“Pain + Reflection = Progress”
– Ray Dalio
It was early morning on the 30th of December 2016 and I was standing on a balcony in Currumbin, Queensland looking out at the Australian bush and the stunning sunrise behind it.
My 30th birthday was in 3 days.
And it felt like I had been sucker punched in my gut.
I had set very ambitious professional goals for myself by the time I turned 30 and with my birthday around the corner, the painful realisation hit me.
I wasn’t even close. I had failed.
As I reflected on my 20’s, while there was much to appreciate and celebrate, I was also deeply disappointed by a sense of underachievement.
That I hadn’t reached my own potential of what I knew I was capable of.
What happened? Where had I gone wrong?
2017 represented a year of soul searching for me as I reflected and sought answers to these questions.
Here are the top 5 lessons I learned from my twenties.
#1: Focus on ONE THING
“I don’t care how much power, brilliance or energy you have, if you don’t harness it and focus it on a specific target, and hold it there you’re never going to accomplish as much as your ability warrants.” Zig Ziglar
Throughout my entire 20’s I NEVER focused on ONE THING and worked at it full time.
When I started Art of Smart Education
, I was still studying at university and completing my Law degree. When I finished my Law Degree, I then started Uni Australia
a Trip Advisor platform for Australian Universities while simultaneously running Art of Smart.
I then cofounded Genius Academy. So at this point, I was working on 3 different companies simultaneously.
When I sold Uni Australia during the handover period I then started working on myEd
and for 6 years I juggled leading both Art of Smart Education and myEd.
So across 10 years, I NEVER worked full-time and gave all of my focus to a single company or organisation.
Pretty ridiculous right?
I bought into the fallacy that more is better. These days everyone’s LinkedIn Profile reads like a shopping list.
- Founder of Cool Start-Up
- Co-Founder of Amazing Not-For-Profit
- Manager @ Big Impressive Corporate
- Designer of Something Digital
- Speaker on Some Cutting-Edge Topic
- Coach for High Performance
In fact, the above could describe my own LinkedIn Profile at the beginning of 2017 :/
I thought I was Elon fucking Musk.
Over the last decade, Musk has popularised the idea that you can successfully run multiple organisations as he has led Tesla
to staggering success.
He first worked with intensive focus on his start-up Zip2
that he co-founded with his brother which he then sold.
He then worked with intensive focus on X.COM which became Paypal
In each of these cases, he focused on a single thing to the exclusion of all else. In fact, Elon’s focus was legendary. He’d often work throughout the night, sleep for a couple of hours at his desk, and then start the day again. Nothing existed outside of the business he was working to build and grow.
While since then Elon has taken on multiple projects (SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity) it’s been a fucking hard road for Elon, with him coming very very close to losing everything. It’s required absolutely insane work ethic, genius level intellect and lots and lots of money to hire and build some incredible teams. In fact, recently Elon has said that he wishes he focused more, saying, “Whenever you think you can have your cake and eat it, you’re probably wrong.” Read about it here.
Elon Musk is an exception to the rule. He is NOT the rule.
So, as I hit 30, I realised that I am not Elon Musk.
While I’m amazingly grateful for the absolute diversity of skills and experiences I’ve had due to the range of companies and projects I’ve taken on, on reflection, it’s the very lack of focus I’ve had during my twenties that has resulted in me not reaching the goals I set for myself.
As I’ve taken on more projects and started new organisations, my ability to do amazing work with each one has diminished. I saw this, in particular, happen during the last 3 years as I was leading Art of Smart and myEd – I wasn’t giving either organisation and their respective teams what they needed to become great. I was spreading myself thin despite working crazy hours, and both underachieved.
My twenties have taught me that success and focus are directly correlated.
They look like this:
This isn’t a particularly groundbreaking insight. Mentors always gave me the advice to FOCUS.
Focus, Focus, Focus.
It just took me 10 years to actually learn the lesson the fucking hard way. To make the mistakes and experience the pain. I’ve always been stubborn this way.
As a result, this year, I made a number of decisions in my life to create more focus.
I resigned as CEO of myEd.
I resigned my involvement in Global Shapers.
And for the first time EVER I focused on ONE THING.
I committed to working full-time as CEO of Art of Smart Education. And it’s been amazing.
I do think there are some exceptions to this rule of focus on doing ONE THING.
Exception #1: Experimentation to Discovery Your Interests
I think there is a time in your twenties that it’s critical to experiment. To try different experiences, careers and industries with the express goal of discovering what you like doing, to develop your skills, and to identify what you will focus on.
Note however that this is different to taking on lots of projects and telling yourself they are all going to be massive fucking successes. Instead, it’s about going into these multiple things with an intentional mindset of discovery, skill development and focus identification. Your end game is to get to one thing (not to be successful in all the 5 things you are doing simultaneously)
Exception #2: Working for an Organisation While You Build Your Business
The only other time you should be doing more than one thing is when you’ve started a business but it’s still in the very early days and you aren’t earning enough to support yourself.
This is when you need to work elsewhere to support yourself while building up your business on the side. Again, the key here is that your intention is to quit your work elsewhere to focus on your business as soon as possible!
What’s the ONE THING that you need to focus on in 2018?
What do you need to quit or stop doing in 2018 so you have the time, space and cognitive capacity to do something great?
#2 Stop Caring What Other People Think
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
– Dr. Seuss
So many of the decisions (often poor) that I made during my twenties was driven by what I thought others would think. What I thought society expected of me. What I thought would bring status and prestige.
I discovered early on while at university that I didn’t want to pursue my law degree and become a lawyer. I discovered from working with high school students that I absolutely LOVED teaching, coaching, mentoring and speaking.
And that’s why I started Art of Smart Education.
But I was studying a Law degree from Sydney University.
I remember when peers of mine asked me what I would be doing when I was graduate and I told them.
“Oh, you’re doing that tutoring thing…”
I could hear it in their voices.
Why the fuck would you go and study this prestigious, very hard to get into university degree and just throw it away to start a tutoring & mentoring company?
And I thought they didn’t get to me. I went off and started Art of Smart Education anyway.
But they did get to me.
Somewhere deep down inside of me I believed that running a tutoring and mentoring organisation wasn’t good enough. That it wasn’t prestigious enough. That it wasn’t cool enough.
And so I started Uni Australia. A Trip Advisor for Australian Universities. A ‘sexy’ tech start-up.
And then I started myEd, a teaching & learning platform removing a one size fits all approach from classrooms.
Another ‘sexy’ tech start-up.
Now I could tell people I was doing something cool.
And without realising it, my whole twenties (and my entire lack of focus during this period) was driven by me caring what other people thought. By me buying into social expectations of what you should do when you graduate from university.
It was only when I turned 30 that I decided.
Fuck what everyone else thinks.
They don’t think about or care about what you’re doing for longer than a couple of seconds (if at all).
I AM GOING TO DO ME.
I’m going to own what I love doing and commit to it 100%.
Because it is something amazing.
I get to change people’s lives with the work we do at Art of Smart Education by helping them answer the big question of “What do I do with my life when I finish school?”
And when you do you, this is what happens…
What are you NOT doing because you care about what other people think?
What does YOU doing YOU (regardless of what other people think) look like in 2018?
#3 Your Ego is Your Enemy
“With every ambition and goal we have—big or small—ego is there undermining us on the very journey we’ve put everything into pursuing.”
– Ryan Holiday
Why did I care about what other people thought?
Because I had a big fucking ego.
Your ego is your sense of your own self-importance.
And I thought I was special.
This was fuelled by the fact that I had some early wins and success that went to my head.
Art of Smart Education won a bag of business awards very quickly.
I won a number of personal business awards including becoming one of Anthill Magazine’s 30 Under 30 Entrepreneurs in Australia.
Uni Australia was acquired within 18 months of launch.
At 25, I thought I was king shit. I thought I could do everything and anything.
That I could be Elon Musk and start and lead three companies simultaneously.
That I could start myEd a company that would revolutionise classrooms in schools without ever being a teacher or without having a teacher on our team.
Your ego distorts how you see the world. It distorts reality and overinflates your importance in it.
And as my ego grew it started getting in the way of me making good decisions. It got in the way of me being humble and learning from others.
I thought I was smart. I thought I knew the answers already.
And the crazy thing is at the same time, I still thought I was humble and willing to learn throughout this entire period.
But I was only ‘willing’ to learn.
If someone smacked me on the head and said, “Hey, here’s a lesson” I’d be willing to listen. But this put the onus on the other person and not on me.
I wasn’t actively seeking knowledge, learning and feedback. In fact, my ego meant that I didn’t like to be seen as ‘not knowing’. So if something came up in a meeting or conversation that I wasn’t completely on top of, I’d either get defensive about it (and create a distraction or put the onus or responsibility for not knowing on someone else) or I’d go along with it as if I had a solid understanding and wouldn’t ask the degree of questions I needed to really learn and understand.
My ego was my enemy. I didn’t see it. But it was there, like a dark shadow, driving my decisions, and limiting my ability to learn and grow.
Ray Dalio the billionaire founder of the world’s largest hedge fund writes in the introduction to his book, Principles:
“I’m am a dumb shit who doesn’t know much relative to what I need to know. Whatever success I’ve had in life has had more to do with knowing how to deal with my not knowing that anything I know.”
I’ve since taken on this position.
That I’m not clever or special.
That in fact, I know very very little and am stupid.
And it’s liberating.
Because now that I’ve taken on this position, I’m not worried about ‘protecting’ my ego by pretending I know stuff and being fearful of asking questions for how it will make me look.
What is your ego holding you back from?
What is your ego telling you about yourself that may not be true?
#4 Play the Long Game
“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”
– Leo Tolstoy
I am not a very patient person.
OK, I’ll tell the truth. I’m actually fucking impatient.
When I have a vision in my head, I want to see it become reality NOW. I want to create the entire big picture and dream immediately.
This impatience is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it means that I’ve got a daily urgency to get shit done. And this is fantastic because I get ALOT done each day. It’s great for driving productivity.
On the other hand, however, it’s fed my lack of focus during my twenties.
Because I’ve been impatient and wanted everything NOW, it means that instead of focusing on one area of a project or business and getting that nailed, sorted out and perfected first, before then layering on the next area or project within that business, I’ve started both simultaneously.
I’ve wanted to get to the END GAME immediately.
Of course, the predictable result of this is that I spread myself and the organisation too thin as we haven’t focused on first things first and we don’t end up hitting the goals we set (and my vision in my head doesn’t become a reality).
And secondly, I’ve had to work ridiculous hours doing both of these at the same time.
So in my rush to create the vision in my head immediately, I’ve been actually been preventing myself from achieving the vision.
For example, in myEd, my co-founder and I had a vision of myEd being a platform that would remove one size fits all teaching in classrooms. We wanted to build the underlying technology platform to enable teachers to create individual learning pathways for their students. We wanted to also provide a content library for teachers to draw lessons and resources from to help individualise learning pathways. And we wanted to be international, supporting schools around the world.
And so with a team of 5, we tried to do all of this simultaneously. We wanted the vision to become a reality immediately. Which was just fucking insane with the limited resources we had available.
Instead, what we needed to do was understand the long game.
We needed to first focus first on building the underlying platform, to work with a small group of schools in Australia to really nail product-market fit. Then we should’ve scaled up our schools using our platform in Australia only and build a strong base. Once we had built a strong base of schools using our product we should have then started building out the content library and used this to scale usage of the platform in Australia further. And then finally after building a strong base in Australia then look to international expansion.
My mistake through my twenties was to think that everything had to be immediate and SIMULTANEOUS instead of SEQUENTIAL.
And this was because I wasn’t playing the long game.
Horizon 1: Build Your Foundation
What is the foundation and building block that will drive everything else? Focus only on this first and get it right.
Horizon 2: First Opportunity for Growth
This is the first and best opportunity for growth – but it requires your foundation in place first to support it. Over time it too will become a foundation for something bigger.
Horizon 3: Future Possibilities
What are the future opportunities and possibilities? These aren’t a reality now, but you want to work towards these and set the foundation for. It’s good to have these identified so you’ve got a vision for what you’re working towards.
So the lesson I learned is that you need to think and act sequentially over the long term and set success criteria so that you can measure when the first horizon is achieved. This way you’re not inclined to be tempted to jump into Horizon 2 early.
In your life or career, where do you need to play the long game?
What does it look like to break it down into a 3 Horizon Model?
#5 The Quality of Your Life is the Sum of Your Decisions
“Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.”
—John C. Maxwell
I’ve prided myself on being decisive. On being able to make decisions quickly and effectively so I and the organisations I’ve lead can take action and create momentum.
And yet, looking back on my twenties, I now realise that while I have been decisive, this hasn’t meant that I’ve made ‘good’ decisions.
I’ve made ALOT of poor decisions and often I’ve made the same mistakes over and over again. And it’s been the sum of these decisions that have brought me to where I am today.
The decision to start Uni Australia simultaneously as I ran Art of Smart Education.
The decision to start myEd simultaneously as I ran Art of Smart Education AND Genius Academy.
The decision to pivot myEd from a HSC video tutorial platform (an area of expertise) to a teaching and learning platform (an area without expertise).
The decision to try and build a platform for schools AND corporates AND universities simultaneously.
The decision to build a platform, content library and expand internationally simultaneously.
And these decisions created opportunity costs. So not only were these poor decisions, but it also meant that there were decisions I couldn’t make, because I’d made commitments to these decisions which were taking me down a pathway.
Why have I made so many poor decisions?
First and foremost I didn’t appreciate the impact of unconscious biases, limiting beliefs and emotional needs on my decision making.
I’ve discovered I’m particularly guilty of (and these are the ones I’ve only uncovered as of yet – I’m sure there are many more):
- Confirmation bias.
- Optimism bias.
- Loss Aversion.
I also had lots of emotional needs (a big fucking ego) to be ‘seen’ as smart and intelligent. For status, prestige and growth.
And limiting beliefs. About who I am. About what I am capable of.
Secondly, given the importance that decisions have on your life, I’ve never had a process for making decisions or reflecting upon them.
I’ve just made them. And moved on. And then made the same poor decision again. And again.
Peter Drucker in the book ‘Managing Oneself’ shares his own simple technique called “Feedback Analysis” he used for over 20 years:
Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations. I have been practicing this method for 15 to 20 years now, and every time I do it, I am surprised.
This experience has made me realise that I need to write my decisions down before I make them to better interrogate them.
To identify a hypothesis I have about the expected outcome of the decision.
To identify the possible biases, beliefs and emotional needs that are sitting like a dark shadow driving the decision, so I can work consciously to consider and counter these if necessary.
To reflect on this decision afterwards and compare how it aligns with the expected outcomes I identified.
To ask myself, “What do I need to do differently next time?”
How do you make decisions?
What are the unconscious biases, limiting beliefs and emotional needs that drive the decisions you make?
How would your life look if you made different decisions?
Further Reading & Resources