Successful Entrepreneurs Ignore The Lion Tamer’s Stool And Avoid The Whip

image001James Clear, is a prolific and engaging blogger whose work can be found at JamesClear.com. An entrepreneur, weightlifter and travel photographer, James offers his readers advice and insights that help them become better leaders, with an emphasis on improving one’s health in the process.

I recently caught up with James to discuss his wellness philosophy. Along the way, we explored some of his most engaging metaphors, including the Lion Tamer’s Stool.

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You can watch a 2-minute excerpt from my conversation with James below.

Focusing On Everything = Focusing On Nothing

One of the biggest challenges of being an entrepreneur is deciding what not to do. Without a boss directing your actions, it is up to you to filter the constant stream of opportunities, challenges and problems and decide where to focus your time, attention and resources.

Successful entrepreneurs start each day asking themselves, “What is the most important thing I need to accomplish today?” They then ensure that their head does not hit the pillow until that day’s primary task is either completed or advanced in a material way. For this reason, I was especially intrigued by James’ Lion Tamer analogy.

It is an urban myth that multitasking increases one’s bandwidth. It certainly feels that way while you are simultaneously engaged in several activities. However, numerous studies have shown that habitual multitasking actually reduces productivity, rather than enhancing it.

In a recent NPR interview, Clifford Nass, a Stanford University psychology professor, makes the following observation:

“The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking. So, in our research, the people who say they’re the best at multitasking because they do it all the time. It’s a little like smoking, you know, saying, I smoke all the time, so smoking can’t be bad for me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.”

James believes that not only will focusing on a single important task make you more successful, it will also reduce your anxiety and ultimately make you healthier. In his words, “One of the things, when it comes to living healthy, especially in our current age, is that we’ve never lived in a more distracted time. Between social media, blog posts, TV and the Internet – your phone is always on you and buzzing, push notifications, everything. So there’s no limit to the amount of information that’s bombarding you on a daily basis.

So, I think one of the greatest skills that we can have for living a healthy life is this ability to prevent our attention from being divided and to focus on a singular task, whatever it happens to be… that’s important to us that day.”

There is obviously a time and place for everything, including multitasking. However, when it becomes chronic, it impairs an entrepreneur’s ability to address the “most important thing I need to get done today.”

The Whip Vs. The Stool

While contemplating the current multitasking epidemic, James came upon an enlightening analogy.“I started thinking about this because I heard this story about the lion tamer… Clyde Beatty. In the early 1900’s, he rose to popularity and to fame, partially because he was one of the only ones who didn’t die. In that time, a lot of them died in the ring. [LAUGHS]

He had a 30-year career. But also, he became famous because he was the first lion tamer to use a stool in the ring – the four-legged chair and a whip. That’s the classic image of the lion tamers, holding a whip and holding the stool. The whip gets a lot of the press… because it makes a lot of noise, and it’s good for in the circus ring and… wows the audience.

But in reality, it’s the stool that does most of the work because when you put these four legs in front of the lion’s face, its attention gets divided… and it doesn’t know which one (of the stool legs) to pounce on or which to go after first. So as a result, it paralyzes the lion and it freezes.”

Clyde Beatty taming a lion with a chair. (Image from Harvard Library.)

As James makes clear (sorry for the cheap pun), results can be quickly achieved when you focus on the whip and ignore the legs of the stool. “It’s a great metaphor for what happens to us so often, how often is our attention divided. We have things that we say are important to us, or we have goals that we say are important to us. We have businesses that we would like to build, or books that we would like to write. But we chose to freeze, and we’re paralyzed, because there’s so many different inputs at once.

If we can instead, take a little slightly different approach, where we have this singular focus on a particular goal and choose to commit to something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that you have to figure it all out right now. Just committing to a single task prevents you from being paralyzed, like the lion, allows you to get more done.”

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I won’t tweet a photo of a killer burrito I am about to devour – just startup stuff.

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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  • Good article, very helpful.. enjoyed reading it!!

  • Brandon Shin

    Excellent story John & James. I detailed a similar story on the Daily Nexus covering the perils of multitasking. I definitely agree that a key to getting things done is maintaining singular focus. It’s almost comedically ironic that serial multitaskers turn out to be worse at multitasking than their non-multitasking counterparts.

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