The One Thing – A Critical Review

About a year ago, I read the book “The One Thing” by Gary Keller for the first time and immediately got the sense that it had been written specifially for me. It nails my single biggest problem which is my inability to focus on just one thing for an extended period of time, until you have fully mastered it and before you move onto the next thing.

There is a certain irony there. When I tell people that I have a very hard time prioritizing, they usually don’t believe me. On the contrary, they take me to be someone who focuses excessively, bordering on obsession.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

For at least the last 15 years now, I have always had several balls in the air at the same time. When I was still running my martial arts academy full time back in Munich, I had a coaching business on the side, I was training to become a better fighter myself, I was eating a paleo diet, lifting, dating, learning SEO, etc. – and this is not even half of the list.

Nowadays, things are even more extreme. Among working on my PhD, traveling the world, writing a blog, working out, training BJJ, following an extensive habit routine, walking 10.000 steps a day, still eating a paleo diet and numerous other projects, I sometimes really don’t know how to fit it all in.

This is where “The One Thing” comes in – or so it claims.

The book’s central argument basically states that doing and excelling at one thing always beats being a jack of all trades.

There are various additional claims that support this central argument, but this is the main point in a nutshell. The book then goes on to explain how to focus on one thing by using a technique called time blocking. Every day, you reserve four hours of your time to work at the skillset that is dearest to you. So if you want to be a writer, you write for four hours a day. If you want to be a better salesperson, you talk to potential customers for 4 hours a day. The list goes on. You keep doing this for a couple of years, until you reach the point of mastery and then start reaping the results.

Despite me behaving very differently, I think this is a very sound strategy. If you consistently put in the time and the effort and accumulate the often quoted 10,000 hours, you will become an expert in your chosen field. It’s inevitable and it’s hard to argue with the facts. Many experts have strikingly similar CVs, in the sense that they all exclusively focus on one thing over all other things for many years. Think Mozart, Einstein, and Michael Phelps.

So why can’t I wrap my head around this myself?

I think there are several reasons (or excuses) why I still haven’t jumped on the one thing bandwagon and some reasons are more valid than others. I’ll present them to you as an argument, but by no means do I claim that I have really gotten to the bottom of this…

1. Counterargument: One Thing People Tend to Be Lifeless Robots

Specialists, i.e. people who focus all their time and energy on just one thing, tend to have very boring personalities. Yes, they are great at their one thing, but they are very average at everything else, as I can tell you from personal experience with some very respected experts. Outside of their area of expertise, many of them have almost nothing going for themselves. They have nothing else to talk about but their one thing; they consider everything else a waste of time and have no appreciation of art and culture (unless that’s their  one thing); they are socially inept (unless their one thing is a social thing); and as a result, they have lackluster relationships, if any.

To add some anecdotal evidence to this very bold claim, let me tell you a story of how I, as a teenager, went to a weeklong guitar clinic with legendary shredder Tony MacAlpine. At the time, I was as crazy about guitar playing as I had ever been about anything in my life. (to this day, I think of guitar playing as my most extreme passion ever). I would religiously practice scales, licks, rhythm guitar techniques and music theory for three hours a day, so I was already pretty close to the prescribed regimen by Gary Keller. I was also playing in several bands, investing all my money in gear, and helping out at a local guitar store. Deep down, I was hoping to make it as a professional musician one day.

With that in mind, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to being taught by one of the greatest guitarists on the planet for a week straight. But not only that, I was just as excited about the prospect of hanging out with a bunch of other aspiring guitar heroes. The ideas and stories we would share! The great music we would play!

Well, life tends to have its own ideas about fun. After three days I was ready to go home. The event I had so much looked forward to turned out to be a chore. These people really couldn’t talk about anything but music. It would start as early as breakfast. Have you read this article by XY in guitar magazine Z? Did you notice how MacAlpine’s tapping was slightly different from Steve Lynch’s technique? How many hours did you practice after class last night? It went on all day. It was one monotonous string of talking about music and playing music that only stopped when people eventually went to bed. I dreaded the rest of the week and couldn’t wait for it to pass by.

You might argue that by intense exposure, I had simply found out that guitar playing was not really my passion after all, but I’m not so sure about that – because about 10 years later, the whole story repeated it itself under slightly different circumstances. This time, I was in Brazil for two weeks attending a training camp for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Again, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was arguably one of the biggest passions in my life and it still remains; I have been training for the last 11 years straight. So again, being at that camp should have been a great experience, but yet again, it wasn’t. To make a long story short, how you can still watch the BJJ world championships on YouTube for four hours at night, after 6 hours of training that day is simply beyond me. There is a limit to to the dosage of BJJ I can take, even though I love it.

In summary, it seems to me that true specialists tend to gain their expertise at one thing at the cost of being unable to perceive and appreciate the totality of life. That’s a harsh trade-off. I’m not saying it cannot be worth it, but I’m also not at all convinced this should be the generally recommended path for personal development. If I imagine turning either one of the aforementioned environments into my life long mode of living, I think I would seriously consider shooting myself. Tony MacAlpine and Rickson Gracie might disagree, but I don’t see how this extreme form of one-mindedness is the path to a better, more meaningful life.

2. Counterargument: A True One Thing Philosophy is Not Very Sustainable

The one thing idea seems very convincing on paper as it is so straightforward: You just put all your eggs in one basket and then you watch that basket (paraphrasing Mark Twain). But if this is really true, if you completely focus your life around just one thing, this can turn into a very shortlived project really quick. It sounds trivial, but what about health? Namely, what about learning how to cook healthy? What about exercising and walking? What about sleeping more and avoiding stress? What about cultivating high quality social relationships to keep you sane and happy?

This might sound like a somewhat constructed argument, but it’s not. One thing people really tend to ignore these things, possibly even more than “normal” people. But if you do so, there WILL be a price to pay in the long run. Focusing on one thing over healthy living will naturaly cut your journey short. There are so many cases in point, I don’t even know where to start… So here are just a few names:

Musicians: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, viral or bacterical infection); Franz Schubert (1797-1828, infection); Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847, stroke); Frederic Chopin (1810-1849, tuberculosis); John Coltrane (1926-1967, liver cancer); Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970, suffocation because of substance abuse); Kurt Cobain (1967-1994, suicide).

Writers: Jane Austen (1775-1817, unkown); John Keats (1795-1821, tuberculosis); Emily Bronte (1818-1848, pneumonia); Oscar Wilde (1854-1900, meningitis); Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891, cancer); George Orwell (1903-1950, tuberculosis); Jack Kerouac (1922-1969, substance abuse); David Foster Wallace (1962-2008, suicide).

Visual Artists: Raphael (1483-1520, unknown); Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890, suicide); Egon Schiele (1890–1918, spanish influenza); Yves Klein (1928–1962, heart attack); Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988, heroine overdose); Dash Snow (1981-2009, heroine overdose).

Still think this is trivial?

Granted, with some of these names, it could be argued that they were just victims of the medical conditions of their time. But it could be argued just as well that the majority of these people never made a true effort to improve their health or to become more resilient, physically AND mentally, since they were so focused on their one thing. So while other people lived through tuberculosis or depression, they didn’t.

I was very interested to see how the Gary Keller book resolves that problem, but was actually a bit disappointed. The book is very wishy-washy on the matter. In the “philosophy” part of the book, the authors argue for a pure one thing approach. Find your one thing, focus on that and just that. Get very good at it and eventually, reap the results. But later on in the book, they suddenly introduce all kinds of add-on activities you should also be doing, such as eating healthy, paying attention to your sleep, exercising, spending quality time with loved ones, devoloping a morning ritual, going on vacation regularly, and making sure you cover the 7 key areas of life, like taking care of your finances and your spiritual development etc. Quite the list, eh?

So as a reader, I cannot help but wonder: Which one is it now? Do you want me to focus all my energies on one thing, to excel at that thing? Or do you want me to live an exemplary balanced life, that pays attention to important areas like health and finances, but is not very focused on one thing, but rather a little bit of everything? I suspect that the authors added the health and balance part precisely because they didn’t want to be accused of promoting an “unhealthy” one-sided philosophy – but in the proccess, they undermined the strength of their original argument.

3. Counterargument: It’s Not Either/Or

I think we are now getting to the heart of the problem. The way the book constructs the argument, at least in the initial “philosophy” part, is very misleading. There are not just the two options of either leading a streamlined one thing life, or a scattered, all-over-the-place type of life. Certainly, these two options exist and many people fall into one of these two – but they are the EXTREMES. But if that is true, it also follows that there is a continuum of other options in between the two extremes.

It ultimately comes down to 3 elements: Available resources, number of projects and the cost of these projects. Available resources refers to things like time, mental or physical energy and money. The number of projects marks the number of things that you will split your resources over – and therefore diminish the attention each extra project receives. On top of that, not every project is created equal. Becoming the next Paganini will take more time and effort than becoming excellent at beer pong.

But within these variables, an endless number of combinations are possible, some leaning more towards the one thing end of the spectrum and some more going down the all-things-at-once road. And I’m saying these in between options might actually be where it’s at.

To make this a little bit more tangible, here is an example. If John Coltrane chose to dedicate every minute of his life awake to music, that’s obviously the one thing approach. And when John Smith chooses to stretch himself thin by working on 10-20 projects at the same time, e.g. his job, the relationship with his wife, his children, his friends, his church, his softball team, his nightly reading, watching football on Saturdays, charity work and so on, that’s obviously the all-things-at-once approach. But if those are the two ends of the spectrum, why is it so hard to imagine that there are people who do a few, maybe 3-4 things, very well? And who might come up with something new, exactly because they have several things to draw on which they can combine in new, unheard ways?

Going back to history again, the ultimate example of this “somewhat focused” approach to things would be the German writer, scientist, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I won’t bore you with reciting his (pretty extraordinary) life story, but here is at least an overview of the different things and roles he took on in his life together with my very subjective assessment of the proficiency he reached at each of these roles:

  • Writer [World class level, him being among the most important authors of post-medieval literature; author of “Faust I & II“, and “The Sufferings of Young Werther“]
  • Natural scientist [Top national level at his time; discovered the premaxillae bone in humans, effectively proofing evolution before Charles Darwin; wrote an important color theory directed against Issac Newton; important field work in the area of mineralogy; founder of modern morphology]
  • Politician [Mid-tier national level; Goethe functioned as a privy for the duke of Weimar, one of the more important dukedoms at the time in Germany. He reformed several civil and military departments during that time and also cut expenses significantly, becoming a powerful local authority in the process.]

On top of these 3 major roles Goethe is well known for, he also took on lesser known, more personal roles. He was quite the ladies’ man, for example, especially when it came to married women – surprisingly, he was also a devoted family man. Also in the social realm, he was the most important mentor of another German author genius – Friedrich Schiller.

What I’m getting at is that Goethe perfectly exemplifies the in-between approach I’m advocating. He takes one thing discipline and applies it to a selected 3-4 things, at any point of his life. This way, he both avoids becoming a one-dimensional specialist with a limited outlook on life, as well as a completey distracted John Smith who never amounts to anything.

A Possbile Solution: The Saturation Curve

The underlying principle of why Goethe’s approach is superior to the one thing approach can be best illustrated by looking at a so called saturation curve. This refers to a mathematical graph that shows a steep ascent along the y-axis but then relatively abruptly slows down and becomes almost parallel to the x-axis.

Learning any given subject, I would claim, resembles such a saturation curve: The first couple of years, your return on investement will be high. You will get better by leaps and bounds, sometimes from each practice session to the next. But once you reach a certain level, i.e. the level of an advanced practitoner, progress starts to slow down and significantly so. Now you have to work a lot more just to make a tiny bit of progress. Mathematically speaking, you have reached the phase of learning where the graph starts to become parallel with the x-axis.

If this is true, this means that the majority, maybe about 70-80% of a certain skillset can be learned relatively easy and “fast” (within a couple of years), while the last 20 percent or so, that differentiate the master from the advanced practitoner, are incredibly more costly.

Interestingly, the same dynamics can be observed on a much smaller scale, i.e. in daily practice. Your first 2-3 hours invested into practicing something will be your most productive ones with you making the most progress. After this initial phase, when you start to tire of the subject, progress becomes a lot slower and your return on investement decreases significantly. The price of progress goes up significantly.

BUT: This counterproductive dynamic, i.e. syncing with the x-axis, holds true only if you focus on just ONE subject all day. However, a very interesting phenomenon occurs when you change subjects. Suddenly, you feel fresh and vitalized again, ready for new, massive gains in learning your new subject. Let’s say you just spent two hours practicing your mixolydian scale on the guitar in order to become the next Tony MacAlpine, but you are getting tired and sloppy. You could now either push through it and practice another hour, with little additional gains in learning, or you could hang up your guitar for the moment, go to the gym and try to improve your personal record for the deadlift. Going with the latter option, you will feel energized and motivated again by the change in environment, the different nature of the task and the different type of effort it requires of you. I would call this trick to revitalize yourself  a “strategic switch,” for maximum overall productivity benefits.

Will the Tony MacAlpine approach ultimately turn you into the better guitar player? Most certainly. Will the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe approach turn you into you pretty damn good guitar player with a sick deadlift as well? Also true, and I think much more desireable, as you are making more overall net gains at improving yourself than the extreme specialist.

It would follow then that the ideal learning regimen would look something like this: You would start pursuing one subject or skillset in the morning until reaching the point of inflection, when your efforts start to yield less and less results. Then it’s time to change the subject and work on a different skillset until you max that out. Then you would probably only have time for a third endavour and maybe a forth, before the day ends.

Not quite incidentally, this is exactly what Goethe’s later day-to-day routine looked like (I can recommend Mason Currey’s “Daily Rituals” book in that respect) – 2-3 well chosen, well balanced things, practiced every day at certain times, playing off the “strategic switch” effect, to become the most refined, complete human being you can be – instead of an unhappy, short lived monomaniac. As for the “The One Thing” philosophy, if you go with the first half of the book, it’s either an extreme overreaction to the John Smith lifestyle (which I would also not recommend) or the Goethe approach in disguise, if you go with the second part of the book. Despite these shortcomings, it’s still a very good read though. It gets you thinking about spending the most important resource you have, time, in the most effective way. And this is something all of us can’t ever do enough.