The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

When I was in high school my dad actually hung a big A4 sheet with a huge capital letter “K” on my bedroom wall. He called it the “K factor”, the ultimate recipe for success in life: focus on one thing, give it all you’ve got, and work on it every single day, without breaking the chain. I took this advice quite seriously when I went to college, and then, more importantly, when I studied for the diplomatic competitive exam. It is then that I experienced the power of prolonged, long-term, relentless focus.

Gary Keller and Jay Papasan’s book, the ONE thing, basically gives the same advice, in a more elaborate and elegant fashion. While it’s not a particularly pleasant read and it has a lot of re-hashing of self-help truisms, I would still recommend it because the message it gives is so powerful.

In a nutshell, success comes from tirelessly investing hours and hours a day towards your most important goal. This success comes slowly but surely, at first in a slow, linear fashion, but then in a much faster, geometric progression. The key is to avoid being lured by other goals or distractions that steal time and energy away from your “One Thing”.

What is my one thing anyway?

Keller  and Papasan don’t elaborate much on finding your “One Thing”, but there are other excellent books that can help, such as Finding Your Own North Star, so I wouldn’t criticize them for that: they are just focusing on the one thing they wants to convey to their reader. They do say however, in one of the most memorable quotes of the book:

Passion for something leads to disproportionate time practicing or working at it. That time spent eventually translates to skill, and when skill improves, results improve. Better results generally lead to more enjoyment, and more passion and more time is invested. It can be a virtuous cycle all to way to extraordinary results.”

What should I do when I find it?

1. So the first step is finding something you really, really enjoy. Something that moves you, and that you are willing to invest your most precious time and energy into.

2 Second, make a solemn time commitment to yourself that you will actually make the investment, day in and day out. This may require what the authors calls “time-blocking”, establishing set times during the day or the week to work on your One thing no matter what, preferably in the morning.

3. Third, make a commitment to excellence, crave the desire “not only of doing the best you can do at it, but also doing it the best it can be done”. This requires seeking out the best strategies and solutions, and honing your approach all along the way. It also implies being accountable to yourself and to others – such as a coach – for the results you are or are not producing.

What about happiness?

Keller and Papasan are convinced that this approach brings not only success, but also fulfillment and ultimately happiness:

Happiness happens when you have a bigger purpose than having more fulfills, which is why we say happiness happens on the way to fulfillment”.

I definitely agree with that, because I myself have witnessed the powerful feelings of excitement that come from having a strong purpose and accumulating a series of successes along the way. I use the words “success” and “fulfillment” in an interchangeable way, meaning the attainment of a major result that is meaningful for me. As Tony Robbins says, “success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure”. I also would like to stress that, however important, fulfillment is by no means sufficient for happiness: love is another essential ingredient.

Is the “One thing” compatible with a balanced life?

Another very powerful part of the book is when the authors explain what you will have to forgo when you religiously pursue your “One Thing”. They are very honest about it: dedicating so much effort to something implies that you are neglecting others, which can lead to some imbalances in your life. One chapter is actually dedicated to debunking the “Work-Life Balance” myth.

“A balanced life is a lie… We hear about balance so much we automatically assume it’s exactly what we should be seeking. It’s not. Purpose, meaning, significance – these are what make a successful life.”

It’s no mystery that I am advocate of “balance”, so a tend to instinctively disagree with the authors. Actually, they themselves advocate “counter-balancing”, which means focusing on a neglected area of your life before it burns you. They also talk about establishing “one thing” goals in every major area of your life (family, health, work etc), an idea taken write off of the Seven Habits, which is the work-life balance book par excellence. So what they really mean is that balance, however important, should not be an excuse for failing to giving ourselves entirely to something that matters dearly to us. If balance means living in mediocrity – not making any significant investment in anything and spreading ourselves thin through the various areas of our life without any major breakthroughs – then I can agree with the authors.

“Yes” to the One thing, no to almost everything else?!

A corollary of staying focused and avoiding spreading yourself thin through too many spheres is the art of saying no. I know rivers of ink have been written on the topic, but Keller and Papasan do an extraordinary job and hammering the concept into our heads: “one yes must be defended by 1,000 “nos””One of the biggest obstacles towards the One thing is getting seduced by many other luring things we could do instead of dedicating time every day to the One thing.

I can absolutely relate. I have so many interests that I tend to never become good at anything: as soon as I start becoming knowledgeable I sadly tend to shift interests. I used to be a huge opera and classical music fan, for example. I used to enjoy trading. I used to play golf or go out sailing (I even got an official Italian sailing license after hours of intensive training both in theory and in practice). Ultimately, Keller and Papasan suggest, we must make a choice. Choose One thing and stick with it.

It is a very painful proposition. I feel like this means seriously limiting my life, narrowing it down, suffocating the drive for exploring many new dimension.s It also diminishes the change for serendipitous discoveries and for creative endeavors.

But at the same time, I cannot deny that this eclectic life will probably lead me nowhere in terms of mastery. I will be the eternal amateur. So a choice has to be made: few things, but done well, with perhaps a residual time for random endeavors.

This is basically what I am doing with my personal growth blog: I choose to focus on personal growth above everything else (of course, I mean the time that I don’t spend working and with my family, which are both absolute priorities in my life).  I figure that by dedicating 10 hours a week to reading great personal growth books, reflecting and writing about them, I will reach, within a few years, a level of expertise and mastery that I could never attain if I read the odd personal growth book every couple of months. Again, it is a painful choice, because often times I find myself wanting to do other things and deviating from my One thing. However, when I resist, the resulting fulfillment more than makes up for the sacrifice.

What about the other things on my to-do list?

One last thing that I loved about this book – and that is strictly linked to what I have just discussed – is the author’s take on the to-do list, which is very similar to mine. This quotation is a bomb:

“While to-dos serve as a useful collection of our best intentions, they also tyrannize us with trivial, unimportant stuff that we feel obligated to get done – because it’s on our list”.

To-do lists are often a collection of the garbage that pollutes our mind. They are the fastest way to deviate from our One thing, to spread ourselves thin in many different directions that lead us nowhere. Either our list is accurately prioritized and mercilessly pruned, or it will make us “do” much and “accomplish” little. It is the triumph of quantity over quality, of checked-off items over worthwhile achievements.

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