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The ONE Thing that Separates Successful Engineers from Average Ones

Success is everyone's ultimate goal. You've all heard of countless famous examples of successful people. This includes entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, pro athletes like Michael Phelps, investors such as Warren Buffet, and even C-level professionals like Tim Cook.

But have you ever wondered how they can get so much more done and achieve way more success than others, even with only 24 hours a day and other life commitments like anyone else?

The evening Bill Gates met Warren Buffet for the first time holds the answer to that question.

According to Forbes, they were both asked what factor they felt had been the most important in getting them the success they had gotten in life. They both replied with a single word: focus.

What does that mean? While their definitions of success were widely different, the same strategy got both of them to where they wanted to go. And guess what? It's the one thing that can help you get to where you want to go as well.

This is the first in a series of articles explaining the simple truth to achieving massive success — whatever it means to you and however you define it. Just like Bill Gates, Michael Phelps, and other famous examples have already done it.

And what is it? That's the ONE Thing concept, first coined in the book The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan.

What’s the ONE Thing Concept?

The entire ONE Thing concept can be summarized in one quote from the book itself: “It’s not that we have too little time to do all the things we need to do, it’s that we feel the need to do too many things in the time we have.”

In other words, both your time and energy are limited. To achieve success, you need to narrow your focus and consistently invest your limited time and energy in one thing.

So, if it’s that simple, why do most people feel like success is out of reach?

Because they do the complete opposite of the ONE Thing concept. They try to do much more than they can handle, and as a result, they end up accomplishing far less than they could have.

Splitting their hard work into many different things at once makes them stressed out and overwhelmed. Meanwhile, the lack of significant results in any of the many things they do makes them disappointed with themselves.

As a consequence, success starts to seem out of reach, causing them to lower their expectations, give up on what they want to do in their life, and settle for less.

If you spread yourself out by splitting your focus and time between many different things at once, you end up spreading yourself too thin. The result? You won’t succeed in any of them simply because you won’t work on any of them long enough for significant results to show up.

And that doesn’t mean you need to ignore other areas of your life for the sake of “achieving success.” In fact, other life areas such as family and health will actually fast-track your success in your one thing (more on that in future posts).

The key here is: What will you be building and working on, day in and day out? The section below, “Real-World Examples of the ONE Thing,” will make it crystal clear what it means to focus on your one thing—and how powerful it is.

But first, do you know why the ONE Thing concept works? Just like the concept itself, it’s pretty simple.

Why Does the ONE Thing Work?

Quoting from the book, “success is sequential, not simultaneous.” This means that skills and knowledge build upon each other over time, leading to success. This is the surprisingly simple secret behind really successful people, who have followed the “cycle of massive success.” This cycle involves having a passion for something, which leads to spending time practicing and learning it voluntarily. As skills and knowledge improve, so do the results, which in turn fuels even greater passion and interest in the subject. This cycle continues, resulting in better and better skills over time.

While you may have many interests and passions, really successful people have only one that defines and drives them. By focusing your time and energy on one thing, rather than spreading yourself too thin, you can improve your skills and achieve massive success. Trying to succeed at too many things at once will only lead to average results across the board.

Therefore, the key to massive success is being really good at one thing, not being average at many things. This is evident everywhere you look.

Examples of the ONE Thing

Take Michael Phelps, for example. He is the most-decorated athlete in the history of the Olympics, with a total of 28 medals, 22 of which are gold. This makes him the all-time record holder for Olympic gold medals.

How did he achieve this incredible feat? He focused on one thing: swimming. He consistently worked on his swimming skills, training up to six hours every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year starting at age 14. He made it a habit to work on his one thing day in and day out.

After five years of daily swimming, 19-year-old Michael Phelps won his first gold medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004. If he had divided his training time between swimming and tennis, for example, he wouldn't be known as the greatest swimmer of all time. In fact, he may not be known at all.

This illustrates that consistent action on one thing over time leads to massive success down the road every single time.

This concept applies not just to personal life, but to business as well. The most successful companies often have one product or service offering that they are most known for, or that brings in the most profits.

Think of Xerox, an example given in the book Positioning, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. It got widely known and profitable for selling only one thing: copiers.

Xerox became so powerful that IBM, a much larger company with deeper pockets, felt threatened and tried to get a share of Xerox's market by launching its own line of copiers. However, Xerox still had a share of the copier market several times larger than that of IBM.

Xerox's success as a company was due to its narrow focus on selling copiers only, not copiers and computers or other office equipment.

There are many other examples that illustrate the effectiveness of the ONE Thing concept, from Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to Coca-Cola and Intel. But how do you determine your one thing?

How to Find Your ONE Thing

The above examples are about famous people and companies, but success is not limited to them. Success is a matter of knowing what it means to you and finding your one thing.

So, how can you find your one thing? The answer is simple: purpose. It may sound abstract, but your purpose is simply the one thing you want your life to be about more than anything else. To achieve extraordinary results and massive success, you need to know what matters most to you and take daily actions that align with it.

As described in the book, ask yourself the following question to find your one thing: “What's the ONE Thing I can do in my life that would mean the most to me?”

For Michael Phelps, that one thing was swimming. For Bill Gates, that one thing was computers. For Intel, that one thing was microprocessors. For Coca-Cola, that one thing was cola drinks.

So, what's your one thing?

Is it related to your career? As an engineer, there are many career paths available to you. And if you’re already on a path you like, check out this episode with MIT Professor Mark Herschberg who helped start MIT’s Career Success Accelerator program to find your career purpose.

Or maybe, is it related to a humanitarian cause? On an episode of the Engineering Our Future Podcast, Avery Bang and Devin Connell from Bridges to Prosperity talk about their work connecting millions of poor people in the most remote areas of Africa and South America.

What if you cannot come up with an answer to the question above and find your “one thing” right off the bat? Well, no problem!

Simply pick a direction that you think you'd want to go and start going down that path. If you later find out that you don't like it or that it's not for you, you can always change your mind—and your direction.


If you take only one thing away from this post, remember this: “Success is sequential, not simultaneous.”

Contrary to popular belief, achieving success involves working on one thing for a long enough time to improve your skills and abilities. Better skills lead to better results, which pave the way for success.

It sounds simple, right? However, even after finding your one thing, you must protect yourself from the messages the media inundates you with about achieving success. Messages like “where there’s a will, there’s a way” and “work while they sleep” are misbeliefs that have become “true” because they are often repeated. These “lies of success” can lead you astray from the path towards true success.

So, in the next article in this series detailing the lessons from The ONE Thing book, you’ll get to know what these lies are so you can avoid them and do what will actually get you success at your one thing — and in life.