Focus: Why It Matters So Much (& How You Get It)

Watching the National Championship college football game last week, you heard the same thing about Saban (with about the level of repetitiousness that Brett Musberger used the word “Honeybadger” in last year’s tilt) time and time again. Saban is "focused." If you read about the workplace legacy of Steve Jobs, this exact trait sits at the forefront. Jobs asked his employees to be focused. This trait rings true for almost all highly successful people—they have the ability to stay on focus. But what is focus, and how can it help for a law school applicant or job seeker?

Focus is living in the immediate. That is all there is to it; there is no complex definition. It certainly does not mean you have to attend to one task at a time—indeed I guarantee that Saban, Jobs, et. al. are/were frequently if not constantly multitasking. However, with the same certainty, I would project that, while multitasking, they are not distracted by superfluous information or what psychologists call “noise.”

Why does this matter so much? Well, it matters categorically in everything you do professionally, but I am going to concentrate on one area—a visit to a school or workplace. Let me start with some background information. I have met with well over a thousand prospective students who have visited my schools. I have met with hundreds of law firm managing and hiring partners (the onus there, of course, is on me to focus and to maintain their attention). I have interviewed or sat in on hundreds of interviewees. In the world we live in, the “noise,” i.e. the immense number of psychological and external distractions, is deafening. It can be exceptionally difficult to drown out. Yet that is exactly what you have to do to make a good impression. The moment you are with an admissions officer and your mind wanders, they likely make note of it. Do this multiple times, and the impression you leave is that of someone who does not have the attention to practice law at the highest level. The moment you lose focus in an interview, you are dead in the water. I can sit here right now and still remember when this happened with job seekers. The second they checked out, we, the interviewers, checked out.

Stay in the moment—indeed, stay appreciative of the moment! A one-on-one with an admissions officer or interviewer is the best moment you have in the process. Wonderfully, while there is so much you cannot control—e.g. your background, your grades, your work experience, much of your personality even—most of us can control our focus. It matters more than you think, because it is so noticeable. You can even put it to the test. Take the next two professional or serious-minded conversations you have and look to see how engaged the other person is. The second they become disengaged you will notice and, likely, be unimpressed.

Almost as importantly, let’s cover the opposite scenario: when you need to impress someone and they disengage. I was in an interview once where the interviewer’s daughter called THREE TIMES on the phone—all of which were answered by the interviewer—to discuss, of all things, ponies. I’m not using some sophisticated business or parenting term here; I mean the little four-legged creatures that apparently many people must want at some stage of their childhood. This was just about the worst interview of my life. I lost my attention, and when the person interviewing me got off the phone, I waffled around from subject to subject. To date, this is the last job that I interviewed for where I was not offered the position as the first candidate. If you are in an interview situation, or any other where no matter what happens you are stuck in the one-on-one, you cannot let your own mind wander just because the other person’s does. Review whatever you have to in your head, but STAY ON POINT so that when they snap back, you can continue without pause or hesitation. For better or (in my scenario) worse, they won’t even remember that there was a break in the action on their end.

Now, that said, the above applies to interviews. If you are on an admissions visit or an informal job search meeting, my advice is a little bit different. As I mentioned earlier, I had the great fortune and resources to visit a large number of high-level law firm partners in their offices. When I started doing this, I would bring people with me. Faculty, other administrators, even students. I quickly stopped doing so for one reason—the people I brought with me often stayed too on task! “What, you hypocrite??!!! You just said stay on point." True…but again, we are talking about what to do when the person you are meeting with disengages. In an interview, of course, there is nothing you can do. But in these cases, we were on the busy partner’s time, at their pleasure. I learned very quickly from these meetings that the second they check out mentally, you should thank them sincerely and earnestly for their time and head out. The longer it takes to notice their disinterest, and the more you blather on, the more deleterious it will be in respect to their memory and impression of you. Check in, stay focused, and call it a day once they check out if you are on an admissions visit or informal job search meeting.

There is a wonderful book about living in the moment by Eugene O’Kelly titled Chasing Daylight. O’Kelly was the CEO of one of the largest consulting firms in the world. In the book (which is as much about attitude and optimism as about anything I have read), he alludes to his career—how he incorrectly thought he had to put in the longest and hardest hours to climb the corporate ladder and stay on top. With reflection, O’Kelly realizes what a misguided thought process this is, that indeed being physically present meant almost nothing. He would have been a much better employee, even a much better husband/father/friend/etc., if he had lived in the moment rather than have just “been around.” I challenge you to live in the moment and seize each opportunity the moment presents, whether you are meeting with a dean of admissions or interviewing for your dream job.