it was fun to go down to Safeco Field and hang out with friends at the Mariners’ game.

Getting to the game could have been difficult for me. Despite living in Seattle for 18 months without a car, I still have no clear understanding of how the bus system works. I take the bus to the university almost every day, but it’s always the same bus. I know how to get downtown and to Sea-Tac airport for my frequent trips, but otherwise, I’m lost in the city. In this case, I arranged to travel with a friend down to the game, so I didn’t worry about which buses to take and where to transfer.

Jolie and our friends that are aware of my ignorance enjoy the fact that I can regularly go all over the world, but can’t navigate my own city very well. I acknowledge the irony, but in all truthfulness, the fact that I need to call someone or check online to figure out which local bus to take doesn’t really bother me. If I was going to live in Seattle for the rest of my life, I might make more of an effort, but as it currently stands, I don’t really care.

On the other hand, when it comes to knowledge about world travel, I am the most informed person that I know. In fact, I’m sure there are people out there somewhere who are more informed than me, but I really don’t know any personally. I know every airline that flies out of Sea-Tac and where they fly to on what days.

Not just Sea-Tac either: if you gave me an obscure city on the other side of the world, I’d be willing to bet I could tell you almost precisely how to get there, what to do on the way, and how much it would cost. The other day I was walking down the street and saw an SAS flight take off towards the east. I couldn’t help thinking: “That’s the daily flight to Copenhagen. Gets in at 13:25 local time. Terminal 3 with transfer to Stockholm, Oslo, and Kristiansand.”

To many people, in fact to just about everyone, this knowledge would be useless or at best esoteric. There are other topics in life that I know effectively zero about (algebra comes to mind), and other topics that I know quite a lot about.

The point is that over the past few years, I’ve decided to focus more on what I need to know at the cost of learning things I don’t really care about.

This practice has been successful in helping me travel around the world, but when I haven’t adhered to it in other life areas, it has limited my results. Most of the business leaders I respect tend to emphasize the need to stay focused on your business’s primary mission—an imperative with which I agree. For years, though, I have worked as an entrepreneur and failed to follow this advice consistently. I’ve managed to earn a decent living as a self-employed person, but in moving from project to project without good focus on a primary mission, I have not always succeeded in creating projects that generate significant, lasting value.

The question each of us needs to answer is this: “What do I need to know in order to a) achieve my overall goals, and b) live my ideal life?”

When you know the answer to that question, you’ll know what knowledge to pursue. Granted, you might not take it to the extreme I have in ignoring the local transit system that I depend on every day. But chances are you’ll find yourself working closer to the big goals and the ideal life you envision.

One caveat to this: I like to separate general knowledge from specific knowledge, and I don’t limit the amount of general knowledge that I acquire. I read at least 5 books and 15 magazines a month, in addition to countless newspapers, web sites, and blogs. I consider this kind of knowledge to be a net positive contribution to my life, and it fits nicely in my overall role of being a lifelong learner. But for me, a renaissance lifestyle means that I learn about everything that I’m interested in, and I don’t worry about other knowledge that I lack. For whatever reason, I don’t care much about algebra or the Seattle Transit system, and it doesn’t bother me that I haven’t done much to change this.

Back to the baseball game—we had a nice time, although the Mariners lost 6-2. On the way back we walked back up to the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal to say goodbye to friends. After that, we took the #16 bus back to our apartment. For once, I knew exactly where to go.

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Comment on this article

2 Responses to “Focus On What You Need To Know”

  1. This is something I needed to read about today!

    I get overwhelmed sometimes thinking about all the things I want to learn and all the other things I’m supposed to remember. I guess I’ll be more selective about the information I take up now. If nothing else, it’s good for my peace of mind. :D

    And I too remember the flights leaving our city’s airport LOL. I guess it’s just something you pick up after taking a lot of flights over time. Though I definitely haven’t flown as many times as you have. Keep having fun at what you’re doing!

  2. Chris,

    This post resonates with me right now more than anything I’ve been reading out there in the blogosphere. I realize that it’s about two years late, but thanks for writing this. I’ve been going through your posts one by one, enjoying each and every one (from Feb 2008), but this one… oh man. You hit it, man. Out of the park.

    It seems that everyone has something to say. It’s what makes the world, particularly America, such a great place to live. But when you’re a lifelong learner trying to take it all in, all that information is truly too much to handle.

    There just aren’t enough hours in the day to read everything of value that is out there to read, nonetheless pay significant attention to. It’s all about filtering to your values.
    It’s something that I’m working on myself, and I can’t foresee it being an issue that is easily remedied. Just one of those things you gotta do.

    Thanks again, Chris.