Narrowing your Focus

Brian and Joe had a problem. After moving to San Francisco straight out of college, they realized that the apartment they were living in was above their pay grade. All they needed to do was make a few more bucks to cover rent. So they decided to put an air mattress in the spare room and rent it out online.

              This air mattress that Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia put on their floor turned into a little tech startup called Airbnb. Joe’s friend, Nathan Blecharczyk, came on board shortly afterwards, and the rest is Silicon Valley history. Yet as any company tries to grow, they can become overly ambitious and burnout.

              During 2013, Airbnb had approximately 30 initiatives they wanted to achieve in that year. There were so many that not one of the founders could list them all off the top of his head. As anyone who has ever had a massive to-do list knows, it’s pretty easy to become overwhelmed with the number of tasks.

              Chip Conley was the Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy at Airbnb. Having founded and ran his own hospitality business, Joie de Vivre Hospitality, he knew a thing or two about what the Airbnb founders were going through. He also knew that a list of 30 major initiatives is a major undertaking for a small company, especially given the window of 12 months.

              Airbnb was ready to cut back their initiatives, yet still had 23 set for 2014. Conley offered a suggestion that doubles as a sage piece of business advice. He suggested that they narrow down their focus to just 4 initiatives for 2014. This would allow them to focus all of their energy—and money—at only a few initiatives instead of a couple dozen. After discussing what initiatives would be the most effective, they agreed on the 4 that would take up 2014.

              Having lofty ambitions is a good thing, but setting unattainable goals will be the death of those ambitions. Having a to-do list of 30 major tasks looks good on paper, but in execution they are overwhelming. The result is that most of your initial tasks haven’t been accomplished, and those that have may have been rushed.

              Chip Conley saw this with Airbnb, and economist Vilfredo Pareto saw this in 1896. That is when Pareto published his theory that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of Italy’s population. In 1941, management consultant Joseph Juran found Pareto’s Principle and realized that it relates to all areas of business as well. For example, 80% of profits come from 20% of customers; or 80% of headaches comes from 20% of customers.

              Whether Chip Conley knew it or not, he was applying this logic to Airbnb. He saw that, of all the lofty goals that Airbnb wanted to accomplish in 2014, most of the rewards would come from only a few of the goals. He rightfully theorized that if Airbnb were to focus on just these few, most efficient goals, they would be more effective than trying to achieve all 23 goals.

              Unsurprisingly, Pareto’s Principle can be used in art, too. I use this every time I work on something new. I ask myself what is it that I want to achieve with a new magic effect, then try to boil it down to the essential few elements that will actually achieve that effect. Knowing what the essential few elements are helps me to cut out useless noise and focus on what really matters. Essentially, I’m cutting out 80% of the trick and focusing instead on the truly effective 20%.

              One of my favorite magic tricks to perform was a card trick were the deck was cut into two piles and the audience picked which pack they wanted to keep. The other pack was discarded, and the pack they picked was cut into two piles. The audiences picked which pack they wanted, and the process continued. After a minute, there would only be two cards left. The audience picked which card they wanted to be flipped over, and that was the one used. The amazing part was that I had a prediction at the start of the trick, and this prediction matched the final card the audience chose.

              Looking at this trick through Pareto’s Principle, I realized that the 20% that made this trick stick out and give it 80% of its appeal was that the audience was fully engaged and fully in control. So I changed the routine to better serve this 20%. Now when I perform it, I use postcards instead of playing cards, and I talk about how I always wanted to go on a cross-country road trip. I get the audience involved in the story and focus on this involvement throughout the trick. The killer ending is the icing on top of the cake, not the cake itself.

              This has resulted in one of my most unique magic tricks. After every show, this is the trick that magicians ask me about afterwards. What I love most about this trick is that the original form—the one that I changed using creative thinking and Pareto’s Principle—was written in a famous magic book from the 1800s!

              In art, what is it that you’re trying to accomplish? I initially thought that I wanted to perform a card trick, but it turns out that what I really wanted to do was involve the whole audience and give them 100% control over a trick. The only way that I was able to realize this was to build a routine around the card trick and perform it dozens of times.

              It’s okay to not know where you want your art to go from the start! The best thing you can do is to just start creating and course-correct as you go along. The Airbnb founders didn’t stop to make a list of the 4 most efficient initiatives right away; they had to list a couple dozen before they could narrow it down! So don’t be afraid to begin creating when you aren’t sure where you want to go. But once you’re going down a path, narrow your focus and double down on the 20% you decide on.

Ryan Lally