To be successful in our endeavors, we must learn how to focus. This focusing process is very difficult because it forces us to say no to a variety of things we could be doing to enable what we must do to be successful. Also, decisions can be driven by similarly opposing values which seem to contradict no matter what. But, it’s these contradictions that lead to new and truly excellent decisions. I also believe the same rules apply in our career choices, our research plans and so many other important decisions in our lives.
In his book, “Good to Great,” Jim Collins talks about focusing on three key questions that help us to decide whether or not we are focusing correctly and in a manner that can make us successful. Collins suggests that we should ask the following three specific questions.
- What can we be best in the World at?
- What are we really passionate about?
- What drives our economic engine?
The first question indicates that “a little better than others” is just not good enough to succeed if we want to be great. What is it that makes us unique? The second question points to the fact that we can only over-achieve in a place where we have a deep and personal commitment to do so. And the third question addresses the fact that the best idea does not become sustainable if it does not have a way to feed itself, so to say, so it can grow.
Here, I want to focus on the first question – “What can we be best in the World at?” In my personal experiences, finding the answer to this relates to our ability to embrace contradictions and to find ways to take advantage of tensions between values that initially seem to exclude each other’s validity.
Consider, for example, the tension between small and big in the context of a college choice. A potential engineering student looking for a college to go to could think of this as a choice that is mutually exclusive: go to a small college, you know everybody – go to Michigan, you know nobody. Yet, that’s not how it works – and the moment a student comes to Michigan, she learns that the question should not be asked from the point of view of a college administrator, but from the point of view of the student. In my college of choice, do I have the opportunities to do research with a famous professor? Do I prefer working in small teams? Do I learn better in a family-style atmosphere or in the Starbucks at the street corner? Do I have the opportunities to pursue my passion to help people out of environments defined by social injustice – at the same time as pursuing my passion for engineering? Do I have the opportunity to compete internationally in student teams? In some cases, a very small college may be precisely what the incoming student may want, but in other cases, it will be Michigan.
Most importantly, a student at Michigan will see that there is lots of excitement in the tension between small and big: We can build a small team with members from a huge variety of backgrounds. I would argue that that is something Michigan cannot be beat – by anyone!
When we started the Center for Entrepreneurship we had a similar challenge: Do we want to focus on the thousands of students of the University of Michigan and challenge them into talking to us about their ideas, or do we want to find the best 20-50 people who want to start amazing companies. We have built a system we think as the entrepreneurial value-chain. What we are doing is not focused on one or the other; it is in empowering our people to climb up the ladder. Out of the thousands of people MPowered talks with about their ideas – who are the ones that are willing to try something, new and amazing? And, from that, what activities can be scaled up? And finally, from these, who can unleash their ideas into those said companies? Once we are there, we can partner with people who are very good at taking the next step, such as the Zell-Lurie Institute, the Venture Center in Technology Transfer, or even Community based groups like SPARK. If we build and continually improve this system, we will become the best University-based entrepreneurship program – bar none!
Thus, to answer the question about how we become the best in the world, we need to embrace contradictions! What is the solution if we do A and B at the same time – even though it first seems like A and B are contradictory? I am convinced this is one of the key lessons we learn when we start setting ambitious goals. Such goals may be in our careers and in our personal lives. Focusing often does not mean to make choices between opposing values – but to take the tension between these values to create something truly new and excellent!
With this, I wish everybody a great start to a new semester. May it lead to success in your life, in your environment and in your many endeavors! Always, be sure to aim high enough! And, please come and say hi in the Center for Entrepreneurship, its partners mentioned above, and also my office.