Every day, every hour, every minute, everywhere we look, there is something that is trying to steal our attention. Ads on the walls, flashy websites, phones in our pockets, smartwatches on our wrists, they are all trying to make someone money. Never in the history of humankind have we had so much distraction in our lives. Some tasks don’t need much attention, but some do, and a lot of it.
When we think about a deep problem, it takes hours, days, and sometimes years of uninterrupted thinking. Every great physics breakthrough required an undivided mind for many years. It took a brilliant mind like Einstein, ten years to formulate general relativity. I am not sure if Einstein was living today, he would have much chance of making any breakthroughs.
Imagine the young Einstein getting text messages from his girlfriend every few minutes, notifications from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, playing addictive games on his phone, and getting more and more distracted. I can imagine that it takes countess states of mind to go through for the brain to find something valuable. It does not have to be science. It could be a brilliant piece of code that does something faster or a great product. Any tickle from the outside world will through the brain out of balance.
It is not easy for our brains to get back to the state that it was in before the distraction. Our short memory is flushed when we switch our attention. It’s like closing a document without saving it to look at another document. It takes time to go back to where we were. Sometimes, a brilliant spark is lost forever after a distraction and it can never be recovered.
I think of the thought process as a series of coherent states of mind that lead to a discovery or a creation. If the flow of thought is constantly interrupted, the direction of thought will become random and the thought does not get far. I show this process in the form of a series of random steps on a 2D plane in the figure below. In it, a point represents the state of mind and it’s randomly walking in all directions. After taking 100 steps, it only ends up a few steps away from where it started.
In contrast, in the figure below, the thought is randomly moving, but it’s mostly moving in a guided direction, left. After the same number of steps, we arrive at a point that’s much further from the previous example. If I keep changing my direction, even if I move fast, I’ll end up where I started.
Motivation is not nearly enough. Motivation is the speed in the steps shown above. If there is no persistence and perseverance in one direction, it will cause burnout and disappointment. As humans, we only have a certain number of steps, a certain amount of time before we die. The pure random motion will get us nowhere.
Getting lost by roadblocks: pivoting too often
The same analogy is true for roadblocks. Imagine if we change direction after every roadblock we face, we will be randomly changing direction forever. There is no easy win if we are starting from zero. Easy things are constantly being done and if something is easy to do, the hard thing will be competition.
No matter what we want to achieve, it matters that we persevere. I am not sure if there is anything in this world worthy of earning without equivalent effort. It’s so obvious that it’s almost cheesy to say, but there’s no free lunch other than extreme exceptions.
I was working on a project with a cofounder and he was telling me that he was surprised that it takes so long for startups to find product-market-fit. In his mind, a startup must become profitable in the first year. He did not believe that you need to work hard to earn something. What he believed almost violates the laws of physics. He didn’t believe that it may take even an all-nighter to keep your startup afloat. I wanted to believe him, but the reality is something else.
Every single success story is backed by years of dedication, hard work, and perseverance. If somehow we believe that we can discover or build something in a short amount of time, we are delusional. Extreme focus does not guarantee anything, but it’s an absolute necessity.