Where’s your focus?

The lesson is as clear to me today as when I listened two decades ago to Stephen Covey ask us: “what do you put at your centre, what do you focus on?”

I was part of a small group that day and the answers ranged from family to health, financial prosperity to religion, community to self – it was a diverse collection of people.

Stephen smiled at each response but almost imperceptibly shook his head ever so slightly at each answer. “It shouldn’t be any of these things” he suggested, “each is important to you clearly, and things that you value you will tend well, but at the centre it should only be principles.” To begin with I was confused but he went on to give me one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt.

Let me share Stephen’s definition of a principle and how it differs to a value. A principle is a natural law, it is unarguable and exists whether you are aware of it or not. A value is something you choose to make important. Now some might argue that family, wealth, religion even, are principles but they’re not, they are values. Principles include physical properties such as gravity but also so much more. For example, a principle underpinning Stephen’s Habit One, “Be Proactive”, is that there are always options and you are responsible for the choices you make. No one can make you do anything (cue the “what if you have a gun to your head?” comments to which I reply that, albeit small in number perhaps, there are still options, you can respond in more than one way). The application of the principle is to realise that you don’t have to act in a certain manner, you don’t have to behave according to societal, political, religious or other doctrines – you are free to choose. And this realisation has caused many to undergo a magnificent change in their life.

If you put a value at your centre it will likely skew the rest of your life, put it out of balance. Take health for example. If ignored the consequences are all too obvious but similarly if it’s at the centre it can become obsessive to the cost of other dimensions. So too with money, business or personal development for that matter, indeed with any value. Some people might argue that they put their family at their centre, and as laudable as that sounds it isn’t sustainable – how many people with this approach end up working 12-14 hour days mistaken in their belief that this is the right thing to do to provide for their family only to wake up one day alone and estranged from the very people they chose to have as their primary focus?

By putting principles, natural laws, at the centre of your attention it allows values to be addressed as necessary but without losing balance. Plate spinning comes to mind: if you list out your 10 most important values almost inevitably one or more will require attention whilst others take care of themselves for a period only for these ones to then need tending to as a consequence.

It’s possible to put “negative values” at your centre and right now I’m seeing this becoming more prevalent. A number of businesses have chosen to put their focus onto the competition and whilst it makes sense to always be aware of what they’re doing, it can become a dangerous fixation. “Enemy Focus” is one of the examples Stephen chose to illustrate “negative values” and how it can cause you to design your life, business, community, country even and how damaging this can be. Instead, and back to the principle of always having options, whilst not completely disregarding the competition, why not more positively focus on the things you can do with your life, business, community, country, etc.? This choice I believe will be much more rewarding.

To give a specific example, take the emergence of the new models in estate agency such as Purple Bricks. In just three years they have managed to capture a small but significant position and create a business with a huge market value that’s also expanding internationally. Their business model is markedly different to that of the “traditional” estate agent causing some from this group to obsess over their every action, announcement and advertisement. What if instead the same amount of time and energy was invested in developing the traditional model to outperform the new ones? Rather than highlighting the competition’s failings instead focus on your own strengths and build on these.

An underlying principle of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This leads to valuing differences and seeking new options to consider which in turn is likely to produce better long-term results. On both a macro and micro level the world appears to be changing at a pace never seen before, and that’s saying something given what’s happened over the last 20 years or so. So given there are only three constants: change, options and principles it seems to me to be even more important to place principles at our centre.


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