Quit Your Small Opportunity If a Much Bigger One Appears A lesson from Steve Jobs – Be focused, but don't let focus stop you from pivoting

“Focus” is one of the greatest virtues you can have. Anyone who has achieved success – Steve Jobs, Taylor Swift, Michael Jordan – got there only by focusing on the same path for a long period of time. 

But focus can also be your worst curse if it means you refrain from pivoting to much bigger and better opportunities when they appear.

There is perhaps no better example of this than Steve Jobs. 

In the early 80s, Apple was hard at work developing the Lisa computer – it was to be their next big thing after the Apple II. They had poured millions of dollars and an exorbitant amount of time and sweat into Lisa. 

Then, out of nowhere, a new opportunity appeared – The Graphic User Interface! Up until then, the only way you could interact with computers was to input commands in a terminal. But with GUI, the screen showed pictures and icons you could click on using a mouse cursor. You didn’t have to know a computer language, which made the computer accessible to anyone. 

Jobs told the Apple board he intended to abandon the Lisa and develop the graphic user interface instead. Shocked, one of the executives exclaimed: “But Steve, if we do that, we’ll blow up our own business.” 

To which Jobs replied: “Better we should blow it up than someone else.”

Apple abandoned the Lisa and, a few years later, in 1984, introduced the Macintosh; a move that would revolutionize the entire computer industry.

Steve Jobs is not a person that lacks focus. He is famous for saying no to great ideas. And to this day, Apple sells just 27 products – compared to SONY or HP which each sell thousands of different gadgets. But that didn’t stop him from pivoting to focus on something else.

There are three lessons I think we can learn from this story: 

 

1. Never say no to a big opportunity just because you are already invested in a small one

It doesn’t matter how much you have already invested in something. That time and effort are gone. What matters is which opportunity will yield the most result if you begin to invest in them right now.  

The reality is that things change. New opportunities will appear that you couldn’t possibly foresee. And if a new opportunity offers a much better path to achieving the success you want, then of course you should abandon your current path and pivot to the much bigger one. 

 

2. To decide whether to pivot, ask: “Which opportunity will be most successful 5 years from now?”

You can only determine whether it’s worth pivoting by looking at the long term. If the new opportunity is just 10% better than your current path, do not switch. It’s not worth the loss of focus. Only if the new opportunity is several times bigger in the long run – 2X, 5X, or even 100X – should you consider to pivot. 

Steve Jobs knew that the graphical user interface was the future. The Lisa was going to become smaller and smaller over time, while GUI would become bigger and bigger. Five years from, Apple would be in better shape many times over if they pivoted. 

 

3. If you pivot, then pivot completely – don’t stay with one foot in both lanes

When Jobs pushed Apple to pursue GUI, they didn’t keep developing the Lisa. They dropped the project entirely and focused everything on GUI. Of course, there will be a transition period as you shift gears. But staying with one foot in both lanes is a recipe for disaster.

 

I have just made a big pivot myself; I’ve decided to leave the US-based startup I’ve been working for since January, and instead start my own company. 

When I started this job in January, I thought I would be with this company for at least five years and possibly move to the US. But recently, the picture has changed for me. Five years from now, I don’t think I will be where I want in life if I stay at the company. And at the same time, a new opportunity has appeared that is 100X times bigger than the idea I’m working on now. So I’ve decided to leave the startup and start my own company to go all in on this new opportunity. 

When a bigger opportunity appears for you, remember the three lessons from the Steve Jobs story:

  1. Never say no to a big opportunity just because you are already invested in a small one 
  2. Ask: “Which opportunity will be most successful 5 years from now?” 
  3. If you pivot, then pivot completely – don’t stay with one foot in both lanes

These lessons have helped me immensely, and I hope they can help you too!

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