A career approach that has brought success to Elon Musk and Peter Thiel

Whether you’re running a company or early in your career, are there steps you can take to increase the likelihood that your business dreams will become a reality?

There is certainly no shortage of advice on this topic on the web, but the most profitable strategy seems to be to observe what has worked for people who have already achieved what you want to achieve.

Few people have achieved more in business than Peter Thiel and Elon Musk.

Both co-founded the online payments company PayPal and used the wealth they amassed to create a series of successful businesses. By all accounts, they appear to be extremely different people (who don’t particularly like each other), but a PayPal employee who worked with both of them claims that early in their careers, they shared at least one common approach to work.

If you want to follow the example of Musk and Thiel, then you need to forget about focusing on one thing.

A lesson from PayPal’s early days: Focus is overrated

Jason Portnoy began his career as employee number 34 at PayPal. Since then, he has had a long career as a startup executive and venture investor. However, his early work at PayPal allowed him to observe some of the biggest names in the business when they were just starting. In the course of a lengthy discussion with Tim Ferriss on his podcast, Portnoy described what he saw.

“One of the most fundamental things I noticed was that Peter, Reed [Hoffman, future co-founder of LinkedIn], and Elon were never doing just one thing at a time,” he recounts. Thiel, for example, ran a hedge fund while working on Paypal. Musk, who is the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is currently in the process of acquiring Twitter.

At the time, the two’s approach seemed counterintuitive to Portnoy. “I thought they were doing one thing and focusing entirely on it,” he says, adding that over time he realized the benefit of giving up focusing on one thing.

“I think they get a lot out of that approach, because that’s how they encounter different ideas, solve different problems, and meet different people,” he says.

Starting just one business is hard as hell, what about running multiple companies at the same time… Yes, Musk and Thiel may have superhuman reserves of will and energy that many of us could never muster, but Portnoy points out that if you can work on multiple projects at once, you tend to find intersections between them. Connections and ideas flow back and forth, leading to important business breakthroughs.

It’s not just mad geniuses who recommend this approach

The advice to reduce your focus on one task early in your career may sound counterintuitive (or like something only mad geniuses could take advantage of), but it’s an approach taken by a surprising number of business leaders.

The late Steve Jobs insisted that one of the keys to building high intelligence is for one to be the “intellectual omnivore.” “A big part of what it means to be smart is the ability to zoom out as if you could see the whole city by looking down from the 80th floor of some building,” Jobs said.

Developing this ability does not require focusing on one thing but a variety of experiences. “It’s important not to be loaded with the same bag of experience and knowledge as everyone else because that will make you make the same mental connections and you won’t be able to be innovative. Fall in love with two people at the same time. If you want to try LSD, Walt Disney did it,” he added.

As you read this, you will probably note that Jobs is just another eccentric genius, not someone whose example most people can follow. Maybe you’re right. It’s important to note, however, that it’s not just business leaders like Musk and Jobs who emphasize the value of a wide range of early career experiences. These experiences don’t have to involve psychoactive substances or working multiple jobs full-time.

When LinkedIn asked its users for the best career advice for young people, professionals from all walks of life emphasized that they shouldn’t wait for the perfect idea or moment to focus. Instead, they just need to get on with something. This means that they may get into the wrong projects and have to change their development direction many times, but it will be worth it in the end because one learns best from experience. Also, the more diverse your experiences, the more ideas and different perspectives you will gather. This is essentially a more down-to-earth version of Musk, Jobs, and Thiel’s approach.

Of course, sometimes focus is essential at work. Over the years, Jobs became known for his obsessive focus on Apple products, and Musk recounted how he slept in the Tesla factory when the company was in a difficult period of development. However, in the beginning, it is useful to have different interests. To you and me, that probably doesn’t mean running a hedge fund or working on colonizing Mars. This could mean taking up a side project or a hobby that satiates your curiosity. Even this more modest version of refusing to focus on one thing has advantages. Each of these “distractions” is also an experiment that brings you new experiences and knowledge.

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