There is one personality trait above all others which I believe can be blamed most for lack of success among creative people. I recognize this trait because it is a flaw I was afflicted with my entire life without even knowing it.
Creative people tend to be a fountain of imagination. Whether they are entrepreneurs or artists, creative types produce inspiration by the truckload. A creative person is rarely lacking for new ideas. It’s invigorating to be around people like that, and it’s wonderful to be that sort of person–but it’s not without its drawbacks.
When I was operating a web development business I founded in 1999, the World Wide Web was still in its early stages, only just recently gaining traction with the masses a few years prior. As such, it was (and probably always will be) a field of endless opportunities for a creative professional.
I started by designing simple websites for local businesses, but before long, I had clients who wanted e-commerce features for their sites. I later won contracts with government agencies which were mandated to create content that was accessible to vision impaired visitors using screen readers. I had other clients who needed to share large files with customers and staff securely. Staff at nonprofits wanted to save money by updating pages of their websites themselves. Search engine marketing was another hot commodity.
When a client asked if I could program a sprawling custom server application I set to work learning how to make their dream a reality. Eventually, interactive 3D modeling and virtual world development became trendy and I traded even more time I may have otherwise spent sleeping or with family or with my (now ex) wife to become adept with the new medium.
My point here is that I never said “no” to a project.
Every time a client even hinted at a new technology problem, I dove right into it. I spent untold hours researching and learning so my company could remain a one-stop provider for my clients’ website needs.
Over the years I learned a lot and I was decent at most of the development work I did. I enjoy conquering new challenges, especially when the technology is new enough to still feel magical. I like to think I provided good value to my clients. But, what I thought was me being adaptable and evolving with a changing technology landscape was in fact a lack of focus on my part.
The one trait blocking most creative people from success is a lack of focus.
Instead of putting my limited time and energy into being the very best at something, I was in fact spreading myself thin with distractions. I couldn’t be the best at everything, and instead I painted myself into a corner as being the best at, well, nothing.
I was a generalist and not a specialist. I was a classic case of that old saying: “jack of all trades, but master of none.”
Looking back on 14 years of consulting it is now clear: while I was chasing each new trend, I was diluting my other service offerings. While I was immersing myself with new technology, it was impossible for me to recognize what I was doing to myself (and to my clients, who I worked so hard to acquire).
This has been a painful lesson for me to learn, but a valuable one. The pursuit of narrowing my focus now shapes my big-picture decisions.
We have a finite number of productive hours per day, per year, and per lifetime. It’s hard enough to succeed in business or to master a craft such as writing even with great focus. Dividing attention to multiple interests means denying resources to all of your pursuits.
Certainly, there are benefits to being a well-rounded generalist. However, if we wish to truly succeed as creative professionals, I think we need to specialize; we need to focus.
Focus your efforts on just one great interest and you increase your probability of succeeding.
Do you agree or disagree with my thesis? I appreciate your insight and welcome you to share in the comment form below.