When asked his advice as to how Olympic athletes could best prepare to compete in the pandemic-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Michael Phelps—the most-decorated Olympian of all time, with 28 swimming medals to his name—said this: “Focus on what you can control. That is something that’s so important going into this.”
Focus—on what you can control, on what’s in front of you, on what’s not only desirable, but achievable—is indeed critical going into any meaningful endeavor, be it Olympic competition or the effort to combat global poverty. It is an attribute of an Olympic Frame of Mind that is shared, honed, and studied by great athletes and social sector leaders alike and one in which I—as CEO of a philanthropic foundation that aims to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the world’s poorest people by multiplying the impact of high-performing leaders—take a particular interest.
The Risk of “Creating Interference”
The importance of focus to an athlete, or anyone who wishes to excel at a high level, is clear and often rooted in physical routine. Phelps described it as “training, making sure you’re loose, stretching, lifting, whatever you can always, always, always try and do.” Others work on focus through goal-setting; meditation; imagery, or envisioning the actions they need to undertake and the outcome they hope to attain; and even “self-talk,” in which they offer self-affirmations or simply remind themselves where their focus should be. But shutting out distractions and silencing doubts so as to maintain this focus is a tremendous challenge, especially under the Olympic spotlight—a truth starkly highlighted by the star gymnast Simone Biles’s sudden (and lauded) decision to drop out of team competition. “Gymnastics probably more than any other sport … requires laser, pinpoint focus,” the mental training expert Robert Andrews, who worked with Biles for four years, told Reuters. “Being a global presence, the greatest of all time, all that starts creating interference.”
Avoiding interference is far easier said than done, but experts do offer solid advice. Indeed, from time immemorial, coaches and philosophers alike have warned against the human tendency to look over one’s shoulder to compare oneself to others. Comparison puts the focus on the wrong thing and is at best an unhealthy distraction; at worst, it is debilitating and counterproductive. Social media, of course, has greatly enhanced the ability to compare and simultaneously exacerbated its negative impact. Those prone to compare tend to put less emphasis on their process and preparation and more on the final outcome. Michael Phelps knows this so well that he once told reporters he doesn’t compare himself to anyone—even himself. “I know it won’t be eight medals again,” he said, referencing his eight golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “If you want to compare me to that, that’s your decision, not mine. I’m going out there to try to accomplish the things that I have in my mind and in my heart.”
“Targeted Focus” in The Social Sector
Great social sector leaders likewise put on blinders and focus on their goals—and ensure that their organizations do the same. William Moore, the CEO of the Eleanor Crook Foundation (ECF), is an ardent and vocal advocate of the importance of focus. Indeed, when he assumed his position in 2015, it was with the aim of giving ECF, which had worked on global hunger issues, a more “targeted focus”—that of “fighting to end global malnutrition through research, policy analysis, and advocacy.”
Moore likewise pushes for more focus in the global nutrition sector. In my 2020 interview with him—and in his own writing—Moore emphasizes the need for the sector to focus its efforts by eschewing an “ever-broadening quest to attack malnutrition in every form and from every angle [that] has led to a “Christmas tree-decorating” approach to nutrition program design.” He argues that instead of adding, and hoping to scale, more interventions—from nutrition counseling to village savings-and-loan associations—the sector should “subtract” to focus on the highest-impact opportunities. “We can’t lose our focus,” he urges. “We can’t do everything, everywhere, all the time.” I couldn’t agree more. In fact, a fundamental axiom of corporate strategy is that more-focused strategies outperform less-focused ones and, as Bill Meehan and I argued in our book Engine of Impact, this applies equally to nonprofit organizations.
Raj Panjabi, who cofounded the organization Last Mile Health (LMH) in 2007 and served as its CEO for 14 years, also excels at putting on blinders. LMH exists to bring health-care services to the most remote parts of Africa, and during his tenure Panjabi retained a laser focus on this goal. He even turned down funding that would have quadrupled his budget because it would have taken LMH down a path that wasn’t aligned with its mission or competencies. This was a strategic organizational decision, to be sure. But, as I noted previously it was made easier by Panjabi’s mental approach, which enabled him to choose the harder, but ultimately more effective, path for LMH. In 2021, Panjabi stepped down from LMH to lead the President’s Malaria Initiative. In that role, he is bringing his focus to the global effort to eliminate malaria in part by “reaching the unreached” in rural areas.
The ability to focus on the controllables is essential to success for athletes, leaders, and organizations. Yet the ability to focus at a personal level is to some extent a privilege: Those who live in poverty are at an inherent disadvantage when trying to focus. This point is made by the Nobel Prize winning economists Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo in their seminal book Poor Economics. The real advantage of those of us who are not poor, they suggest, comes not so much from our educations or the things we know, but from the multitude of things we take for granted—like living in houses into which clean water is piped and dirty water taken away (though we have little clue how this actually works). Or having doctors we can largely rely on, companies that reward us for exercising, and no need to worry where our next meal will come from. This privilege, they argue, makes it far easier for us to make the “right” decisions in life, and a key element in poverty reduction is to give the poor the same freedom. Because, as Banerjee and Duflo underscore:
“Aren’t we, those who live in the rich world, the constant beneficiaries of paternalism now so thoroughly embedded into the system that we hardly notice it? It not only ensures that we take care of ourselves better than if we had to be on top of every decision, but also, by freeing us from having to think about these issues, it gives us the mental space we need to focus on the rest of our lives.”